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Runaway Jury

Much has been made in pre-release publicity about Runaway Jury's men's room showdown scene between stars Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman. Though the two movie giants have been friends since the sixties, they had never acted together, and had the script been left as is, they still wouldn't have.

A gaggle of screenwriters crowbarred in the aforementioned scene and yes, taken on its own, it's a magical moment as two powerhouses go at each other in feigned moral outrage. Not even its imminent reenactment in high school drama classes across the country can dim its strength.

But a quality brick wall still needs something to cement it together, and Runaway Jury has little of that. Individual pieces look mighty hefty and impressive, but it's a Jenga of a movie. If you push or pull at the right places, it's going to all come tumbling down.

Based on a John Grisham novel that has the same problems, the movie works hard to convince you that you're watching something of importance. Changing the locale and the core hot-button issue from big tobacco (which, in real life, people did start suing and beating in court) to gun control, it could be lauded for taking a stand. But it also takes that stand by reducing the issue to a simplistic level: no one, absolutely no one, on the side of the gun manufacturer has the slightest shred of decency. Not the defense attorney, the smug Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison), and certainly not the hot shot jury consultant Rankin Fitch (Hackman).

The other side tips out just as heavily for nobility. Hoffman exudes almost ridiculous warmth as plaintiff's attorney Wendell Rohr, a man who makes a conscious effort to be a man of the people. Though this case brings a lot of publicity with it, there's no doubt that Rohr is on a sincere moral crusade, helping the widow (Joanna Going) of a broker killed in an office shooting spree. That broker, by the way, is played by an uncredited Dylan McDermott, a good actor kicked off The Practice only to cameo in this big budget version of, well, The Practice.

Acting as pivot between the opposing forces, the mysterious Juror #9 Nick Easter (John Cusack) has waited for the chance to serve on such a case in order to offer the verdict up to the highest bidder.

It's not quite that simple, and Cusack's persona makes it easy to mask what's really going on in collusion with Marly (Rachel Weisz), the girl he either hardly knows or loves very deeply. Just as the men's room scene allows the grand old men their moment without adding anything real, so too do Nick and Marly have a meet cute scene that has to be an after the fact red herring.

With a script that pasted together, it's hard to see a real through line beyond trying to stir audience emotions or at least admiration for the acting. Indeed, on a legal level, the plot falls somewhere above Ashley Judd's Double Jeopardy (a completely boneheaded and flat-out legally wrong premise) but somewhere below an episode of Matlock. (I'm safe there - no Matlock viewer reads this site.)

So what's left is characterization and performance, which Runaway Jury does have in spades. Director Gary Fleder has assembled an incredible cast that he lets run free for a while, and therein lie the pleasures of the film.

Most of the jury are recognizable character actors, turning in vivid performances no matter how small the role. Even Nora Dunn ends up looking like a real person, usually not her specialty. Jeremy Piven gets cast against type as a "good" jury consultant. Though made to look occasionally dim, Piven plays upstanding pretty well, something casting directors might make note of.

But the movie stars are the stars of the show, and if you ignore everything around them, they entertain. Hackman and Hoffman are generous actors to each other, and it's easy to forget how good they really are when stuck in a desperately blunt crowd-pleaser like this. Representing the next generation (if he wants it), Cusack carves himself a good corner of the movie without being too showy.

Runaway Jury ends up being the kind of film you rent when your parents come over to visit. You can all watch it together without getting uncomfortable, and though there's a little genuine suspense, it never gets so strong that you would react overtly thus losing your cool in front of your elders. It's an okay time-passer, but when you hit the multiplex, you should get something more.



Derek McCaw

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