Favorable Verdict

With four fine leads and good support, 'Jury' has all the ingredients to make this a 'Runaway' hit.

October 17, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Runaway Jury, a free adaptation of John Grisham's 1996 novel about jury tampering, has a smart - and white-hot - commercial idea. It grafts the cutting-edge surveillance techniques of espionage thrillers like Enemy of the State onto a controversy-laced courtroom drama. Even audiences accustomed to super-spy technology in CIA films should snap to attention at the spectacle of high-tech bugs corrupting a civic sacrament like jury duty in that gumbo melting-pot New Orleans.

The director, Gary Fleder(Kiss the Girls, Don't Say a Word), lacks subtlety and precision but grasps the power of paranoia. He enables viewers to smash through the wall of disbelief whenever implausible plot turns become obstacles.

Fleder also understands the potency of movie stars. Gene Hackman plays the brilliant jury consultant who will stop at nothing to clear a firearms company accused of sales practices that led to a workplace massacre. Dustin Hoffman plays the widowed plaintiff's lawyer, an idealist who hopes to strike a blow for gun control. John Cusack plays the genial, elusive juror with a hidden agenda and his own low-tech means of manipulating verdicts. And Rachel Weisz is Cusack's partner in crime - Ms. Outside to his Mr. Inside.

Together with supporting actors who inject some personality into each frame (even if they can't fill out their flash-card characters), this stellar quartet keeps the movie's emotions plausible and its oscillations engrossing.

Cusack and Weisz prove as shrewd as Hackman at controlling the trial's outcome: They exploit every juror's every weakness and auction off their services to both sides. When Hoffman realizes how dirty Hackman is willing to play and how effective Cusack and Weisz are in bending the jury, even this paragon of virtue considers coughing up $10 million for them to twist it in his direction.

Hackman is all about alertness and energy, Hoffman about scruple and cogitation. Hackman runs the gun company's defense behind the scenes (Bruce Davison plays the actual attorney), so he and Hoffman never duel one-on-one. Still, they send vectors of tension and antipathy shooting through the courtroom. And Fleder and his backfield of screenwriters (Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman) are clever enough to give Hoffman and Hackman an impromptu men's-room confrontation. Movie fans will savor it both on its own terms and as the long-delayed payoff to their struggling-actor friendship 40 years ago.

Hackman conjures a super-competitor who creates a reverse morality out of high-stakes gambling with the legal system. Blackmail and extortion are just tools for him. He feeds on Hoffman's disapproval. But if Hackman's vituperation shakes the cagey down-home attorney, it doesn't make him cave. Hoffman stays in Hackman's face - not to egg him on, but to decipher any chinks in his warped precision clockwork.

Cusack's woebegone charm proves just as crucial for this movie. He's in his subversive element as an apparent underachiever who slips beneath Hackman's radar (wrecking the consultant's well-laid plans). And Weisz sets off Cusack's deceptive mildness perfectly with her flashing-eyed aggressiveness.

Runaway Jury is a runaway movie. It tries to be too many things at once: an expose of corporate maneuvering and jury tampering, an amorality play - and, according to Fleder, most of all "a heist movie" with the jury as the object of grand larceny. Films as different as 12 Angry Men, The Insider and Music Box have fleshed out each legal sideshow far more fully. (One wonders if Fleder and company changed the defendants from Grisham's Big Tobacco to Big Guns because The Insider got to the cigarette companies first.)

But no picture has put together these ingredients in such a volatile fashion, with the conviction that outside pressures have infiltrated the system and poisoned it.

Fleder and his writers do provide enough texture to give an audience traction. It's probably better to leave viewers wanting more of Hackman's curdled observations, such as his statement that obese female jurors tend to be tightfisted and mean-spirited. (Is "lean and mean" a myth?) Right up to a beat-the-clock climax, the moviemakers' ambiguity about Cusack's and Weisz's reasons for their actions provides some flavorful psychological mystery.

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