Runaway Jury

dir. Fleder

Opens Fri Oct 17

Various Theaters

When I was in law school, I tried to piece together a library of movies, each one representing a different legal concept. Maybe I'm lazy, but I just learn so much better visually than from actually reading and taking notes. I spent three months sitting in a law course on criminal procedure, but it was the opening line from Law & Order that taught me that police investigate crimes, and the district attorney prosecutes offenders. But I would have never expected "voir dire"--the jury selection process--to be turned into a terse, nail-biting feature film.

Set in modern-day New Orleans, John Grisham's latest pulp fiction-turned-screenplay draws on the standard Grisham tricks. There's the expected cynicism and paranoia. And where we're ignorant about what happens behind the closed doors of jury rooms, Grisham fills in with grandiose conspiracies. Here, the story begins when a daytrader is murdered. Two years later, his widow has brought to trial a liability suit against the gun manufacturers. Though we want justice to prevail, powerful gun company CEOs conspire to sway, bribe, and bully a jury to rule their way.

Like every other Grisham story, at the core is the struggle between money and justice. Gene Hackman plays the soulless jury consultant who struts around like Iago in a three-piece suit, arrogantly spouting off platitudes like "trials are too important to be left up to jurors."

Hackman's task of choosing an anti-gun control jury is hampered by a highly principled plaintiff attorney played by Dustin Hoffman (with a touch of Rain Man stammering). Caught in the middle is Nick Easter (John Cusack), a seemingly hapless but imminently likeable juror.

Runaway Jury is not the greatest movie ever made about juries. That honor remains firmly with The Verdict (1982), starring Paul Newman as a washed-up, alcoholic attorney trying to regain his honor with one last big case. (File under "jury verdicts," "jury tampering," and "punitive damages.") But then again, The Verdict was lacking foot chases, no-holds-barred fight scenes, and high tech gadgetry. Where other Grisham screenplays have been tired and predictable, this story is a fun romp, careening through hairpin plot turns.