Runaway Jury (2003)

runaway-jury“Runaway Jury” is the type of film that makes me happy to be such a hardcore movie fan, beautiful cast, well acted, well directed, and taut, this is a prime courtroom thriller. Based on the book by John Grisham whose name has become synonymous with courtroom dramas, rather than focusing solely on the drama in the courtroom, we also focus on the people behind the curtain, the defense and the prosecution who pick jurors one by one and decide which would be most suitable. The difference in this process are the two people behind it; Wendell Rohr and Rankin Fitch played by heavyweights Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman, Rohr (Hoffman) is a fiercely moral lawyer who plays by the rules along with his newest assistant Lawrence Green (Jeremy Piven) who can read body language and voice tones, he gets his job by convincing Rohr he’ll be needed during this trial if he intends on winning and defeating Fitch.

Fitch on the other hand stands in the shadows picking his jurors and rigging the trial through bribes, and when all else fails, blackmail. The story here has been altered rather drastically from the actual book which may leave some readers angered or fascinated. The original story was against a Tobacco manufacturer, while this is against gun control. Of course, I’d have preferred the tobacco industry not only because of my own grudges against them, but because it’s just so damn edgier. Regardless, this is a really good movie, almost flawless. After a high class stockbroker (Dylan McDermot) is killed mercilessly by an armed gunman who raids his offices killing people, his wife takes the gun manufacturer to court to plead her case and sue them for damages.

While the jury is being picked, we meet Nick Easter, a goofy class clown of a sorts who heeds the call of jury duty very reluctantly, but as the jury is slowly being rigged from the outside, Nick and his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) have their own motives of rigging the jury and handing them off to either defense for the right price. But as things begin getting heavy, and dangerous, it starts becoming less about the money and more about evening the odds. I was pretty skeptical as to whether this would have any effect at all, and then I promptly kicked myself in the ass once I was finished watching. What we have here is a slick courtroom thriller that is ripe with a lot of suspense and tension, but we also witness the clashing of two legendry actors who meet for the first time on screen, but we’ll get to that later.

The film has an intricate story but its also very up front, one side is rigging the trial, one is sticking by the rules, and the outside source wants to make money from the trial. The jury are used as tools by either side to win this case, Fitch (Hackman) digs down deep into the lives of the jurors buying them off, and it works in most cases. Though the story is the usual secret organization in the shadows rigging the case, it’s also a very engrossing one as we witness one story unfold within another, we witness characters here who aren’t all cut and dry, and we soon learn that money just isn’t what cuts it between Nick and Marlee and we see a stunning plot development by the climax and an ending that will leave the audience feeling as if they’ve been tricked to.

While I would have loved to see a story against the tobacco industry, the gun industry is given another jab by a more underlying message here with the two main characters dictating the message against guns and firearms. Through the sharp Mamet-esque dialogue and just great direction from Gary Fleder with a lot of brisk action and taut scenes between actors, this is an accomplishment. The story left me pretty confused at times, and I had to really focus my mind on the scenes to understand what exactly was happening, and that’s a compliment though it sounds negative. We don’t get a lot of movies that can keep the audience on its toes, and this was a delight to watch because there were times in the story I just didn’t understand what was happening, but I kept up and inevitably we understand this is a story with layers underneath its facade of a courtroom thriller. I can write for ages about the cast here with great characters actors like Jeremy Piven, Luiz Guzman, and Nora Dunn, and heavyweights like modern star Rachel Weisz who, again plays the aggressive supporting female role.

She hasn’t had a lead yet where she played a vulnerable woman standing in the shadows, she’s great here and, as always, a treat to watch as Marlee the tough yet likable character who approaches every situation with ballsy charisma, and then there’s John Cusack who I’m a big fan of and is just great to watch here with two alternate personalities, one as a goofy slacker from the opening and then he delves into a deeper more complex person who really takes his licks. Of course, Hackman’s character will stop at nothing to win a case, even if he has to murder people and he uses people with all he can muster up and knows how to play the game despite the fact he’s thrown for a loop with Marlee and Nick. While the film is very good, the highlight, the sheer highlight that had me just giddy was witnessing the clashing of my two favorite actors of all time. It’s a known fact that Hoffman and Hackman have never been in a movie together, and watching them together finally was a thrill. There is one dynamic scene that I’m pretty sure was filmed first so everyone can watch, features both characters, opposites in every nature, Fitch a ruthless dangerous puppet master and Rohr a noble wise lawyer butt heads in a bathroom during a recess and they have at it.

Hackman and Hoffman give excellent performances here, that’s pretty much a given with every movie they’re in, but I was so thrilled with the scene because we watch two legends go against one another with great dialogue, and I suspect a bit of ad-libbing who just shoot rapid fire line after line playing off one another with a chemistry that’s hard to come by. It’s the best scene of the movie, and, I confess, would have loved to be there to watch. The scene is well made with a wide shot of the two and close up of the two gleaming at one another like rivals. Ultimately, the movie has a great plot twist and a bit of irony by the closer of the movie as this swerves and tricks the audience all the way through with a suspenseful, engrossing, underrated, and memorable picture. Despite the one note villain character Hackman is given, this is one of the most engrossing underrated legal thrillers in years with gripping tension, beautiful dialogue and top shelf performances from an all-star cast of great actors.