- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

Summarizing his vision of a better world as plaintiff’s attorney in a suit aimed at a nefarious gun manufacturer in “Runaway Jury,” Dustin Hoffman solemnly promises, “You are going to see fewer senseless deaths.” Fine. But when will we see fewer senseless Hollywood movies?

“Jury” is a crusading polemical melodrama on a shameless binge of double-crossing and special pleading. Mr. Hoffman’s character, Wendall Rohrer, is a homespun New Orleans attorney. He represents the widow (Joanna Going) of a young executive (a short-lived Dylan McDermott) liquidated during the prologue, when a disgruntled colleague turns up at the office soon after being fired and slaughters 11 persons. For some reason, no other widows or families seem to be participating in the suit.

Mr. Hoffman has his underdog hands full trying to compete with Gene Hackman as Rankin Fitch, an arrogant and fuming “jury consultant” who operates an elaborate war room, where he snarls at scores of flunkies while seeking an acquittal for the defendant, Vicksburg Arms & Infamy. Or something like that. Mr. Hoffman tolerates a low-rent consultant played by Jeremy Piven, but they react to the potential jurors more or less intuitively.

Mr. Hackman has the extensively documented goods on everyone, the better to threaten blackmail, if necessary. Or not. Some of the blackmail gambits are motivated by sheer vindictiveness rather than anything like promising pressure tactics. The shambling continuity suggests that director Gary Fleder and a battery of screenwriters couldn’t keep track of whatever skullduggery they were borrowing from the source material, a John Grisham potboiler.

John Cusack plays stealth juror Nick Easter, apparently a mercenary who plans to swing the verdict to the highest bidder. While he does the inside dirty work, his girlfriend Marley works the outside, threatening both Mr. Hackman and Mr. Hoffman if they don’t cough up $10 million in protection loot. Marley emerges as quite the brazen, overreaching hellcat as portrayed by Rachel Weisz. She even gets to batter one of Mr. Hackman’s hired killers in a grotesquely ridiculous interlude.

Once boyfriend Nick starts to manipulate his fellow jurors, the scheme appears hilariously vulnerable to carelessness and low-tech methodology. For example, Nick cleverly hurls a note out a courthouse window to the loitering Marley during one impressive exchange of vital updates. There are only about 10 or 11 irregularities that could earn Nick and the unwitting participants a premature retirement.

The only thing that seems to spare them is a catchphrase, “No one wants a mistrial.” I’d reserve judgment until moviegoers have a say in the matter.

There is one priceless moment that sums up the desperate methodology of the filmmakers. Fitch sends one of his gumshoes, the oft-abused Doyle, played by Nick Searcy, on a mission to Cincinnati to track the identities of Nick and Marley. By cellphone, Mr. Hackman must get frantic enough to plead, “Doyle, give me something.” This is the spirit of command that allows “Runaway Jury” to run so laughably amok.

*1/2

TITLE: “Runaway Jury”

RATING: PG-13 (Frequent graphic violence; occasional profanity and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Gary Fleder. Screenplay by Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Matthew Chapman, based on the novel by John Grisham. Cinematography by Robert Elswit. Production design by Nelson Coates. Costume design by Abigail Murphy. Music by Christopher Young

RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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