2003-10-30 / Arts & Entertainment

Adaptation Of Grisham Courtroom Thriller Is "Outlandish Story"

AP Movie Writer
By David Germain
Adaptation Of Grisham Courtroom Thriller Is "Outlandish Story"

Adaptation Of Grisham Courtroom Thriller Is "Outlandish Story"

Dustin Hoffman (left) and Gene Hackman co-star in “Runaway Jury.” 	            ©20th Century FoxDustin Hoffman (left) and Gene Hackman co-star in “Runaway Jury.”  ©20th Century Fox

By David Germain

AP Movie Writer

If you’re going to tell a lurid, preposterous tale about hijacking the verdict in a major corporate lawsuit, "Runaway Jury’’ is the way to do it.

Need an unctuously corrupt jury consultant for the defense that audiences can love to hate? Give the part to Gene Hackman. Want to impart some charisma and moral dimension to your blandly upright lawyer for the plaintiff? Call in Dustin Hoffman. Got a pair of scheming jury-riggers who need to keep viewers poised between affection and aversion while their shadowy motives unfold? Try John Cusack and Rachel Weisz.

Casting is more than half the battle with "Runaway Jury," adapted from John Grisham’s courtroom thriller.

Director Gary Fleder’s brisk, assured pacing might have gone for naught had he been stuck spinning this outlandish story without such an accomplished and earnest cast to make events feel, if not believable, at least forgivably plausible in the name of tawdry entertainment.

Necessarily, the movie departs from a key element of the novel, supplanting a liability case against Big Tobacco over a smoker’s death with a lawsuit against a gun manufacturer in a shooting death during an office rampage. Grisham’s tobacco angle seemed prescient when the book came out in 1996, but a rash of verdicts against cigarette companies since then would have outdated the movie if it stuck with that premise.

The gun case seems more farfetched, though last fall, a jury did find a gun distributor liable to a small degree in the case of a teacher gunned down by a student.

The movie also transplants the story from Mississippi to New Or-leans, whose cloistered back alleys are nicely captured in Robert Elswit’s opaque cinematography.

Jury selection is about to begin in a widow’s case against the company that made the assault weapon that killed her husband. Master jury fixer Rankin Fitch (Hackman) blows into town with a team of profilers and thugs, armed with surveillance equipment, dossiers and an utter lack of morality as they set about choosing then manipulating jurors in favor of the gun maker.

Representing the widow is honest local boy Wendall Rohr (Hoffman), who responds to the defense’s hired guns by reluctantly taking on his own jury consultant (Jeremy Piven).

Enter juror No. 9, Nick Easter (Cusack), seemingly a slacker who would rather be anywhere than doing his civic duty in court. But when Nick’s shady girlfriend Marlee (Weisz) passes a picture of the jury to the opposing attorneys with the caption, "Jury for sale,’’ Nick’s real motive be-comes clear: Delivering the verdict to the highest bidder.

The extremes to which Rankin’s gang goes to neutralize Nick and Marlee’s scheme makes for a guilty pleasure of a movie. It’s ludicrous action howling for a mistrial, but your inner adjudicator likely will overrule any objections and just go with it on the strength of the
hearty performances.

Cackling with delicious contempt, Hackman oozes his way through every scene. Hoffman musters a credible crisis of conscience, while Cusack and Weisz are delightful poker faces as they let their con gradually play out.

The attention to casting extends to secondary roles and bit players. Bruce McGill makes for an imperiously block-headed judge, and Bruce Davison brings subtle professional resentment as the defense attorney whose strings Rankin pulls. Bringing credibility to almost inconsequential parts as jurors are Luis Guzman, Nora Dunn and Jennifer Beals.

"Runaway Jury" is rated PG-13 for violence, language and thematic elements. Running time: 127 minutes.

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