A review of “Runaway Jury” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: PG-13 for language and violence.

Run Time: 2 hours, 7 minutes

 

 

A glossy look and a stable of A-list stars elevate this prosaic John Grisham story from movie melodrama to smart mystery thriller.

In the grand tradition of no-such-thing-as-privacy (think “The Net” and “Enemy of the State”), evil professional manipulator Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) is selecting a jury for one of Louisiana’s most high-profile murder cases.  A young attorney has been slain at the hands of a distraught ex-employee, and his wife is suing the gun manufacturer for millions.

Not content with the old-fashioned methods of selection, and resolute in his belief that trials are too important to be left up to juries, Fitch and co. rely on video surveillance, wire-taps, and vintage stalking to assure themselves a sympathetic panel.  Fitch faces off against chivalrous plaintiff’s attorney Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), a Southern good-ole-boy who refuses to invest in anything short of truth and heart.

Leave it to juror Nick Easter (John Cusack) to scam the scammers. In order to swing the jury his way, Easter and off-site accomplice Marlee (Rachel Weisz) have got a few tricks up their sleeves.

As does “Jury” itself.  Operating with a well-crafted script (“This time it’s a pinprick, next time it’s going to hurt”), “Jury” takes its twisted climax to the limit. Lush photography, the insouciant atmosphere of New Orleans’ French Quarter, and the triple-threat of Hackman, Hoffman, and Cusack work their magic to propel the cat-and-mouse game into dramatic overdrive.

Hackman delivers an excellent performance; his contempt is deliciously malignant.  Hoffman nails the hospitable charm that masks a will of steel.  Cusack carries the show with spontaneous finesse, oozing casual charm and clever intelligence.  Men’s room confrontation pitting Hackman against Hoffman as they jockey for moral high-ground (a screen first) is the ultimate star power play.