While political views stay off the screen in most movies today, in the case of “Runaway Jury,” a bonafide courtroom thriller, they proudly take the stand. But conviction alone does not make a great film — take Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” where the failures of pure propaganda and icelandic singing (from Bjork) collide. Thankfully “Runaway Jury” does not slip into this trap. While the directing and cinematography do fall by the wayside, the story and the acting carry the film, leaving it a somewhat enjoyable experience, even if this verdict is not unanimous.
The political villains here are not the usual gang of idiots — the tobacco companies — but their firearm-selling cousins. It seems that one member of this group, the Vicksburg Firearms Company, sells a model of gun tailored for the criminally-minded, which, among other things, is “fingerprint resistant.” One of Vicksburg’s customers buys this gun, goes into an office building, and shoots eleven people, including a loving father. This man’s faithful wife sues the gun company, and jury-selection notices for the trial are sent out.
The CEOs of all the separate gun companies band together and hire Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), an expert in jury selection, to advise their lawyer in the process. In case it isn’t clear that Fitch is the bad guy, his entrance is accompanied by cliched “dark” music that sounds like it was originally paired with Jafar from “Aladdin.” Fitch is an adept baddy (the worst kind) and is more than confident in his abilities. He even tells his gun-toting clients that “Trials are too important to be left up to juries.” Meanwhile, the prosecuting attorney, Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), picks his jury the old-fashioned way: by himself. He is an honest man with a simple office much unlike Fitch’s digital surveillance cave, which is staffed by thirty people. All of Fitch’s technology ends up amounting to misused money, however, because Rohr achieves the same results and finds the same clues as Fitch using free super-technology: thought. This contrast is underscored in the climactic scene of the movie, when the speed of technology provides an interesting plot twist for Fitch. Hoffman really manages to bring Rohr to life by resisting the temptation to make him sugary, allowing him to wear goody-two-shoes on his feet but providing real spirit with which to fill them. In stark contrast to Hackman’s high-strung Fitch, Hoffman’s Rohr quietly goes about his business with enthusiastic professionalism.
Inevitably in this genre we find the confrontation scene which usually occurs when the court recesses, leaving good and evil to duke it out in the bathroom. “Runaway Jury” makes its contribution to this tradition by placing Hackman and Hoffman in a bathroom with a locked door. In closer quarters, both manage to be quite intense and riveting. And the dialogue flows nicely, steadily crescendoing to the climactic line belted by Hackman: “I don’t give a s–t; I never have!”
In support of these two greats are John Cusack as the juror Nick Easter, and Rachel Weisz (perky Evelyn from “The Mummy”) as his girlfriend. Both actors do a fine job. Weisz is tough yet vulnerable; the real honors, however, go to Cusack and the quiet intensity he portrays beneath his clownish exterior. Both nervous and determined, it is never quite clear what his game is. By hiding his cards so skillfully, he adds a great deal of suspense to the film.
Sadly, the film’s director (Gary Fleder) seems to have no idea what to do with the film visually, so he opts for doing nothing. Thus, most of “Runaway Jury” ends up looking like a steady-shot scene of “Law and Order” with a smattering of Monday Night Football editing. This monotony is odd, considering that the now-clumsy hands of cinematographer Robert Elswit did brilliant work on “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” Perhaps he lost the gift after filming “Gigli.” In any case, the camera, when it is moving at all, weaves back and forth erratically, jarring the shots and getting in the way of the performances. The music is terrible as well, but it is so simple and sparse that it can be purposefully ignored.
All in all though, “Runaway Jury” is a good way to spend a rainy afternoon. Like “The West Wing,” it ignites faith in the American system, and, also like “The West Wing,” it presents a fanciful dream that will never be realized in the cold Republican reality of today. But for a good two hours, Hackman and Hoffman lead a pleasant tour of Never Never Land without once yelling, “Get your hands off me, you damn dirty ape!”
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