Besieged by John Grishamish plot twisties, the actors in Gary Fleder’s Runaway Jury do their best to fashion an emotional coherence. This as the characters turn conniving or ornery (or, in the case of the girl, bruised and beaten), as they are tossed about by unconvincing conveniences and case-making speeches. That is, Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s adaptation leaves intact the author’s familiar and popular ethical gusto, though it shifts the 1996 novel’s target from the tobacco industry to gun manufacturers. Still, the bad guys are seething, the good guys are stalwart, and those clever few who negotiate in between reveal their moral mettle by the finale.
Set in New Orleans, Runaway Jury introduces its own anti-gunnist inclinations with a big, not particularly original bang. A nice young father (Dylan McDermott) comes to work at his brokerage firm (where he knows the receptionist’s name), and is immediately caught in a rampage by the proverbial “disgruntled former employee.” Two years later, the legal plot kicks in, as the nice young widow, Celeste (Joanna Going) sues the gun maker, essentially for looking the other way when “everyone” knew the company’s semi-automatic Tech-9s with hollow tip rounds were being sold by baleful dealers underground.
The guilt, in other words, is clearly assigned, and the complication is that the gun lobby has hired not only an oily lawyer named Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison), but also an extremely expensive, crafty, and increasingly loud jury consultant named Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman, who played a more pathetic version of this character in The Firm ). Not to be outdone in the inflated names department, the widow’s lawyer is Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), who also has a consultant, Green (Jeremy Piven). The film allows a moment when Green looks sneaky, as he offers his services to Rohr just because he believes in the “cause,” but it’s soon clear that he’s really here because, as always, Piven gets a part in his buddy John Cusack’s movie (this is usually a bonus, but here he has painfully little to do).
Fitch and Rohr’s eventual legal-moral showdown in the men’s room appears to be this film’s raison d’être: Fitch snarls, “I’m in it to win! Everything else is colored bubbles!” And Rohr comes back, “You can’t carry around so much contempt without it becoming malignant!” But for a long time before that, they look to be competing for Most Curious Performance. Rohr is as artfully folksy as Fitch is artfully belligerent. Such artfulness — scheming and self-righteous — is where the action’s at in this film, as everyone in it presumes the fault of the jury system, that is, putting average (put-upon, badly educated, willful, cantankerous) citizens in charge of other citizens’ lives and deaths. In Grisham’s world, everyone with a stake in any of it manipulates and cajoles, and the ones who do it for the correct reasons are the ones with whom the audience is aligned.
Here, Wendell is introduced selecting a tie that doesn’t quite match his jacket, because, as he puts it (in a nasal drawl that sounds suspiciously like Tootsie), “Jurors don’t trust a lawyer who’s too nattily turned out.” By the same token, the very natty Fitch first appears entering the warehouse that’s been super-equipped for his surveillance and info-gathering operations — a dark and cavernous place that says everything you need to know about him.
The third term in the mix (Durwood Cable being pretty much the non-entity his name implies) is a juror, Nicholas Easter (this is the John Cusack part). Ostensibly a videogame vendor (Fitch’s outfit figures he might be useful because he’s into shooter games, but also troublesome because he “likes to entertain people,” and so he’s categorically untrustworthy), Nick conspires to sway the jury to a certain verdict. And, following a strange exchange in a local curio shop, concerning votive candles, his relationship with his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) is revealed. She gets to do the dirty work on the outside — taunting Fitch and Rohr, instructing them on amounts of money (millions and millions, to be deposited in a Cayman Islands account, as always happens in these machinatey movies).
The bulk of the movie is given over to the major players, with teeny little moments among the twelve jurors interlocking, so as to create a veneer of cleverness. (The judge, played by Bruce McGill, has no notion of what’s going on, in keeping with the movie’s premise that the justice system is a consensual hallucination.) What’s most striking here is how many excellent actors are gathered together to sketch characters in five or six lines: these include Cliff Curtis as the ex-Marine; Jennifer Beals as the “tall glass of ice tea”; Gerry Bamman as the blind man incarnating the joke of “blind” justice; Nora Dunn as the alcoholic; Bill Nunn as the guy with a conscience; and Guy Torry as the jittery guy hiding a deep secret. Too many types, not enough time.
So, you’re supposed to be wondering who will give up the cash to buy the jury, but really, there’s little question, given Fitch’s pomposity and Rohr’s essential rectitude (not to mention their names). Still, the film lays out a series of predictable maneuverings and doublecrosses, several leading to ludicrous action scenes — as when Nick finds one of Fitch’s professional lunkheads in his apartment and gives chase, or when Marlee, of all people, beats down another. (As crazy as this last sounds, it’s even crazier in execution — she notices him hiding in the shadows because he’s left a half-eaten sandwich that has attracted roaches, as if he’s brought his own supply.)
Runaway Jury‘s combinatory affect — cynicism about the legal system meets moralistic melodrama — doesn’t hold together. And, as fast and furious as the plot turns keep coming, the fact that they’re premised on a series of logical holes that niggles at you even while you’re trying (really hard!) to worry about Nick’s safety, Fitch’s depravity, or Marlee’s remarkable ability to stand up to either Fitch or Rohr, both of whom look like they want to eat her for breakfast (“Do you know who you’re messing with here!?”). Just so, the individual performances, scene to scene, stand out (even for Hackman’s scene chewing), but the niggling saps your energy and interest until you just don’t care who wins.