Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Runaway Jury / ***1/2 (2003)

The typical John Grisham crime thriller has this irritating tendency of assuming that excitement can be spurred by the heated exchange of a lot of legal psycho-babble. As a device for generating thrills, this is as halfhearted an approach as they come. Even the average Joe at a movie theater will tell you that establishing tension depends on more than just characters saying things or making threats; it depends on a combination of elements falling into place, each of them stressing one another in order to generate interest and create buildup without letting ambiguity become implausible blather. With a casual look back at the films utilizing Grisham's novels as source material, one or more of the aforementioned necessities is either misplaced or detached from the setup. In "The Firm," for example, a strong sense of tension is undermined by countless scenes of foolish storytelling, while in "The Client," we get the interesting buildup without the actual final payoff.

As much as this tends to be an obstacle for any ambitious filmmaker, it doesn't change the fact that even the worst track records can be broken by one slight spark of fortitude. In Gary Fleder's "Runaway Jury," that spark emerges in ways that we have seldom seen before, so intricately woven between character and premise that it marries the two in a frenzy of exciting storytelling. This is the movie the Grisham fans have been waiting for; the kind of expertly crafted crime thriller that finally knows how to juggle the facts and the action without bogging them down in fits of overkill. It's also pretty fun in the process.

The movie opens, however, not in the courtroom but in an ordinary office building, where family man Jacob Woods (Dylan McDermott) arrives for work completely unaware of the impending nightmare that is about to play out. No doubt you've heard of this setup before: a disgruntled former employee enters the workspace, pulls out a gun and fires away on his ex coworkers, killing 11 and wounding several others before ultimately turning the gun on himself. As one of the fatalities, Woods leaves behind a doting wife and young son, a situation that only fuels the central conflict getting ready to play out—where do you find justice for the man whose only mistake during that tragic day was showing up to work?

A year later, Woods' widow has filed a libel suit against the firearm industry for her husband's death, in what may turn out to be a landmark case should the deciding parties vote in favor of the grieving widow and against the multi-million-dollar gun trade. It will be a tedious and difficult uphill battle for any person involved, but that's exactly the kind of scenario that motivates Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), the attorney representing the plaintiff, who has tried unsuccessfully for years to have laws rewritten about the gun industry's involvement in thousands of annual deaths. To him, winning this case is not just about being victorious, but also about finally putting a personal conflict to rest. He, along with the help of a high-priced jury consultant named Lawrence (Jeremy Piven), isn't about to surrender that opportunity to a bunch of cutthroats, either.

As expected from a movie titled "Runaway Jury," the primary task of achieving victory lies in (you guessed it!) jury selection. As Rohr and his consultant sit idly by while hundreds of potential jurors are crammed into the courtroom, the maddening infrastructure behind the defendants is introduced. Up front, in charge of overseeing the broad secretive investigation involving all these potential jurors, is Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), a man who we instantly assume has a history of tampering with these sorts of things when it comes to important court cases. His front man is attorney Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison), the guy who makes important final decisions without letting anyone on to the fact that everything is already decided for him by a group of unseen experts off in a basement.

Establishing this sentiment is hardly a difficult task for the filmmakers, but what gives the movie such backbone is in the way it obsesses over and garnishes every little detail; when jurors take the stand and are grilled by both sides over their views of guns and violence, everything is fed to the conspirators via a hidden briefcase camera, allowing Fitch and his crew of lackeys to observe quirks, note potentially-threatening behaviors and pull up background checks on the computer for each and every person there. They leave no stone unturned in their quest to pick a perfect jury; every minor detail is evaluated and considered before Fitch barks specific orders into a microphone cleverly hidden behind their attorney's ear. They may be cheaters, but they certainly aren't dumb ones. And why would they be? As the leader of the pack so expertly observes during the process, "Trials are too important to be left up to juries."

Ah, but what if the alleged cheater suddenly finds himself being one-upped by an alternate source of upset? Here is where "Runaway Jury" makes its greatest—and most interesting—play, by introducing Nicholas Easter (John Cusack) and his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz), two people determined to undermine all the hard work done by those trying to secure a verdict. As Juror #9 in this important case, Nicholas sets up the facade that he is too detached from the cause to have personal bias in the case; meanwhile, Marlee slips fliers reading "Jury for Sale" under the noses of both attorneys. Undaunted by the seeming appearance that the jury can be bribed into a specific decision, Wendell shrugs off the plea. Unfortunately, the arrival of this note has thrown a rather big kink in Fitch's attempt to ensure that the jury swings his way, and when the threat of upset becomes too large to ignore, he tries to tip the scales back into his favor, either by compromising with the enemy or digging up enough dirt on them to send them back into the shadows.

In typical cat-and-mouse fashion, the screenplay shifts the upper-hand back and forth between either side of the game like a ball being violently passed between two competitive teams. Every once in awhile, the competition even stops briefly to see if the third party (in this case, the plaintiff's attorney) wants to place a bet as well. Several layers of evil are at work in this story, but seldom are their motives or ambitions clear; some, in fact, aren't even revealed until after their activities have died down. And yet this is not a distraction in the least, because it enhances the thrill of watching the movie and all its ecstatic energy unfold. Characters and situations get tangled in an intricate web of intrigue, but their effect is magnified by the fact that the story never offers a clear sense of victory for the audience to fall back on. This is the mark of a genuine crime thriller.

Admittedly, the ending of the film takes a stance that may be considered too preachy for some members of the audience, especially if they have a strong opinions either for or against gun control. But the picture is so well made and contemplated that the issues are really secondary; they become side details in an endeavor of stirring complexity and excitement. In fact, once all of the specifics are stripped away, it can even be argued that the primary message in "Runaway Jury" is more universal than one might realize. Forget about pointing fingers and making accusations; no matter what side of the argument you fall on, you can't expect to come out ahead if you aren't willing to play the game fairly.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Cast & Crew info: 
John Cusack: Nicholas Easter
Gene Hackman: Rankin Fitch
Dustin Hoffman: Wendell Rohr
Rachel Weisz: Marlee
Bruce Davison: Durwood Cable
Bruce McGill: Judge Harkin
Jeremy Piven: Lawrence Green
Nick Searcy: Doyle

Produced by Jeffrey Downer, Gary Fleder, Christopher Mankiewicz and Arnold Milchan; Directed by Gary Fleder; Screenplay by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman; based on the novel by John Grisham

Crime/Thriller (US); Rated PG-13for violence, language and thematic elements; Running Time - 127 Minutes

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