Hackman vs. Hoffman in Runaway Jury.

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Oct. 17 2003 1:44 PM

Johnny Got His Gun

Grisham's Runaway Jury puts arms makers on trial.

Interesting deliberations
Interesting deliberations

In spite of its cheesy plot twists, thoroughly second-rate direction, and criminally wasted ensemble, Runaway Jury (20th Century Fox) adds up to a nice little gotcha! courtroom melodrama. The target of the John Grisham novel was the tobacco industry, but I'm certain that Grisham—who once called for the prosecution of Oliver Stone after a killing spree inspired by his grotesque Natural Born Killers (1994)—had no problems with the substitution of one unscrupulous death merchant for another. Grisham's overriding message is unchanged: that the legal system is routinely manipulated (if not gutted) by mendacious corporations; and that the best hope for justice is for righteous individuals to learn even dirtier tricks than their better-funded adversaries.

The book (and the movie) is also a moneyed trial lawyer's sick comedy, brimming with contempt for the common juror. The joke—not a new one, but endlessly topical—is that what's said in the courtroom hardly matters, that the case is virtually decided via jury selection. In Runaway Jury, teams of dark-suited industry henchmen in a shadowy warehouse scan banks of video screens, scrutinizing everyone in the potential jury pool (even before they've reported to the court) for clues about their politics and prejudices. The movie's Dark Lord is Rankin Fitch, played—with dry, witty precision—by Gene Hackman with a sleek little beard and a look of sour omniscience. Hackman is the Sherlock Holmes of evil underworld jury consultants. He studies glossies and confidential records, combs his beard, and issues intermittent heh-heh-hehs. He knows that fat women have chips on their shoulders and will vote against the little guy, that Latino vets will fight for the constitutional right to bear arms, and that everyone else can be bribed, extorted, or blackmailed.

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What throws him in this case—it's a suit against the manufacturer of guns used in a workplace mass murder, brought by a victim's widow—is juror No. 9, Nick Easter (John Cusack), who appears to have an agenda of his own. Easter and his girlfriend, Marlee (Rachel Weisz), approach both sides: For $10 million, they say, they can deliver the jury either way. Strengthening their hand is that the jurors are a dull-witted bunch of stereotypes, indeed—despite being played by interesting actors like Luis Guzmán, Nora Dunn, Gerry Bamman, and Jennifer Beals. A punky juror is named Lydia Deets (Winona Ryder's character in Beetlejuice [1988])—too in an in-joke for me.

Whose side are we supposed to be on? It's not much of a contest. The attorney for the plaintiff is a saintly, virtuous little guy played by Dustin Hoffman: He believes fiercely in his cause and, more important, in the American judicial system. He's not presented as a clueless dupe, but a man of principle and faith. Hoffman doesn't rise above this flat conception: He falls back on fidgety mannerisms and a Southern mumble that muzzles his own, prickly personality. If this were a play, I'd love to see him and Hackman (who were flatmates in their youth and share but one brief scene here) switch roles every night—but then, I can't imagine anyone wanting to perform material this tawdry on the stage.

As I said, though, I enjoyed Runaway Jury. The director, Gary Fleder, is too shallow to linger on the morality-play dialogue—he cracks the whip. And while I find Grisham's view that justice needs a little "help" just as repugnant coming from a liberal as from reactionaries like Clint Eastwood or John Milius, I had a pretty good time watching the filmmakers stick it to gun manufacturers on Rupert Murdoch's dime. No pinko, Jewish-owned entertainment conglomerate to blame this one on!

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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