Photo: American Justice: Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman square off in a new courtroom drama about jury tampering.
The circus sham of the American judicial system is roasted over hot coals in this intriguing film treatment of John Grisham''s 1996 novel about a landmark civil lawsuit against a gun manufacturing company that hires an illicit jury-tampering consulting company (led by Gene Hackman) to secure a verdict. But ambiguous jury member Nick Eastman (John Cusack) and his resourceful girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) have similarly effective methods of jury persuasion, and attempt to extort millions from prosecuting attorney Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) and the duplicitous Rankin Fitch (Hackman) to swing the jury to the highest bidder''s side. Set in New Orleans, Runaway Jury is a satisfying legal thriller that digs beneath Hollywood''s characteristically shallow surfaces to modern social issues that resonate with compound pith.
The triumph of Runaway Jury lies in its audacious treatment of a corporate interest jury trial as a crucible of contempt and capitalist greed. The underlying theme of the story is that juries, no matter how they''re chosen, are subject to innumerable kinds of unseen manipulation from powers in and around the case at hand. It''s in this dicey realm of dishonesty that masters and their unwitting puppets dance to a tune with no basis in harmony or truth.
Gene Hackman''s Rankin Fitch represents an archetype of ruthless Republican-tempered insolence whose only concern lies in the vast amount of money he can garner from manhandling a jury toward his client''s verdict. At the opposite end of the ethical spectrum is attorney Wendall Rohr (Dustin Hoffman). He''s a rarefied old school New Orleans lawyer of the people who knows that walking into a courtroom with yellow mustard spilled on his tie will send a proper message that he''s concerned with the consequence of justice.
A restroom confrontation scene, late in the film, between Fitch and Rohr is a textbook example of a perfectly executed illumination of character and thematic mien. Hackman towers over Hoffman, insulting the tenacious attorney''s naïve perception of justice and the power of the rich to trample over whomever and whatever it pleases. It''s Fitch who wins the scene, but Rohr''s voice of virtue imposes a ringing message of eventual consequence that hits at Fitch''s cynical cruelty. Hackman and Hoffman are cut from the same generation of acting wood; the fire that these two standard bearers of American acting breathe into the scene is remarkable for the range of dramatic colors and rhythms conjured.
At the heart of the story is the culpability of a gun manufacturing company that produced an automatic assault rifle used in a law office shooting that killed a young husband and father (played by Rusty Schwimmer). The case threatens to set a legal precedent that will cost gun companies billions of dollars, but the rival parties vying to sway the jury do so with entirely different motivations. Marlee and Nick are the underdog champions of the story because they act beyond the limits of ingrained capitalist thinking while seeming to adhere to its ritual negotiating tactics.
Director Gary Fleder (Kiss The Girls) does make one error of over sentimentalizing the film''s denouement in the way that he sets up the closing shots and with the amount of time that he allows the camera to linger on its childhood subjects. However, it''s a forgivable footnote to an otherwise thorough and thought-provoking movie that transcends the mold of the courtroom drama with terrific ensemble performances
Runaway Jury Four stars
Directed by Gary Fleder
Starring Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, John Cusack, Rachel Weisz
Rated PG-13, 123 mins.