Together, Runaway Jury and The Firm comprise the tiny but surprisingly viable genre of “thoroughly average John Grisham adaptations that are nonetheless irresistibly watchable and feature a stacked cast, including a scene-stealing Gene Hackman.”
Like its predecessor, Runaway Jury never rises above its high-water marks of “solid” and “enjoyable,” but it’s a near-perfect example of what it is: a cinematic slice of cheesy, slightly greasy takeout pizza from a chain restaurant. It’s not like you’re not aware that there’s technically better stuff out there, but there are days when this is exactly what you want.
After a manipulative opening–has any movie ever started with camcorder footage of a kid’s birthday party for anything other than a quick, unearned pathos grab?–we hit the ground running. Workplace shooting, victim’s widow suing the gun company, idealistic and eccentric lawyer on her side: got it. Despite a pro-gun-control slant–in contrast to the plaintiff’s idealistic team, the firearms manufacturers who have all clubbed together to support the defense aren’t just ruthless and matter-of-factly corrupt, they also pass their time sitting around in an elite, ultra-Republican lair of leather chairs and rich mahogany–the movie has an apolitical soul. It’s not all that interested in the rights and wrongs of the case; it makes them clear, but it doesn’t spend much time trying to evoke passion or outrage. It wants to have fun.
The ostensible center of the film is juror Nick Easter (John Cusack), who makes the most out of a kind of funny, charismatic blankness; he’s a handsome, clever cipher. He’s interesting–as is his girlfriend, the darkly competent Marlee (Rachel Weisz)–but since we’re not invited into their confidence until the end, there’s a little bit of remove there. Artfully disarrayed lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) is another candidate for our attention, and he’s fun–at one point he deliberately dabs mustard on his tie to radiate a kind of homespun appeal–but his decision to play by the rules in an increasingly rigged game makes him reactive, not active. The character we really can’t look away from is Gene Hackman’s Rankin Fitch, a big-league jury consultant who will stop at nothing to win. He’s a terrific antagonist for Nick and Marlee: sharp, laser-focused, well-funded, and utterly unscrupulous. And as stressed as he is for much of the movie, he still sometimes radiates a sense of profound enjoyment. He’s a master sportsman who’s finally found a worthy opponent. He’s engaged.
Rohr wants to win the case for his client and stick it to the gun companies, sending a message that they’ll now be held accountable. Fitch’s clients want to continue in their carefully maintained status quo, skating on over thin ice and advertising the fingerprint-resistant finish on their assault rifles. Fitch just wants to win. Nick and Marlee are promising to deliver the verdict for the highest bidder. The motley crew of jurors are poker chips to be traded back and forth, won over by blackmail, charm, manipulation, and leverage.
That’s the game; those are the players. Once it’s set them up, Runaway Jury then gets to delight in the inside baseball details of the various schemes. We get to see how Fitch feels out potential jurors–what pop psychology rules he uses, what traps he sets, what carrots and sticks he deploys. We watch as Nick deliberately annoys the judge and then deliberately endears himself to (most of) his fellow jurors, as he and Marlee find ways for him to prove his influence to Fitch and Rohr. It’s immensely satisfying to watch all these moves and counter-moves–half-espionage, half-con–play out. The movie knows that one of the great pleasures of storytelling is watching clever problem-solving, and it gives us a lot of it.
Sensibly, it also adds to its appeal by investing in its cast. It doesn’t just give you Hackman and Hoffman, it finds an opportunity for the two of them to take their gloves off and go at it private. It’s not content with just filling its major roles with proven stars; it also shows off a deep, deep bench of minor-but-always-welcome actors like Bruce McGill, Jeremy Piven, Nick Searcy, Luis Guzman, Leland Orser, and Bruce Davison. (McGill is a particular treat.)
And while the dialogue is only okay–and while you can often hear the way a line has been crafted to appear in a trailer–there can’t be anything too wrong with a movie that gives Gene Hackman the chance to smile at someone else’s convictions and say, “You may be right, but the thing of it is, I don’t give a shit. What’s more … I never have.”