The verdict is in: Runaway Jury grips, surprises, delivers

Oct. 22, 2003, midnight | By Olivia Bevacqua | 17 years, 3 months ago

Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and John Cusack are officially three of the coolest actors ever. Unlike with most modern Hollywood superstars, good looks aren't really the factor here. (Well, on Cusack they don't hurt.) No, these guys can act. Case in point: Runaway Jury, the intense and well-scripted drama in which Hackman, Hoffman and Cusack show off their acting ability with a colorful drama addressing exploitation of both people and justice.

Runaway Jury is about pulling strings, pushing buttons and skirting the law. It is about human nature and manipulation. It is about transcending ethics to achieve a personal goal, be it money, aid or the rawest of human emotions, revenge. Based on John Grisham's best-selling novel, Runaway Jury illustrates how humans can control each other and throw morals to the wind when they toy with America's justice system.

The story begins with the murder of a young father in an office shooting. Two years later, his widow is suing the corporate consortium that manufactured the murderer's gun. The catch: the outcome of the trial may be determined even before it begins, depending on the selection and manipulation of the 12 jurors.

The widow's counsel is Wendall Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), a passionate Southern attorney who believes strongly in the power to implement change and knows that the outcome of the trial could set a new precedent in gun control litigation nationwide. The jury consultant for the gun industry is Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), a merciless man whose sole goal is to win, regardless of ethics or the ultimate impact of the case.

Hackman and Hoffman are brilliant as opposing forces fighting for legal victory. Both are two-time Academy Award winners, cinematic legends sharing the screen for the first rime in Runaway Jury. Their characters contrast sharply in the struggle to win the case. For Fitch, the gain is purely monetary. For Rohr, the win represents his impact on the widow's life as well as on the lives of millions of gun control advocates and potential gun victims. In a riveting confrontation, the two men tackle each other's motives and humanity, questioning the very purpose of their existence in the world of law. "What do you hope to achieve if you win?" Fitch taunts. "You're just ensuring that [the victim's] wife goes to her grave in a better car." The two deliver the script beautifully in this scene, firing lines at each other in a manner that captures their personas throughout the movie: Hoffman's flaming passion for justice and Hackman's cold, calculated, self-serving drive to win both prestige and money.

The two wild cards in the trial are Nick Easter (John Cusack) and "Marlee" (Rachel Weisz), a team set on extorting millions of dollars from Rohr and Fitch in return for the ultimate reward: a favorable verdict. Easter has maneuvered his way into the position of Juror Number Nine, and his adept ability to interpret human weakness gives him the key to influencing the other jurors. His girlfriend, Marlee, persuades both Rohr and Fitch that she and Easter have control of the jury and will swing the verdict towards whoever offers the highest reward. Cusack is sharp and convincing as the conniving juror, demonstrating yet again his incredible versatility in roles, which include the split personality in the thriller Identity or the hilarious, record-obsessed geek of High Fidelity.

Runaway Jury is unique because its focus is not on the trial but on the manipulation of the jury. Fitch recruits a team of behavior analysts to assess potential jurors and influence their selection; Easter uses his knowledge of the jurors' weaknesses to sway their actions; Rohr eventually has to decide whether he is willing buy a verdict. As Fitch states wryly during the selection process, "Trials are too important to be left up to jurors." The inventive plot twists are without warning and offer one last surprise in the final explosive scenes; the twist not only gives a parting taste of drama but also closure to previously unanswered questions.

The main weakness of Runaway Jury is the unlikeliness of the story. Fitch's gang of psychologists and experts on human behavior seem to have every recordable fact on every potential juror in a vast computer database located in their hidden headquarters. Upon request, the workers can summon details to the effect of Potential Juror A's grandmother's cat's eating habits on the third Tuesday of every month for the last 12 years. However, the James Bond-esque feel to Finch's operation does heighten the drama, and the cost of credibility isn't too great.

Phenomenal acting and a unique plot make Runaway Jury an intense, if not overly convincing, movie that takes an intriguing viewpoint on the role of the jury in the American justice system.

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