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‘Runaway Jury’ a meaty melodrama

Hoffman and Hackman share the screen for the first time
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

Like a juicy steak served to a man suffering on a diet of micro-greens and tofu, “Runaway Jury” will be devoured by fans of movie melodramas.

Once a staple of the studios, the melodrama has been largely abandoned in favor of action, special effects and sensationalism. But “Runaway Jury,” directed by Gary Fleder, might just revive the cinema where intense, strong personalities clash in mortal conflict, where much is at stake and wild plot twists and turns fuel the rising tension.

There are 75 speaking roles here, yet at the movie’s core are stars John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz and Bruce Davison — all of whom clearly relish such red-blooded, morally ambivalent roles. This crowd-pleaser from Fox should not only become a runaway hit but might restore the melodrama as an American movie genre.

In past movies about the law — including those based on legal thrillers by lawyer-author John Grisham, whose 1996 best seller is the basis for this movie — stories have focused on courtroom theatrics or a murder mystery or the relationship between lawyers and clients or even, in the memorable “12 Angry Men,” on the jury itself. “Runaway Jury” manages all this and more. The screenplay is credited to four writers, normally a signal of a misshapen mess, but what emerges here is taut storytelling where character leads to action and action leads back to character.

Games of cat and mouse
In the legal profession there exist people called “jury consultants,” who bone up on enough psychology to advise trial attorneys on jury selection. Grisham takes this several steps further to imagine a ruthless superdetective, an amoral rascal named Rankin Fitch (Hackman), who, backed by an army of high-tech personnel, burrows into the private lives of the jury pool not only to divine which potential jurors are most likely to vote in favor of a client but to dig up enough dirt — if push comes to shove — to guarantee a verdict. As Fitch puts it in his signature line: “A trial is too important to be left up to juries.”

Having established a lucrative business defending gun manufacturers in lawsuits brought by victims of gun violence around the country, Fitch runs into an unforeseen opponent in a New Orleans civil suit brought against a powerful gun consortium. One juror, Nick Easter (Cusack), contacts him through a mysterious woman who calls herself Marlee (Weisz) to declare that he controls the jury and it’s for sale. Not only that, he contacts the plaintiff’s attorney, chivalrous Southern attorney Wendall Rohr (Hoffman), with the same proposal. The price is $10 million.

Who can claim the moral high ground in the game of cat and mouse that ensues is not initially clear. Nor are the individual motives obvious. Fitch needs proof of Nick’s ability to “control” the jury. And, boy, does he gets it. But Fitch plays hardball, demonstrating that he is not above blackmail and intimidation of Nick’s fellow jurors. Meanwhile, Wendall struggles with his conscience. He believes sincerely in his case, and even a mistrial would not serve his purpose. So perhaps his ethics are flexible enough to pony up.

Thus, the movie runs off in several directions. Nick must carefully worm his way into his fellow jurors’ confidence while eliminating or neutralizing those not on his side. A Fitch operative heads for Ohio to investigate the background of this mystifying juror. The no-nonsense Judge Harkin (Bruce McGill) tries to get to the bottom of this strange jury. Wendall and defense counsel Durwood Cable (Davison) do battle in emotional courtroom scenes, while Marlee and Fitch circle one another, each looking for ways to gain the advantage over the other. The climax, a strong piece of writing, editing and direction, brings all the plotlines to a head.

There is even time for a bathroom confrontation between screen legends Hackman and Hoffman — their first onscreen pairing — that ranks alongside Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s encounter in “Heat.”

Robert Elswit’s nervous camera and realistic lighting of the French Quarter, Fitch’s dark “war room” and the mahogany-trimmed courtroom contribute to the overheated atmosphere. Even Abigail Murray’s costumes take on importance as everyone carefully selects just the right suit of armor to enter and play a role in the legal arena.