Reviews

Runaway Jury (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Besieged by John Grishamish plot twisties, the actors in Runaway Jury do their best to fashion an emotional coherence.


Runaway Jury

Director: Gary Fleder
Cast: Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, John Cusack, Rachel Weisz, Bruce Davison, Bruce McGill, Jeremy Piven, Nick Searcy, Cliff Curtis, Bill Nunn, Jennifer Beals
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Regency Films
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2003-10-17

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 [1993]). 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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image