Sunday 1 June 2014

Movie Review: Runaway Jury (2003)

A courtroom drama with a focus on ruthless jury manipulation, Runaway Jury is smart, tech-savvy and boasts a stellar cast, but is also just a bit too righteous.

In New Orleans, the Vicksburg Firearms company is being sued for damages by the widow of a mass shooting victim. The idealistic prosecuting attorney Wendall Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) intends to build his case on the premise that Vicksburg knowingly allowed their guns to be sold to criminals. The gun industry recruits high profile jury consultant Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) and his shadowy team of technical geeks and musclemen to help ensure that citizens sympathetic to the gun lobby are selected as jurors. But the mysterious and charismatic Nicholas Easter (John Cusack) still manages to make his way onto the jury.

The trial gets underway and Easter starts to endear himself to the other jurors, while his outside partner Marlee (Rachel Weisz) makes contact with both Fitch and Rohr, offering them the verdict that they desire in exchange for $10 million. Fitch is not used to being manipulated or outsmarted, and resorts to dirty tricks and brutish tactics to try and maintain control of his jury. Meanwhile, Rohr has to struggle with his conscience. A victory for his client would be a landmark event in the history of justice, but obtaining a guilty verdict through foul means runs contrary to his principles. As the battle of wills intensifies and the time for a verdict approaches, Fitch and his men frantically delve into Easter's background to try and uncover his motives.

Based on the John Grisham novel, Runaway Jury is a fast-paced and original thriller. The focus is less on the machinations of the trial than the attempts to predetermine the verdict, and the film offers a chilling, if exaggerated, vision of justice for sale. Director Gary Fleder creates a convincing premise where jury consultancy has crossed the line into a tech-enabled military-style operation, and in Rankin Fitch the film has a delectable villain operating in a shadowy world of data mining, surveillance and arm-twisting.

Gene Hackman builds upon the Jon Voight role from Enemy Of The State (1998), mastering the powerful man striving for personal glory while commanding a team of young computer wizards. Hackman gives Runaway Jury its frightfully rotten core, his Fitch a beady-eyed profiteer, logically extending the principles of capitalism to the buying, selling and profiting from verdicts.

For the first time Fitch's well-oiled operation meets two flies in the ointment, as Easter and Marlee surprise him with a counter move. Initially the young couple do not appear to be a real match for Fitch, and the film gains momentum as the battle for the soul of the jury erupts on the sidelines of the trial. Easter deploys charisma to gain influence, finding the weaknesses within the jury members and pushing their buttons at the right time. Meanwhile Marlee has to stand up to the much more powerful Fitch in a display of potentially disastrous courage. John Cusack and Rachel Weisz are appealing as the underdogs, and the film only gradually reveals the motives behind their passion.

Dustin Hoffman gets the most static role, Wendall Rohr's reflection on the moral higher ground almost too easy for the veteran actor.

Runaway Jury does veer towards a full embrace of its noble cause, and late in the court proceedings almost skips past Easter's most difficult jury room task. While the ending is too black and white, the shadows of grey doubt about the sanctity of the justice system are what makes the film a provocative romp through the sickbed of idealism.

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