When a promising businessman (Dylan McDermott) is murdered during an office rampage, his widow hires Louisiana lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman, with little to do) to take on the gun manufacturer who supplied the weapon in the first place. Looking to buy their way out of a huge settlement, the gun corporation hires a shady character named Rakin Fitch (Gene Hackman) to sway the verdict their way by manipulating the jury. When Nicholas Easter (John Cusack) is selected to serve on the jury, Fitch and Rohr soon learn that Easter is engaged in his own jury tampering, with the help of a mysterious outside source (Rachel Weisz).
"Runaway Jury" (IMDb listing) makes it feel like the 1990s all over again! Taking us back into John Grisham territory, "Jury" hits up all of the familiar touches we expect from the best-selling author: the cartoony villains, the easily swayed hand of justice, chases, intrigue, and the nicest, most honest lawyers that seem to only exist in print or in the movies. Thankfully, "Jury" has more in common with engaging Grisham adaptations like "The Rainmaker" and "The Pelican Brief," rather than heavy-handed clunkers like "The Firm" or "The Chamber." The Grisham films are nothing short of preposterous, but they connect because they are oddly compelling pot-boilers. "Runaway Jury" doesn't offer much in the way of a convincing argument for a theatrical release, especially when you can get this type of material on television pretty easily. But the film arms itself with a terrific cast, a willingness to keep the momentum going, and continually reminds itself that, in fact, this is all very silly material.
In adapting this book for the screen, the biggest change is the reason for the trial. In Grisham's book, it was a suit against big tobacco. The film uses the gun control issue as its spine, taking on a very topical subject that provides urgency where tobacco couldn't. Of course, no matter who is chosen as the defendant, it is all going to be pretty much the same mixture of mustache-twirling evil and scenery-chewing acting. Who better to provide that than Gene Hackman? This bulldog of an actor dives right into the role of puppet-master Rakin Fitch with all the enthusiasm of a starving man who's just been given a free ticket to a buffet. Hackman eats each frame of film he's on, often making sure there's little for the other actors. His performance is brazenly over the top, yet its volume and bravado keeps "Jury" from falling apart. Out of all the actors, Hackman seems to be the only one fully aware of his Grisham surroundings.
The principal criticism I can make about "Jury" is its sudden sanctimonious turn in the film's closing moments. You can tell it's coming, but that doesn't numb the disinterest that kicks in when this popcorn picture becomes message minded. Need a lecture about guns? Rent Michael Moore's grand "Bowling For Columbine," which already covered the slippery ground "Jury" is trying to mimic. It's noble to actually create a film about "something," but this is a softball subject, and "Jury" doesn't have any intentions of truly pushing the envelope. Like all the other Grisham adaptations, the film works wonders as a simple thriller. It should've remained that way.
Filmfodder Grade: B