Movie review: ‘Runaway Jury’

The translation of a novel into film has never been and will never be easy. Filmmakers simply cannot present the depth or nuance an author can put into a book. On the other hand, filmmakers and their actors put actual life into the written word in a way no single reader’s imagination can (think about reading “The Godfather” before you saw it). Today I’ll look at “Runaway Jury,” which was adapted from the bestseller by John Grisham. It’s flawed, but also a good effort with a nice depth to its cast.

‘The Runaway Jury’
(2003; 127 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by Gary Fleder and starring John Cusack, Rachel Weisz, Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman; available on DVD through the Collier County Public Library; available on DVD through amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com; available only on DVD via Netflix; can be found on cable movie channels)

A NICE RIDE BY MANIPULATING THE JURY

Gene Hackman is a great actor and there would be very few superlatives missing at any tribute to him and his career on screen. The film “Runaway Jury” from the bestseller by John Grisham is just one of many examples of Hackman’s work, but it is such a pure effort that it has to be in the top five of his career.

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I’m sorry to report that I cannot say the same for the other superstar on the marquee, as Dustin Hoffman give an energetic but at the same time lifeless performance. The two actors have a great showdown scene and it is an A-for-effort and effect, but it could have been A+ if Hoffman was bringing his best game.

In short, Hoffman plays “Wendell Rohr” and is an attorney representing a woman whose husband was killed by a gunman at this office in a mass slaying. She’s suing the firearms company that made the weapon (in the book, Grisham tackled the tobacco industry). Hackman is the jury tampering gunslinger “Rankin Fitch” hired to steal the case for the gun company.

The film explores the cat-and-mouse game played by juror “Nicholas Easter” played by John Cusack and his girlfriend “Marlee” played by Rachel Weisz as they try to “sell” the verdict to both Hackman and Hoffman and his legal counterpart on the gun team. Hackman is soon spinning his webs in a vicious circle trying first to identify Weisz and then why she and Cusack are putting the jury up for sale (this is the twist at the end).

Hackman is at his mean, nasty and low-down best. He is condescending and arrogant and you can easily feel the menace he conveys in the part. Hackman has been good in everything from “The French Connection” to “Unforgiven” (that’s his two Oscar winners) as well as a little remembered “Target” with Matt Dillon (click here for my review).

It’s almost sad to watch Hoffman try to get everything out of what he puts into his character here. He has his usual energy, but it just falls flat. Actually, Jeremy Piven, who plays Hoffman’s ally “Lawrence Green,” should have had the part of “Wendell Rohr” and Hoffman left with “Green.” A very good film would have then become excellent. Of course just about all of Hoffman’s work is top-notch and well-remembered, including “Tootsie,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Rain Man” and “The Graduate.” Hoffman also has won two Oscars in his career.

Cusack is the actor with the most screen time and first billing in the credits and he does a competent job here as the conniving, convincing juror with an ulterior motive you won’t see until the end. Cusack has done better work (say in “Grosse Point Blank” – click here for my review) and he’s done worse, but even on a so-so performance he is better than most. Cusack has also been in “Sixteen Candles” and “High Fidelity.”

The female lead and love interest of Cusack is Weisz and, like her movie partner, does a good, solid job … but it’s nothing spectacular. I say she’s perfectly cast here (I couldn’t see an A-list star such as Sandra Bullock in the same role) because of her persona, but somehow doesn’t make the most of it. Weisz (an Oscar winner herself for “The Constant Gardner”) was also in “The Mummy” and “The Bourne Legacy.”

Through all the twists and turns in the plot, the film never conveys the nuance that Grisham did in the book. However, this is not a criticism since no film can truly equal the book (outside of “The Godfather”) and you can find an awfully good effort here. The twist at the end is handled well in the film and it is even better for tension than the book. Filmmakers even streamlined the name of the book, which has “The” in the title.

Runaway Jury” was the 59th ranked film of 2003 at the box office, according to Box Office Mojo. However, it did finish ahead of “Agent Cody Banks” and the dreadful Diane Lane chick flick “Under the Tuscan Sun,” but lagged far behind the top trio of the year: “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” ($377 million), “Finding Nemo” ($339.7 million) and “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” ($305.4 million). Wiki reports that “Runaway Jury” ultimately made $80.1 million worldwide on a budget of $60 million.

Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Bruce McGill, who you should remember best as “D-Day” in “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” plays “Judge Frederick Harkin” and his voice and physical presence best bring his character to life. McGill was “Sheriff Farley” in another courtroom film: “My Cousin Vinny” (that reminds me, Marisa Tomei, who won an Oscar for “Vinny,” would have been a great “Marlee”). He was also in two wonderful other films: the Farrelly brothers’ “Shallow Hal” and the HBO movie “Recount.”
  • Cliff Curtis as “Frank Herrera” and Gerry Bamman as the blind “Herman Grimes” are the best supporting actors playing jurors and give credible performances here. Curtis was also in “Live Free or Die Hard” and “Three Kings,” while Bamman is most recognized as cranky “Uncle Frank” in the first two “Home Alone” movies.
  • Dylan McDermott has an uncredited role as the husband killed at the start of the film in the shooting that sparked the lawsuit. He has also been Clint Eastwood’s partner in “In the Line of Fire” and on TV’s “The Practice.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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