With RUNAWAY JURY we are deep into classic Grisham territory. Based on his novel of the same name, it pits evil big business against an idealistic do-gooder with the moral lines firmly drawn.
The bad guys are the gun manufacturers and their creature, Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), a whiz of a jury consultant whose only moral consideration is whether or not the check bounces. He reads people the way you and I read a newspaper. When we first meet him, he’s accurately telling a cab driver he’s just met the story of said driver’s life and then offering advice. The good guy is idealistic New Orleans lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), who wants to bring the gun guys down a few notches. He’s going to do this by suing them for the wrongful death of his client’s husband (Dylan McDermott), a stock broker who was gunned down in his office shooting by a disgruntled day-trader armed with an assault weapon. A worthy cause, but the script neatly stacks the deck against him so that even with his savvy way with the law and substantial monetary resources at hand, he is out of his depth with Fitch.
The wild card is juror number 9, the euphonically monikered Nick Easter (John Cusack), who is using his considerable talent for manipulation to spin the jury in any direction he wants. Along with girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) as his outside go-to girl, he offers the jury to the first side that comes up with his price $10m.
Director Gary Fleder unfolds this character-driven thriller at an oddly effective leisurely pace that takes advantage of New Orleans’ sultry and evocative location. There are twists and turns paced well enough for the solid cast to keep things interesting for the two-hour or so running time as Fitch runs a command snoop center that the CIA would be proud to call its own, and Nick and Marlee play both sides. Sleepy-eyed and full of secrets, Cusak has the right unassuming charisma to let us believe he can make the jury do whatever he wants and make them think it was their idea. He has a nice counterpoint in Weisz, who once again sparkles with intelligent and steely resolve. Hackman is properly cynical and more than a little dangerous as the self-satisfied agent of justice-for-hire. Hoffman is a little bland, but does a nice job of showing the difference between being a good guy and being a pushover. The jurors, though, are the usual assortment, with a blind guy who demands to be empanelled thrown in for fun. Not fun is the subplot thrown in about a merely competent jury consultant Lawrence Green (Jeremy Piven) who is all but panting to work with Rohr. It never goes anywhere and seems designed strictly to introduce us to Rohrs deceptively folksy character as he neatly sums up Green and then strikes a tough bargain with a homespun smile.
Will Fitch’s supreme self-confidence crack when he sees how easily Easter can have the jury do things like spontaneously say the pledge of allegiance? Will Rohrs faith in the legal system be so shaken by that and some of Fitch’s dirty tricks that he will succumb to ponying up the money in order to do the greater good of setting a landmark judicial precedent? Will Nick and Marlee go too far with their intrigues? RUNAWAY JURY will keep you wondering, and surprised, until the very end.