Runaway Jury (October 14/03)
After an absence of several years, Runaway Jury marks John Grisham's return to the silver screen. And though his novel was a taut and exciting thriller, the film feels truncated somehow; characters are left scarcely developed, while action sequences seem far more prevalent than necessary. Still, the lack of courtroom thrillers as of late essentially ensures that the movie remains entertaining throughout.
The movie revolves around a trial launched against a powerful gun manufacturer, whereas the book dealt with the tobacco industry (a subject that's yesterday's news, I suppose). After her husband is murdered by a gun-wielding madman, Celeste Wood (Joanna Going) hires famed attorney Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) to take on the company that made the weapon. Said company enlists the services of an infamous jury consultant named Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) to ensure that the trial swings in their favor. Among the jurors is Nick Easter (John Cusack), a likeable guy who - along with his girlfriend, Marlee (Rachel Weisz) - has his own plans for the trial's outcome.
While the film is never entirely predictable, there's a certain amount of deja vu present in Runaway Jury. It's almost a prototypical John Grisham product; from the New Orleans setting to the grizzled lawyers to the seemingly eager neophyte, they're all elements that the author's become famous for. But in the context of his novel, it worked. Grisham had pages and pages worth of time to develop even the most clichéd aspects of his story, to the point where the reader became so engrossed that even the most hackneyed aspects were easy enough to ignore. But here, characters feel more like cogs in an engine that's working overtime to deliver the goods (and by the goods, I mean countless action sequences). Since none of the characters are advanced beyond their superficial attributes, there's no emotional investment in any of them. The lone exception to this is Dylan McDermott's cameo as Celeste's dead husband, the man whose death launched the trial. Though he's only on screen for a few minutes, McDermott manages to create a figure that's more intriguing than any that follow (and that includes Cusack's central role).
And though the film is packed with A-list actors, there's no real spark to any of their performances. While there's no denying that Hackman's presence is electrifying, his Rankin Fitch is the sort of gruff individual he's come to specialize in as of late. Hoffman and Cusack are good, but this is far from their best work - while periphery characters are embodied by familiar faces like Luis Guzman and Jeremy Piven (not that any of them are given enough screen time to go anywhere beyond their effortless charm). Director Gary Fleder admittedly keeps the pace quite quick, but sometimes that's not enough. In working overtime to ensure audiences don't get bored, Fleder zips by the things that actually matter - character development, establishing an interesting story, etc. And his reliance on slow-motion during action sequences is unnecessary and irritating.
Runaway Jury isn't a bad movie, really. The film's never boring, primarily due to the efforts of the stellar cast; though it's quite telling that the most engaging element of the flick vacates in the first five minutes.