Runaway Jury

Posted on October 10, 2003 at 6:42 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters drink and smoke
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in peril, theme of gun violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

John Grisham’s courtroom thriller is given the big-time Hollywood treatment and the result is as reliably entertaining — but also as forgettable — as an airplane novel. This is the kind of story that benefits from the willing suspension of disbelief (and logic) that is usually required for books designed to be read while wearing a seatbelt.

And it’s harder to be that generous in a movie when there is such a gap between the level of the script and the level of the performers. Grisham books are such a reliable franchise that it is impossible to film them without the kind of big Hollywood budget usually reserved for summer action blockbusters and Oscar-bait dramas. The perverse result is to make the result less enjoyable. As much fun as it is to see Oscar-winners Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman square off against each other, you can’t help feeling that they overpower the material. It’s like those commercials where movie stars read aloud letters from satisfied dish tv viewers as though they were sonnets. Only this is supposed to be serious. A scene in which Hackman and Hoffman, friends for decades, onscreen together for the first time, in shoehorned in so that they can face off against each other, but it does not advance the story. Star power in even the smaller roles provides more distraction than support. This movie could have worked better with a made-for-tv-movie level cast more suitable to its potboiler sensibility.

The story is about a groundbreaking lawsuit in an era in which “trials are too important to be left up to juries” and cases are won or lost before the opening arguments.

A distraught employee fired by brokerage firm returned to his office with an assault weapon and killed eleven people before turning the gun on himself. Four years later, the widow of one of the men killed has brought a suit against the gun manufacturer, charging that the company bears some responsibility because it made it too easy for a disturbed person to buy and use a gun that could have no legitimate purpose.

A lot is at stake. If the jury finds the manufacturer liable in this case, it will open the door for hundreds, even thousands of other lawsuits. It could bankrupt the industry. So all of the gun manufacturers have contributed millions of dollars to make sure that the defense team is the best that money can buy. That does not just mean top talent at the counsel table. It may be more important to get top talent in jury selection, and that means Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman).

We first see Fitch pulling a Sherlock Holmes as he glances at a photo and a parking lot stub in a cab and correctly deduces the details of the driver’s current problems. But when it comes to juries, Fitch relies on more than intuition and deduction. In a huge secret command center Fitch’s staff uses everything from high-tech databanks to low-tech surveillance to find out all they can about the pool of potential jurors. But Fitch is the best at what he does because he goes much further than psychology and percentages. He wants their secrets, their vulnerabilities. It’s good to know how people of particular backgrounds and percentages are inclined to vote, but it’s better to be able to apply pressure to make sure that they vote the way Fitch’s client wants them to, even if that means a little blackmail.

The plaintiff’s counsel, Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), has retained a jury consultant, too. But someone else has gone a step further. Nick (John Cusack) has managed to get himself actually onto the jury. Both sides get calls from Marlee (Rachel Weisz) who tells them that she has control of the jury and will sell the outcome for $10 million. Marlee is able to demonstrate to Fitch and Rohr that her contact’s subtle powers to guide the other jurors can determine the outcome of the trial. Are they willing to bet on old-fashioned ideals like evidence and justice?

This is a courtroom drama where the drama does not come from what happens in the courtroom but what happens outside it. That leaves room for lots of intrigue and Grisham knows how to hold the attention of the audience. But the conclusion feels too easy, not earned by the way the issues have been presented throughout the movie or even the powerhouse performances. Like the insider on the jury, Grisham is a facile manipulator. But audiences are likely to be a little less willing to go along with it than the other jurors — unless they’re watching it in the same low-brain-cell-output locations the book is most often read — on an airplane or at the beach.

Parents should know that the movie has some violence and very tense moments. The movie opens with a tragic shooting (off-camera) and describes another. The movie’s theme is gun control. Characters are in peril and some are injured. There is a violent video game. Characters smoke and drink (one has a drinking problem) and use strong language. A character attempts suicide. And many of the characters in the movie are ruthless and unethical.

Families who see this movie should talk about any jury duty experiences they have had and about the movie’s (exaggerated)depiction of the corruption of the jury system. The three main characters have different ideas about justice and winning — who is right? Should gun companies be responsible for acting within the law if people who buy their products break the law? Families may also want to talk about why the tobacco company defendant in the book became a gun company defendant in the movie, possibly because tobacco companies have been found liable in court.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy some of the other Grisham movies, especially The Client, The Firm (also with Hackman), and The Pelican Brief. They will also enjoy the 1957 version of the classic jury drama 12 Angry Men starring Henry Fonda and the 1997 made-for-cable remake starring Jack Lemmon.

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