Runaway Jury

At best dumb, at worst downright offensive. More filler than thriller.

Released in 2003, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 23 Jan 2004 by Scott Morris
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Certain films have to be marketed more on the stars that act in them than the plot it contains. This could be because the plot is too complex to be reduced to a three minute soundbite, but very occasionally it's because it's so utterly preposterous that it'd be laughed out of the multiplex. Which brings us nicely on to Runaway Jury.

The drama, such as there is in this film plays out against the background of a contentious court case in the wake of the tragic multiple killing of several stockbrokers by a disgruntled ex-employee. One of the widows brings an action against the makers of the gun used in the killings claiming damages against them. A loose alliance of firearms companies are keen not to lose the case, fearing an avalanche of copycat suits and massive payouts. To this end they hire the services of one Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), whose crack team of investigators, psychologists and common thugs will be used to find out every detail about the jury in the case and apply appropriate 'pressure' to ensure the verdict swings their way.

One of the jurors, Nicholas Easter (John Cusack) has an agenda of his own. Along with outside help from his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weiz), he's also in the jury rigging game. With Wiez contacting both defence lawyer Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison, perhaps better known as Senator Kelly of X-Men/X2) and prosecutor Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) offering one jury for sale, with a cool ten million dollar price tag, the scene is set for a rather silly Byzantine power struggle between Cusack and Hackman over who holds sway over these twelve men good and true. From the overworked pen of John Grisham, there ought to be at least a vague hope that someone of his experience in writing dramatic courtroom thrillers and with an undeniably talented cast that there would be some enjoyment to be had in exchange for your fiver.

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Very occasionally there is, although it's largely in spite of rather than because of a particularly lacklustre script. Despite some terminally uninspired dialogue there's few better in the business of portraying sleazy, threatening and angry characters than Hackman and as such he injects a bit of vitality into the proceedings. Hoffman is hamstrung by playing one of those 'principled lawyer' beasts that have yet to be seen outside a film projection, although his calculated everyman appearance has a certain charm. Cusack is his usual affable self, and Weiz does little to offend although it's fair to say none of them are tearing the house down.

It's huge, gargantuan failing comes from a tale so tall I'm surprised it fits in the frame. Even letting the usual complete misrepresentation of technology slide, here it produces something more ridiculous - a complete misrepresentation of an entire legal system. Taking some liberal liberties with the court's due process, this builds in minor increments throughout the film until it has become some grotesque parody of a legal system that's already become (rightly or wrongly) a bit of a laughing stock in the free world.

This particularly dirty cake is given the final icing in the jury's delivery of a verdict that's based entirely on emotive arguments and in stark contrast to the laws of the land and also all of the evidence that's been presented in the trial. They deliver an utterly, utterly nonsensical verdict that comes rather clearly from a desire to have a heart-warming happy ending in this little fantasy island the movie has created, but anyone whose being paying a scrap of attention will know it will rather swiftly be turned over on appeal. Rather ironically, it ends up proving Fitch's views that trials are too important to be left up to a jury, largely because they'll come back with very stupid results.

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Given the laughs already ringing around the world at court cases suing McDonalds for providing hot coffee that morons subsequently burn themselves with and such like, films containing such ludicrous legal judgements will do defenders of America's justice system no favours whatsoever, especially given that it's presented as a great triumph of justice by the myriad of court reporters in the final scenes rather than a complete miscarriage. That it genuinely thinks it's made an intelligent point is not only worrying, it's completely incomprehensible and frankly offensive. Like The Life Of David Gale before it, it's an ending that not only undoes what little goodwill the film has built up it leaves such a bad taste in your mouth as you walk out of the cinema that you will end up retrospectively hating it for stealing two hours of your life with such unmitigated rubbish.

This alone would warrant a recommendation to avoid, but given that it does little to endear itself before its descent into lunacy there's no reason at all to watch it. There are a few minor bright patches and largely the majority of the movie isn't unwatchable. It's resolutely mediocre, before growing mildly daft and then becoming unacceptably and insultingly stupid. This is not the way a must-see drama should progress. It is, however, a textbook case of how a must-avoid drama progresses.

There's a time and a place for a serious, well thought out discussion on gun control. A glossy, ill-considered mid-budget courtroom drama provides neither. It's schmaltzy, sentimental and frankly spurious views on gun control do more to harm a very serious and important movement than help it, and the only people likely to get any joy from this pap are N.R.A. members.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 1/5 TippyMarks.

Gary Fleder
Cast list:
John Cusack (Nicholas Easter)
Gene Hackman (Rankin Fitch)
Dustin Hoffman (Wendell Rohr)
Rachel Weisz (Marlee)
Bruce Davison (Durwood Cable)
Bruce McGill (Judge Harkin)
Jeremy Piven (Lawrence Green)