Runaway Jury (2003) [DVD]

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I can’t think why I had a sudden urge to dig out this DVD, but I’m glad I did because it’s one of those classy quality films that Hollywood used to make and which now seem hard to find among the blockbusters, sequels and genre movies.

It’s based on a John Grisham legal thriller, with the twist for this one being its focus on seeing the US courts through the eyes of the jury as well as those in the defence and prosecution teams charged with analysing, interpreting, influencing and manipulating the jury to the ‘right’ decision for their respective sides. And in this trial, a third party calling herself Marlee (Rachel Weisz) comes into play who says that she can ‘sell’ the verdict to the highest bidder.

That’s the basis for a courtroom drama mixed with con and heist elements in which nothing is quite what it seems, with touches of action and conspiracy thrillers for good measure. Since the film is all about getting the jurors to fall into line there’s an uncommon focus on character drama as well, and there’s a terrific cast to bring the large number of dramatis personae to life: John Cusack is the star of the film as juror Nick Easter, with Cliff Curtis, Gerry Bamman, Jennifer Beal, Luis Guzmán and Rusty Schwimmer among those bringing the rest of the jury box to life.

Dustin Hoffmann plays prosecuting attorney Wendall Rohr and a young Jeremy Piven his jury consultant, while Bruce Davison and Gene Hackman are their opposite numbers on the defence in a case of a widow suing a large gun manufacturer for the death of her husband in a workplace spree killing. Hackman’s character is the notorious Rankin Fitch, who never loses a case no matter what it costs or what methods he has to stop to: he soon has legman Nick Searcy breaking into Nick Easter’s apartment, and then that doesn’t work then Finch sends Nestor Serrano in to torch the place. There are also small cameos for actors including Dylan McDermott, Orlando Jones and Henry Darrow, along with Leland Orser as Rankin’s IT expert and Bruce McGill as the judge, all of whom are well cast.

It’s a film that keeps you interested from start to finish whether it’s by showing the legal machinations or the cat-and-mouse battle between Marlee and Fitch over control of the jury. As well as a brain, it’s also a film with a heart as characters wrestle over what they’re doing – Rohr dearly wants to win the case for his client, but can be bring himself to pay out $10 million to buy the verdict? Fitch’s dilemma is purely how much to haggle it down to.

Sadly the film didn’t do as well at the box office as hoped for, likely contributing to the decline of the legal thriller and dramas for grown up, intelligent people. That’s possibly because of the choice of central case: Grisham’s book had been about a suit against tobacco manufacturers, but the law had moved on in the meantime forcing the filmmakers to move the case to gun makers, and that would have split the US audience down the middle by presenting the pro-gun side as black hearted villains and the anti-gun campaigners as the white hat heroes. Even for someone such as myself who shares the anti-gun point of view, it does mean that the film ends up feeling a touch like a lefty liberal’s wet dream and would have meant that much of heartland America would have boycotted the movie on principle.

It’s a shame, because it’s really very good. What’s surprising is how, just 10 years on, this film really does feel like it comes from a totally different era of filmmaking.

Available on DVD and recently released on Blu-ray.

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