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Legal assault

A review of Runaway Jury


Gene Hackman could play a paper bag and give it depth.
  • Gene Hackman could play a paper bag and give it depth.

Runaway Jury (PG-13)
20th Century Fox

I have never read one of John Grisham's legal thrillers, but I've listened to plenty of recorded versions on long road trips, and I have consumed the movie versions like hotcakes. They're hot and gooey and sticky, always set in some steamy Southern city with powerful men doing despicable things behind a cloak of respectability.

Some are really good and others, not so good. Runaway Jury, the movie, fits somewhere in the middle between the best (The Client starring Susan Sarandon and Gene Hackman, The Rainmaker starring Matt Damon and Claire Danes), and the worst (Pelican Brief with Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington). Here, Gene Hackman shows up again as one of the shady guys in expensive suits, and for my money, that's reason enough to see it.

Hackman, of course, could play a paper bag and give it depth and humor. In Runaway Jury, he's got the juicy role of NRA operative and, excuse the pun, hired gun Rankin Fitch, brought to New Orleans to load the jury for defense attorney Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison). Cable represents a shady Vicksburg gun dealer who is being sued by a woman whose husband was killed in an office shooting with an errant Vicksburg Firearms weapon. Her mannered, old-school attorney, Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), believes the case can set a precedent in the gun control war. Convict the firearms dealer, he urges the jury, get a big settlement, and "make gun violence the gun industry's problem."

But while Hackman is poised in front of a bank of television monitors and computer screens used to spy on potential jurors, one named Nicholas Easter (John Cusack) sneaks into the pack undetected. Easter, meanwhile, with his mysterious girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz), intends to blackmail both the defense and the plaintiff's attorneys, demanding $10 million in exchange for a verdict in favor of whichever party pays first.

So while the good Mr. Rohr battles the evil Mr. Rankin and his lame proxy in court, shady dealings ensue in the gritty streets of New Orleans. Ms. Weisz plays a delightful game of cat and mouse with both Hoffman and Hackman. We don't know her motives, or Easter's, until quite late in the movie, when the money chase and the jury's deliberation have both reached a feverish pace.

Will Rohr succumb to the temptation of a certain verdict and pay the $10 million? Will the NRA ultimately foot the bill? Will Easter deliver? Will the beautiful Ms. Weisz escape her roach-infested apartment when one of Fitch's goons shows up to strong-arm her?

These plot twists and turns are all wrapped up in a final 20-minute frenzy, as is usually the case in these Grisham screen adaptations. Runaway Jury stoops to preach and shamelessly manipulate, using punched-up legal dialogue, a bunch of terrific actors (the supporting cast includes Jeremy Piven, Jennifer Beals, Nora Dunn and others), a sexy location, a hot-button issue and an intriguingly ambivalent take on the legal system. That's what these movies do, and this one does it adequately.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

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