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Runaway Jury

(2003) ** Pg-13
127 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Gary Fleder. Cast: John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Bruce Davison.

When I said, "I'd watch Gene Hackman read the phone book," I didn't mean it literally, and yet, here we have Runaway Jury, an insultingly dumb "legal" thriller adapted by four screenwriters from John Grisham's novel. This paperback read of a movie, like water off a duck's back, takes a quick, slick downward slide mitigated only by stars John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, and Hackman.

Though Grisham's book detailed a tobacco case, this long-troubled project morphs the issue into gun control. The gun issue allows for a sensationalistic opening sequence that, despite its superfluity, sparks more interest than just about anything which follows. The other good scene succeeds in spite of a flurry of cliches because its actors are Hackman and Hoffman, one-time roommates finally sharing the screen (Hackman tells Hoffman their crackling bathroom altercation is "An overdue pleasure").

The first scene sets up a prominent civil suit against a gun manufacturer. Hoffman's deceptively simple New Orleans lawyer Wendall Rohr represents a determined widow; Hackman's hot-tempered "jury consultant" Rankin Fitch operates an illegal Batcave with a staff of twenty and rows of supercomputers, all dedicated to the task of buying a verdict for the defendant. The filmmakers obscure the relative merits of the case with the initial (and never challenged) assumption that Rohr is good and Fitch is bad. For a courtroom movie, this one devotes precious little time to its own trial.

Instead, we're "treated" to an endless series of preposterous situations cooked up to score plot points. Seemingly, everyone in the tainted jury pool has a hidden agenda (one, an icognito protestor, is ferreted out by Fitch in an early and awkward display of his interpretive genius). The characters played by Cusack (a juror) and Weisz (a free agent) represent the story's true nature: a liberal fantasy of vigilante justice which can take its place beside popular entertainments like Ransom. Rest assured, the bad guys get theirs in the end.

Grisham's canned issues about jury consultancy spark interest, but the film abandons them: Fitch's epigram "Trials are too important to be left up to juries" serves only as spackle between foot chases, plot-twisting reversals, and emotional hokum. A whirlwind jury selection sequence represents the best use of the film's Bruckheimer-esque slickness, but elsewhere, the film could surely benefit from long takes in place of Cuisinart editing.

At one point, Hoffman sputters, "In 34 years, that's the most absurd thing I've ever seen," and he might well be describing any scene from Runaway Jury.

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