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Runaway Jury (PG-13)
20th Century Fox
Official Site
Director: Gary Fleder
Producers: Arnon Milchan, Christopher Mankiewicz, Gary Fleder
Written by: Brian Koppelman & David Levien, Rick Cleveland, Matthew Chapman; based on the novel The Runaway Jury by John Grisham
Cast: John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Bruce Davison, Jeremy Piven, Marguerite Moreau, Bruce McGill

Rating: out of 5

John Grisham is the literary equivalent of the Hollywood dream factory. His stories are morality plays that, with a few exceptions, have strictly defined good vs. evil dynamics that play themselves out against epic backdrops meant to appeal to universal beliefs. His characters are avatars that illustrate the most basic concepts of right and wrong, and they have easy-to-pronounce theatrical names that, just by the sound they make rolling off the tongue, tell you pretty much everything you need to know about them. Rudy Baylor. Reggie Love. Darby Shaw. Mitch McDeere.

And Nicholas Easter, the jauntily bemused hero of Runaway Jury (as usual, Hollywood dropped the ďTheĒ when it optioned the book, the better to fit on marquees, I suppose). Played by John Cusack with his familiar mix of irony and borderline pathos, Easter is one of those heroes who comes on the scene all puzzled by the situation heís found himself in, only later to be revealed as the one behind the curtain controlling the levers. (I didnít ruin anything for you; we find this out not long after the story gets started.) His motives arenít clear, naturally, and there is a tiny bit of conflict between accepting his morals and his ethics as not mutually exclusive, but all in all, heís a character constructed in the grand tradition of David and his slingshot. Called to jury duty, his place in the grand scheme seems arbitrary at first. But aided by his accomplice and girlfriend, Marlee (Weisz, giving this boyís club a great big shot of feminine intelligence straight to the heart), Easter is determined to sell this jury to the highest bidder.

The film opens with an office massacre that takes the life of a devoted family man played by an uncredited Dylan McDermott. We know heís a devoted family man because, before we see his murder, the writers make certain to show him at his little boyís birthday party, helping him blow out the candles, before going in to his office with the family pictures on the desk. After he is killed, his wife (Joanna Going, not really allowed to do anything more than demand promises of victory from her attorney) decides to sue the manufacturer of the gun used in her husbandís murder.

The typical legal thriller would proceed from this point in following the trial, going behind closed doors to bear witness to the lawyers having their dramatic crises of conscience, doing their best to drum up a case without compromising their integrity. But this is where Runaway Jury diverges from the path, and is also why itís Grishamís best book. Instead of showing us outbursts of lawyerly passion and fists slammed on desks, the story focuses on the jury selection, its process, and the politics and unsavory dealing that go on when trying to secure a verdict.

I donít know enough about the legal process to even speculate whether any of this rings true. But it does make for good entertainment, even if it is a little cookie-cutter in the undertaking. As usual, Gene Hackman is a pleasure to watch, as the jury scout for the defense, who will stop at nothing, be it the passing of money, personal threats, or home invasion, to swing the jury to his clientís side. And Dustin Hoffman, as the widowís attorney, plays honorable and dignified while keeping sappiness far and away. They only have one true scene together, a bathroom tÍte-ŗ-tÍte where they each confront the other over his lacking points, and to see these two acting titans shout and finger-point and overstep each otherís lines, all the while keeping true to that Method tenet of less-is-more, is the inarguable high point in this big heaping of enjoyable Hollywood corn.

óCole Sowell


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