`Runaway Jury' makes good use of paranoia

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Movies: on screen, DVD/ Video

February 26, 2004|By Rob Lowman | Rob Lowman,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

It would be naive to think that psychological profiling of prospective jurors doesn't occur in the American legal system. After all, it had been employed by the legal defense team in the Angela Davis trial some 30 years ago, and it was reported then that even some jurors who acquitted her had joined her in a post-trial victory celebration.

Undoubtedly, the tactics of finding jurors who will be sympathetic to your client have grown more sophisticated, meaning that only those who can afford the expense - the rich - can employ them. (Can you think of anyone with money who has gotten off and didn't seem to deserve it?)

Whether such tactics have grown to such a degree as those employed by Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), an amoral jury consultant in Runaway Jury, the latest adaptation of a John Grisham courtroom potboiler, is unlikely. Fitch and his team use everything from spy cameras to phone taps and computer searches that pull up possibly embarrassing information about potential jurors.

Directed by Gary Fleder, Runaway Jury pits Fitch, who is the man behind gun-company defense lawyer Cable (Bruce Davison), against wily Southern lawyer Wendall Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), who is suing on behalf of his client who lost her husband when a disgruntled employee shot dead 11 co-workers using a semiautomatic weapon he had purchased illegally. Added to this legal high-stakes game is a wild card - Nick Easter (John Cusack), whose attempt to avoid jury duty so angers the judge (Bruce McGill) that he nearly forces the lawyers to empanel the video-game-store clerk. It soon becomes apparent that Easter has his own agenda and a few psychological tricks up his sleeve as well as having an outside accomplice (Rachel Weisz).

While the characters in Runaway Jury are out to manipulate the jury, the filmmakers are out to manipulate the audience. Luckily, they still allow enough room for the stars to maneuver. Hackman, with his goatee and menacing stare, looks like Satan with an expensive suit. Hoffman, with a suspect Southern accent, comes across as a smarter-than-average everyman with a conscience who's being outgunned. Easter is the most interesting character. Seemingly a clown at first, he keeps his smarts and cleverness close to the vest, and Cusack uses that caginess to his advantage.

If Runaway Jury seems overwrought in the end, it still has plenty of entertaining moments and makes some cautionary - if clearly paranoid - points about the justice system.

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