Monday, June 25, 2012

Flick of the Day: Runaway Jury

Adaptations of John Grisham novels have become something of a cottage industry over the years producing a slew of films of varying quality ranging from the excellent (The Firm, A Time to Kill) to the dull (The Chamber) to the downright ill advised (Christmas with the Kranks). Today's flick of the day is somewhere in the middle, possessing a fine cast and an engaging tale without setting the world alight.
Opening in a New Orleans office, a recently let go employee returns to commit a mass killing spree with an automatic weapon during which he kills a young father. This motivates his widow to launch a lawsuit against the gun manufacturer for not taking more care of who purchased their product. We fast forward to the beginning of the trial. The gun manufacturers have hired the legendary bagman Rankin Fitch to deliver a favourable verdict. Fitch is played by a menacing Gene Hackman in a fine turn. Opposing Fitch's machinations is the idealistic attorney (a Grisham trope if ever there was one) Wendell Rohr played by Dustin Hoffman. Into this face-off steps juror number 9, Nick Easter, a game store clerk played by the always charming John Cusack. It soon becomes apparent that Nick and his other half played by Rachel Weisz have for reasons which become apparent in the final reel, their own agenda for the trial regardless of what the two legal teams want. Together they begin to communicate with both Hackman and Hoffman, promising to swing the jury for the right price.
As a screenwriter it is surely impossible to please fans of any source material be it a novel or a play without being too slavish to it. A film has to stand on its own. In this regard, the film makes a major departure from the source novel by amending the heartless corporation to a gun manufacturer from a big tobacco firm. I can't fathom the reason behind it but it adds an additional layer of unreality to an already overburdened tale. At numerous points in the film, one is forced to suspend the nagging question in the back of your mind that perhaps this wouldn't really go like that.
For all that, it is a compelling tale, director Gary Fleder manages to ratchet up the tension as the trial wares on and avoids spending too much time on court room drama. Focusing on the goings on in the jury room is a smart move and it relies on good character actors for the jury. Thankfully this is the case with most of them faces you have seen before like Cliff Curtis, Bill Nunn and Gerry Bamman.
Perhaps the best reason for seeing a film that is only so-so is the chance to see Hoffman and Hackman face off on screen. The old masters share only one major scene together but it is an entertaining turn all the same. Hackman's Fitch is the polar opposite of the crusading Rohr and is so often the case, the bad guy gets all the best lines. 
Rankin Fitch: You think your average juror is King Solomon? No, he's a roofer with a mortgage. He wants to go home and sit in his Barcalounger and let the cable TV wash over him. And this man doesn't give a single, solitary droplet of shit about truth, justice or your American way. 
Whereas Rohr would prefer to win the trial based on the veracity of his arguments, Fitch wants victory at all cost and is prepared to go to any lengths to get it including buying the jury or coercing them through nefarious means.
Cusack's Nick on the other hand is a cipher through which the plot flows though it is entertaining to watch the way in which he charms his way into the hearts of each of his fellow jurors.  Without giving too much away, the twist in tale is his motivation for playing with the trial and it should be obvious enough before it lopes into view.
All in all, this is an entertaining trifle and nothing more. Like so much of Grisham's work it goes best with the throwaway nature of books you read on an airplane.The cast are fine throughout with Hoffman and Hackman making the best of their roles. There is just enough tension to keep you interested until the end. 


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