More of the usual courtroom thrillsIt’s a movie based on a John Grisham novel.
That would probably sum up everything you needed to know about “Runaway Jury,” if this review had to be under 10 words. If you are a fan of tense courtroom thrillers, this is your next “Pelican Brief” or “The Firm.” If you’re not, save it for home theater.
Not that the story is mundane. In fact, in this film, a third party perks up the usual two-way game between the plaintiff’s attorney and the defendant’s. That third party is the jury. They are the ones who hold the key to the verdict, although lawyers may not like to admit it.
The case is about a major weapons manufacturer that’s sued by an affluent widow after her husband is shot down at work. (In the novel, it’s a tobacco company, but the change doesn’t alter the story much.) The gun company hires Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), a notorious jury consultant, who guarantees the company a favorable outcome. “After all,” he says, “trials are too important to be left to the jury.”
Unfortunately for him, however, more threatening than Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) ― the virtuous attorney for the plaintiff, and Fitch’s former roommate ― are Nick (John Cusack) and Marlee (Rachel Weisz), who are working together to influence the jury, and to swing the verdict toward whichever party pays them the most. Nick gets selected as juror number nine and works on the inside, while steel-nerved Marlee negotiates with both sides in a game that becomes more dangerous each day.
The movie is well-paced, with appropriate shots for conveying tension. Fast zoom-ins, stills in negative (think “C.S.I.”) and scenes in almost complete darkness give the film a murder-mystery atmosphere. This is enhanced when Fitch stands like the all-knowing devil, scrutinizing the jurors (and the judge!) in front of a wall of monitors, much the way Tom Cruise does in “Minority Report.” He searches for weak spots, using everything he can to unearth jurors’ secrets. That’s why he is being paid millions of dollars: to prevent the gun industry from being sued by thousands of other prospective plaintiffs.
The most provocative question “Runaway Jury” raises is about how fair the American legal system really is. The system relies on jury verdicts, but can the jurors, themselves being human, be entirely objective? As one juror says, lots of people die or suffer unfairness. That’s why he doesn’t want to rule in favor of the rich widow. Why should she be the only one compensated?
The movie also suggests that the process of jury selection can make a panel more biased and prejudiced, though the goal of the process is supposed to be impartiality. Pretty scary.
This movie will definitely appeal most to courtroom movie fans, as it plays illegal surveillance, foul play and blackmail against traditional values, honesty and decency. You even get a triumphant ending in which justice prevails. For others, however, all these things just make it another lawyer movie.
Drama / English
Opens Jan. 30
by Wohn Dong-hee