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.





That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.


Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.


Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.


Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.


'Thor: Ragnorak' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.


Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.