**½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras A-
starring John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz
screenplay by Brian Koppelman & David Levien and Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman, based on the novel by John Grisham
directed by Gary Fleder
by Walter Chaw Marked by strong performances, a liberal bias, and a few thriller conventions that work, Gary Fleder's slickefied Grisham flick Runaway Jury is slickefied Grisham flick all the same, and its cast is so huge as to threaten at every moment to be ponderous. Still, the good outweighs the bad, if only just--the picture finding a way to forget, in forgivable ways, dozens of admittedly inconsequential characters while delivering on the juicy promise of a showdown between its titans: Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman. (In a courthouse outhouse, no less.) At bottom and at the least, it's a lefty screed--this one against gun manufacturers--that isn't witheringly embarrassing (thinking of such miscalculated stroke jobs as The Contender, John Q, and The Life of David Gale)--and as an Austrian bodybuilder finds himself the governor of La La Land on no other merit than that he married royalty and was cunning enough to make a fortune from playing hunks of metal and pre-Christian barbarians, a left-leaning movie not similarly dimwitted and exasperating is cause for minor celebration.
Rankin Fitch (Hackman--all the characters have stupid, Dickensian names; it's Grisham, get used to it) is a reptilian voir dire specialist hired by powerful lobbies to carefully choose and harass prospective jurors to obtain desired verdicts. Wendell Rohr (Hoffman--see?) is a country-fried Matlock prosecutor who's promised the long-suffering widow (Joanna Going, into her second decade of playing Jami Gertz) of an office-rampage victim that this time, the gun manufacturers are going to pay. Unbeknownst to them all, store manager Nicholas Easter (John Cusack) and girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) have plans to corrupt the jury from the inside as Fitch attempts to corrupt it from without. Jeremy Piven is a green jury selection specialist (named Lawrence Green, natch) who joins Rohr in his noble crusade for about ten minutes before being kicked to the curb and forgotten, and the jury itself is composed of the entire Hollywood B-list. Seriously.
Cusack, Weisz, Hackman, and, to a lesser degree, Hoffman are always good and really no less so in Runaway Jury. A few fight sequences feel out of place and jarring, the soundtrack is false-majestic and invasive--yet despite it all, the performances are dedicated and weirdly compelling. What hurts the picture is its predictability, ultimately, and the moralizing tone that it takes as it wraps up its loose ends. (Easter's speech about people allowed to follow their hearts would make Frank Capra cringe.) While it's misleading to suggest that Runaway Jury is ever anything but a surface "what if" polished to an impossibly rich sheen by millions of big-studio dollars, its affecting moments are bits that seem to obliquely tackle the false piety of the Christian Right, the marginalization of the terminally ill inner-city dweller, and the caste separation marked not by education, but by wealth and, to some lesser degree, the disdain for disability and disavowal of frailty.
A minor miracle in itself that any characters at all are memorable with so many speaking parts and a tone that veers wildly from a street-chase and car-smashing to iced tea in a sitting room with an Indiana mom, Runaway Jury is itself a runaway train, packed to the rafters with liberal ideology and barrelling towards a conclusion that tries too hard to satisfy the action-hungry throng along with the peacenik galley. The cast doesn't need the obfuscation of contrivance, and in there amid all the flashy camera movements and pyrotechnics is a film of fierce conviction and explosions that are entirely the product of the talent it tries hard to squander. Originally published: October 17, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Fox issues Runaway Jury on DVD in concurrent widescreen and fullscreen editions. For review we received the former, whose 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is poised to disappoint critical eyes thanks to unusually severe "ringing" around solid lines for the duration of the main titles. Unfortunately, the image is never much for shadow detail, leading me to believe that too much surface area was reserved for the supplementary material of this single-platter release. Meanwhile, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is less involving than that of director Gary Fleder's previous film Don't Say a Word, but such is the nature of the dialogue-driven Runaway Jury. Although there's a nominally startling barrage of bullets in the picture's prologue to make full use of the six-track soundstage, once you've heard the climactic showdown from Open Range in DTS (glowing review forthcoming), even Michael Bay movies fail that new gunfire litmus test.
Fleder provides a feature-length yak-track plus optional commentary for two unnecessarily tangential deleted scenes. The most intriguing aspect of Fleder's monologue is hearing him defend passages the studio wanted to cut for pacing, his argument always that those bits were enriched by a foreknowledge of Runaway Jury's ending and would thus reward repeat viewings. I guess what fascinated me is that executives were persuaded by this logic; I've seen Runaway Jury once, I liked it, but I can't imagine sitting through it a second time--and I can't imagine I'm alone on that front. A number of the remaining extras centre on the first screen pairing of Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, with both actors dipping a toe in the commentary realm. In picture-in-picture windows, Hoffman talks over "The Washroom" sequence (a.k.a. the Heat bit) and Hackman reflects on the film's penultimate scene, labelled "The Bar." Hackman's observation that they shot in a real gin joint in New Orleans' French Quarter "patina'd" with smoke and memories only draws attention to Fleder's homogenized vision, for you'd swear you're looking at a set.
"Exploring the Scene: Hackman & Hoffman" (14 mins.) could've been shorter, but any true-blue film geek will appreciate this opportunity to be a fly on the wall as Hoffman (describing himself as thriving on character-based research) and Hackman (describing himself as thriving on "tension") rehearse their one and only screen confrontation. Finally, the engaging "Off the Cuff: Hackman & Hoffman" (9 mins.) finds the pair swapping stories from their "Kerouac" days; though Hackman appears lost in a haze of bitter memories at the outset ("I'll show 'em," he says blankly upon remembering his poor grades in the acting classes he took with Hoffman), he thaws with a recollection about Hoffman's ridiculous "jar system" of sorting income.
Cusack, Weisz (her British accent returned to its rightful place), Luis Guzmán, and Jennifer Beals go soundbite-crazy in "The Ensemble: Acting" (4 mins.) and "The Making of Runaway Jury" (12 mins.), each more typical promotional fodder than the aforementioned featurettes, while "Shadow & Light: Cinematography" (6 mins.) throws the spotlight on DP Robert Elswit, "A Vision of New Orleans: Production Design" (5 mins.) tours Nelson Coates' intricate courtroom interiors, and "Rhythm: The Craft of Editing" (5 mins.) shows how editor William Steinkamp saved a portion of Runaway Jury that was playing flat. (His solution, as you'll see, was truly inspired.) The trailer for Tony Scott's upcoming revenge thriller Man on Fire rounds out the disc. Originally published: January 22, 2004.