Courtroom dramas generally make for good entertainment. One of the most popular and satisfying scenarios is the underdog who triumphs over the big bad corporate honchos and no one paints this better than lawyer-turned-pop novelist John Grisham. In Runaway Jury the latest Grisham adaptation the stage is set in New Orleans when a young widow brings a civil suit against a powerful gun manufacturing corporation that she holds responsible for the death of her husband who was shot during a madman's killing spree. Representing her is Wendall Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) a do-gooder if there ever was one who believes wholeheartedly in his cause. But the film's title says it all. Rohr's arch-nemesis isn't the defending lawyer it's Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) a brilliant but ruthless jury consultant hired by the corporation whose motto is "Trials are too important to be left up to juries." He works with a technologically advanced surveillance team to gather information on potential jurors and manipulate them to be on his client's side. What Fitch doesn't count on however is wild card Nick Easter (John Cusack) a suave juror with his own agenda. He and his partner on the outside Marlee (Rachel Weisz) assure Fitch and Rohr that they can sway the jury in favor of whoever pays them the highest price. Fitch and Rohr are dubious but as the case is argued in court Marlee and Nick prove they not only have the tools but the talent to outsmart the big guns.
Hoffman and Hackman go way back having bunked together in New York in the '60s while scrambling for acting jobs--and in all the countless movies each have made Runaway Jury is the first time the two have actually worked together. They tried once when Hackman (only seven years older than Hoffman) was cast to play Elaine's father in the 1967 Hoffman classic The Graduate. Unfortunately Hackman was fired shortly thereafter but went on to make his name in Bonnie and Clyde that same year. Now as Oscar-winning veterans the two finally get to square off as rivals Fitch and Rohr. Even though Hackman never misses a beat as the amoral Fitch it's clear the role isn't that challenging--but he still makes the most of it. Hoffman on the other hand loves to overdo it slamming his fist down in indignation every chance he gets as the righteous Rohr. Hoffman should pay a little more attention to his old friend's more subtle methods. Needless to say the two relish their final pivotal showdown. As the other half of the cast Cusack and Weisz compliment the proceedings nicely as the charismatic Nick and the sharp-as-nails Marlee. At first they seem just as greedy and sneaky as the others watching them play their dangerous cat and mouse game but once their true intentions are brought to light it makes that courtroom drama scenario about the underdog's fight for what is right all the more satisfying.
Runaway Jury has a few things going for it. First of all not since The Firm has a John Grisham story been so topical and full of interesting twists and comeuppances. Although the book goes after the tobacco companies in this age of high school shootings and sniper attacks gun manufacturing companies make even better villains and making them culpable will speak to many. Secondly not since the 1957 film 12 Angry Men has a movie about serving on a jury also been so compelling. At the beginning it's easy to see how Runaway Jury could fall into a standard courtroom milieu. Director Gary Fleder (Don't Say a Word) gives it a claustrophobic feel by concentrating on the small enclosed spaces such as the steamy deliberation room and mahogany courtroom. As the good and bad guys prepare to do battle while engaged in the twist of buying and selling jury votes the movie grabs your attention and holds on. Does this kind of corruption in the justice system really happen? You might be shocked by your own naiveté.