By Lisa Schwarzbaum
October 16, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

A few words of instruction from the bench before considering Runaway Jury: Forget John Grisham’s best-selling 1996 legal thriller on which it’s based. The civil case before the court is no longer about jury tampering and a big bad meanie tobacco company; it’s about jury tampering and a big bad meanie firearms company, sued by the pretty widow of a nice family man gunned down in his office. It’s set in New Orleans, not Biloxi, Miss. And the already heavy-footed clomp of Grisham’s declamatory storytelling style has been given an extra-thick-soled, wing-tipped, liberal-leaning, reality-tampering kick thanks to a screenplay credited to four writers.

”We love fat women, people!” sharky jury consultant Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) instructs the snoops, blackmailers, and operatives who work for him (and who take a huge fee from the gun manufacturer) as they watch secretly shot footage of a potential juror they’ve identified as usefully vulnerable in her cliché-sad corpulence. That about sums up the delicacy of the dialogue and the outrageousness of what Fitch does: He guarantees a verdict by any dirty means necessary.

But the evidence in favor of this ”Runaway Jury” mounts up. It turns out that the barreling, TV-paced, in-your-face energy director Gary Fleder establishes from the very first scene is exactly the kind of bullying a bombastic Grisham tale needs. Although the twists (which include the machinations of John Cusack as a juror with an agenda and Rachel Weisz as a mysterious outsider who may be trying to sell the jury to the highest bidder) are pulpy and the legal foundations feel wildly porous, Fleder, a practiced hand at TV-cop stuff (”The Shield”) and movie thrills (”Don’t Say a Word”), makes the film a faster, more agile bundle of entertainment than the book.

In a post-”12 Angry Men” era of jury dramas, good doesn’t necessarily triumph and audiences don’t necessarily sit still for the conversations of actors locked in a room; but this effective bamboozle of a thriller maintains its own tricky balance of junk and hope. It draws on controversial, timely issues concerning Second Amendment rights and kicks around a few arguments. Then it throws in romantic and familial curves, has a great time with the musky landscape of New Orleans, goes for emotional gratification over legal scholarship, and rolls credits before anyone can question the verdict.

Besides, we love Gene Hackman, in his Mephistophelian beard and pin-striped armor, a champ who can deliver a cheap line about fat women and make it sound like a rich insight. We love Dustin Hoffman, who plays Wendall Rohr, the quick-witted attorney for the doe-eyed widow (Joanna Going), a ferret on the side of good who’s not beneath some showbiz maneuvers himself. And we love that Fleder never lets his cinematic swings and punches distract attention from the lively, focused work of his veteran stars, famously collaborating for the first time on screen after some 40 years of friendship.

The director and his cinematographer, Robert Elswit (Paul Thomas Anderson’s go-to DP), favor a lot of cocked camera shots from under the chin to convey tilting skirmishes within the legal system. But Hackman establishes the amoral ruthlessness of Fitch’s coolly hideous modern business specialty (none of Sidney Lumet’s sweating Angry Men would have passed this jury conjurer’s muster) with electrifying efficiency, conveying personality with every flip of a cell phone or sip of whiskey. And Hoffman, rising up to meet his old friend, confidently discards excess and actorly frills, coming up with a character who’s singular and unpeggable — a very human hero.

A final bit of testimony: The supporting cast is so underused that I wonder whether there’s a whole other hour of subplot development judged inadmissable by a court of producers. Jeremy Piven plays an idealistic jury consultant who quick-talks his way onto Rohr’s team, then does little besides gape skeptically at the counsel’s unorthodox tactics. Nora Dunn plays a juror who tipples on the sly for a scene or two. And any time Jennifer Beals is employed as a juror, then given absolutely nothing to do, the people have a right to wonder: What was stricken from the record in this engrossing case?

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 128 minutes
Complete Coverage