Runaway Jury (2003)


Ebert: San Francisco Examiner:1/2 TV Guide:

Warning, minor plot points revealed!

I always think it sounds pretentious when people say that they didn't like a movie because it wasn't as good as the book.  In fact I hate it when people say that but I suppose I will have to concede that sometimes they are right.  Books have the advantage of unlimited time and exposition to tell their story.  Films on the other hand, if adapted from a book, have to do some chopping.  Sometimes the adaptation is done well (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) and sometimes it isn't (American Psycho.)  In the case of Runaway Jury we have a middle of the road effort.  The basic outline of the movie is there with a few changes to make it contemporary but the wealth of detail provided in the book never really makes it to the screen.

In all fairness I have to confess that The Runaway Jury is my all time favorite John Grisham book and I have been waiting for years to see it adapted into a movie.  My second favorite Grisham book is The Partner which might be one his next movies if this one does well.  Admittedly, I am an unapologetic John Grisham fan.  I love his legal thrillers and believe, despite the fact that critics consider him to be a hack of the greatest degree, that they are the best books of their kind.  Unfortunately the critical intolerance for Grisham always follows his books to the screen.  Even though almost all of his movies are smash hits they are never favorably lauded.   Grisham is a victim of his own success.  America both loves him and resents him.  

The brilliant story of the film involves a widow suing a gun manufacturer over the murder of her husband.  The defense has hired Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), a jury consultant and manipulator of the highest caliber.  For the right price Fitch will threaten, twist and turn a jury to deliver whatever verdict his employers require.  One the other side of the court sits Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) a prosecution attorney with the indignant moral righteousness of Atticus Finch.  This alone would be enough for an interesting film, but the best part is that one of the jury, Nicholas Easter (John Cusack), has purposely placed himself in the process so that he and his girlfriend Marlee can manipulate the jury from the inside, pull all the strings and hold all the cards.  For a price offered to both the prosecution and the defense they will provide a favorable verdict to the highest bidder. 

As with most Grisham books, the pace of the film is brisk.  In some cases too much so.  In order to manipulate the jury Fitch needs to apply his unlimited resources to find and exploit each juror's weaknesses but Easter must do the same thing with little or no resources from within.  To accomplish this the characters of the jury in the book are given vast tapestries of back story and and depth.  Unfortunately this is where the film makers chose to make the most cuts.  Although they assembled some very good B actors for the roles of the jury they never really flesh out any of the characters except in the most superficial of ways.  This is unfortunate because it diminishes the biggest payoff of the story - the way Nicholas is able to bring the jury from Fitch's control to his own. 

As this film's production was talked about over the last couple of years the role of Nicholas Easter was, for a time, attached to Edward Norton.  I was very happy with this casting choice as I think of Norton as one of the best actors and could easily see him in the role as I envisioned it in the book.  Unfortunately, production was delayed and Norton was unavailable or turned down the role.  John Cusack stepped up and took the part and he does a fine job with it.  He's no Ed Norton but I like Cusack so it was easy to see him in the role as well.  The casting of Gene Hackman as Rankin Fitch was inspired.  He is a perfect fit for the role and delivers Fitch's raw and pointed observations with the authority they require.  As Wendell Rohr Dustin Hoffman does a serviceable job but this was a role that was greatly expanded for the screen and I couldn't help but resent the fact that the jury's characterizations were diminished so that Hoffman's character could be inflated.  Rachel Weisz does a fine job as Marlee but her character was stronger in the book.  The rest of the cast includes supporting roles by Bruce Davison, Jeremy Piven, Jennifer Beals, Nora Dunn, Bill Nunn and others who unfortunately could have been portrayed by less famous extras as their roles were basically just chair-fillers. 

Runaway Jury is a good film.  If I had not read the book I would probably consider it to be a great film.  It's an exciting legal thriller and well worth the price of admission.