"Runaway Jury" is based on the novel by John Grisham, a specialist in stylized courtroom dramas. And in this movie, we get that, but unfortunately the courtroom drama is only a tiny layer under a ridiculously implausible plot that asks for us to stretch our imaginations a little too far.
The movie opens with much promise; a stockbroker who has just celebrated his son's birthday is gunned down at his prestigious firm along with 10 others by a disgruntled ex-employee who eventually takes his own life. The wife of the of slain husband is seeking multimillion dollar damages against the gun manufacturer who distributed the gun to the retail store who sold it to a buyer who later resold out of his trunk to the eventual killer. Who's responsible here? That's a great debate and we could argue this for hours, but it's too bad the film would rather play out like a science fiction thriller than a provocative drama.
The defense hires jury-expert Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) to hand-pick a winning jury and too see that they vote in the gun manufacturer's favor. And if his name doesn't scream prestige, I'll just tell you that he's the best in the business. So good, that he employs a team of several experts to keep tabs on potential jurors, finding out everything they need to know in order to select the right ones. Just to prove how good he is, Director Gary Fleder temporarily switches momentum to show us a scene of Fitch riding a taxi where upon noticing a picture of an elderly woman and a hospital parking stub on the dashboard, he correctly guesses that the driver's mother is in the hospital.
And boy does he have resources. He's got photographers snapping shots of potential jury members even before they receive their summons. He has their phones tapped and can trace calls even from phone booths in a matter of seconds. From any location he can communicate to his lawyer through a wireless system that fits undetectably behind his ear. Their technology is so sophisticated that I swear I saw a monitor displaying an MRI of a jury member they were focusing on. Now I can understand why you'd want to know a jury member's political affiliation, but do we have to know what their internal organs look like? I'm not being sarcastic here. Not only is their ability to x-ray candidates uncanny but Fitch's investigators have extended reach. They have access to the jury's medical records and we see one henchman perusing the student records inside a university storage room. I wonder if he's the same guy who identified the jury members before the summons were mailed out, or the same guy who planted all those cameras in the courtroom so Fitch could watch from the command center.
Representing the plaintiff is Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), a sharp and talented lawyer but without Fitch's resources. But he does have Lawrence Green (Jeremy Piven), a University of Chicago psychology major and a self-declared expert on juries as well. Rohr is skeptical and unsure of whether or not he needs Green's services, but hires him anyway because he's desperately behind Fitch in terms of personnel.
The players are set. It's Fitch against Rohr; the gun manufacturer against the widow. But wait, there's more. One of the 12 jury members selected to hear the case is Nicholas Easter (John Cusack), a crafty individual who faked out both lawyers by pretending to have no interest in the case, only to purposely secure himself in the jury where he can use his persuasive charm to swing the members his way. His accomplice Marlee (Rachel Weisz) contacts both lawyers and offers them the chance to buy a verdict.
The judge (Bruce McGill) is clueless to the corruption, and when Easter purposely delays the delivery of the jury's lunch so he can later look like the hero, Judge Harkin invites them to dine with him in the café across the street. The jury members toast to Easter who had left the deliberation room to inform the judge that their lunch hasn't arrived, but he redirects the toast to the generous judge who in turn smiles bashfully.
The goal of Easter is to become the jury's favorite so when it comes time to deliberate, they will listen to his arguments and more likely side with him. Easter's opinion will depend on which lawyer offers him the most money. When both lawyers are reluctant to make a bid, Easter and Marlee arrange for the dismissal of certain jury members, hoping to prove that they have control over the jury and not the lawyers.
It's hard for us to buy the plot, just as it is for the lawyers to risk their careers by illegally placing a verdict bid. When the lawyers don't cooperate, Easter makes sure certain jury members are excused from the trial, and in retaliation his apartment gets scorched. It's a game of tug-of-war, and I admit that I had interest in finding out who would eventually win this landmark case.
We do get courtroom action, even though it takes a distant backseat to the story I've briefly described to you. And when we are watching the trial, we are enjoying the movie. The lawyers give compassionate arguments and the witnesses give convincing testimonies. For awhile I was so consumed by Rohr's closing statements that I wanted to pause the film projector before it would inevitably go back to the 'thriller' aspect of the film, which is sadly far less thrilling than the trial itself.
"Runaway Jury" is also heavily biased. We get an amusing line from Hackman's character--the more evil of the two lawyers--who says, "I don't like Democrats." Hoffman's character isn't necessarily a good guy because his knowledge of the corruption inside the jury should be brought before the judge, but of course a mistrial would mean a loss for his suffering client. But he is a better man than Hackman's. The gun manufacturers aren't put in a good light, as we see the defendant on his private ranch shooting clay disks with his shotgun as he demands to know why Fitch hasn't secured his verdict yet.
There's a final twist in the end that reveals certain motives unclear to us in the beginning, and we are in suspense through the moments that lead to the reading of the verdict because the trial parts of "Runaway Jury" are done so well. If I had to describe the film in one sentence, it would be that it's like neapolitan ice-cream when you just want vanilla. It's shame that Fitch's philosophy is that "trials are too important to be decided by juries," because if anything, it is a lot more fun when they are.