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Mixed verdict for Runaway Jury

By Arthur J Pais
October 18, 2003 15:14 IST
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John CusackA handful of solid performances, especially by John Cusack, give the legal thriller Runaway Jury credibility. Yet, the film will elicit a mixed verdict.

Based on an intermittently interesting but, on the whole, preposterous storyline, the movie directed by Gary Fleder (Kiss The Girls) raises several interesting issues about jury tampering. But the more interesting ones are not deeply treated. For instance, two of the film's interesting characters subvert the law to achieve their noble ends. Another idealistic character wants to win so badly that he is ready to make an expensive, but immoral, illegal decision. But the film is so concerned with offering thrills and twists that the weightier issues are quickly buried.

Those who have read John Grisham's novel of the same name published seven years ago, will know immediately that the film's plot has changed a few things. It is no more, for instance, about a suit against the tobacco industry. Here, the villain is the gun industry. But the film still celebrates the fight of a commoner against the rich and powerful, as do most Grisham books.

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When the widow of a New Orleans company executive shot down by a troubled person sues the gun industry, the unscrupulous and ruthless jury consultant Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) is ready for the battle. He has assembled a hi-tech team to study the jurors so that they can be manipulated -- blackmailed, if you will. His adversary is an idealistic lawyer Wendall Rohr (Dustin Hoffman).

In the jury is an intriguing man who can be cocky one moment, persuasive the next and threatening under still different circumstances. Nick Easter (John Cusack), the seemingly reluctant juror, has an even more mysterious girlfriend called Marlee (Rachel Weisz). Easter and Marlee make a preposterous offer to both lawyers -- for $10 million, Easter will manipulate the jury.

The gun industry's lead counsel (Bruce Davison) is constantly under the Fitch's thumb. Soon, Fitch learns of Easter and his girlfriend's identities and sets out to destroy them, allowing the film few minutes of action. But, even as Easter punishes Fitch with one humiliating act after another, life isn't easy for Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) either. He too has to make up his mind quickly and decide about buying the jury.

John Cusack and Rachel WeiszAs the movie's credulity-straining plot continues, some viewers could be nagged by one doubt -- why doesn't Fitch, who seems to be super smart, check out a few key details about Easter early on in the film?

While we see earnest and impressive work by Hoffman and Hackman as the two adversaries, the real surprise comes from the younger actors.

Cusack, who is one of America's underestimated actors, is engaging while still appearing mysterious. As his girlfriend, Weisz is sensuous, dark and intriguing. She too, like many of her peers in the film, deserved a better script and a more convincing film.

Among the film's more interesting touches is that the character of Rohr (played with the right dose of self-doubt by Hoffman) is never pure white. For instance, he is not above leaving a mustard strain on his tie to create a certain kind of impression on the jury. In the brief but famous confrontation seen in the washroom, Hackman, who has played many villainish characters, still makes us care for what he is telling his rival, Hoffman.

If you want to see a more gripping, deeper and realistic crime drama, head for the Clint Eastwood directed Mystic River. While there is no doubt Mystic River is poised to be a success, Runaway Jury may get more popular votes.

Cast: John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Bruce Davison and Bruce McGill
Director: Gary Fleder
Written by: Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland, Matthew Chapman; based on the novel by John Grisham
Running time: 130 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for violence, language
Distributor: 20th Century Fox

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Arthur J Pais