Reel People

Is Runaway Jury a realistic portrait of ordinary people? Not really.

In Hollywood, where conventional wisdom has it that reality has always been overrated, even those rare movies that claim to be about real life continue to be about as believable as a Terminator Governor. Probably the biggest movie opening at the megaplexes this week is filled with what in Hollywood passes for ordinary people. And almost all of those ordinary people tend to be either unmitigated monsters, selfless crusaders battling the forces of evil, or brilliant megalomaniacs deciding the courses of precedent-setting trials breathlessly watched by an entire nation.

Runaway Jury is based on a John Grisham book, by the way, which automatically qualifies it as a brand of reality entirely unto itself. As Grisham movie adaptations go, it's nowhere near the bottom of a constantly growing heap, but it's not quite up at the top either.

If Runaway Jury is remembered at all, it will be as the movie where longtime screen icons (and, in their prehistoric struggling actor days, former roommates) Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman finally appeared on screen together for the first time. Other than that, the film is competent and reasonably entertaining fare, but a far cry from remarkable. Quintessentially Grisham-esque, you might say.

Hackman is the movie's heavy, and his juicy performance is the real reason to see the film. Hackman's character is an imposing powerhouse of a man called Rankin Fitch, who comes off as a cross between a reptile and a rocket scientist. Fitch is an all-seeing but utterly amoral analyst (polite code for jury tamperer), for hire to the highest bidder — which in the case of the high-profile trial he's currently trying to sway, happens to be the gun industry. The evil industry on trial in Grisham's book was tobacco, but that all changed in the movie adaptation of Runaway Jury after The Insider got there first. But hey, any cause will do.

It's probably already apparent that Runaway Jury is a movie with an agenda and some very passionate politics, although those politics don't run very deep. The gun industry — the Rich Old White Guys pulling the strings of the trial around which the movie revolves — are depicted in such broad strokes that they come off as nothing less than a cabal of international super-villains hatching plots at a secret hideout. You half expect Dr. Evil to appear at any moment. The whole thing winds up smacking of a less sophisticated version of the sort of agitprop that Michael Moore regularly serves up.

Hackman's counterpart, and the all-too-obvious mouthpiece for the movie's up-with-people, down-with-firearms agenda, is Dustin Hoffman, who plays Wendall Rohr, the highly principled and incorruptible (no laughing now) lawyer trying to make the gun industry pay for years of getting away with murder. Hoffman must really believe in the movie's anti-gun message or must have received a truly staggering paycheck for his performance here (possibly both), because otherwise it's hard to fathom why he took on such a bland, underwritten role. In comparison to Hackman's meaty figure of fire-and-ice, he's very nearly invisible.

The wildcard in this mix is Nick Easter (John Cusack), a mysterious juror who turns out to be interested in some jury tampering of his own. Hackman's character eventually gets wind of Easter's scheme and turns the tables on him, providing the movie with the opportunity for a big chase scene or two — never a bad idea in what is essentially a static courtroom drama, confined to a handful of rooms.

There are, in fact, precisely three chase and/or action scenes in Runaway Jury, appearing like clockwork at the exact beginning, middle and end of the movie. It's pretty much the sort of storytelling-on-autopilot that we expect from Grisham — or, for that matter, from the film's director, Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls, Don't Say a Word, Imposter and scads of TV work).

As a filmmaker, Fleder seems to have absorbed just about every conceivable cliché of motion picture-making, resulting in a personality-less nonaesthetic that makes almost everything he touches feel a little too much like a made-for-TV movie. Characters lack dimension, slow motion and freeze frames appear exactly where you'd expect them to, camera movements are slick but entirely conventional, with brief bursts of handheld herky-jerkiness to communicate energy during the obligatory chases. None of it's terrible, but neither is it particularly smart or subtle or remotely original.

The real show here is Hackman and Hoffman, of course, and it's especially bizarre that the movie almost completely squanders the opportunity to allow them to do a scene together. Much like that one lone face-off that constituted the "collaboration" between Pacino and De Niro in Heat, Runaway Jury only manages to let its two big stars actually interact for one scene (and even that was apparently added as an afterthought). The tete-a-tete takes place with Hoffman and Hackman locked in a public bathroom, and Fleder makes sure to make frequent use of a wide, master shot featuring both men in the frame, so that we'll know his stars really were in the same room at the same time.

It's a somewhat juicier scene than most in this movie, but it ultimately doesn't mean much, and it can't quite jump start Runaway Jury to the next level. Both parties do a lot of yelling, spelling out in no uncertain terms (and very loudly) just who their characters are, where they stand, and why they're doing what they're doing. The movie keeps us waiting nearly 90 minutes for this confrontation, and while you wouldn't exactly call it anticlimactic, it's doubtful that anyone will be remembering it all that clearly come Oscar time. Certainly not when there's so much better yelling around, particularly from the likes of Mystic River's Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, or the campaign speeches of California's Terminator-Elect.

Oddly enough, for a movie stacked with so many strong actors, Runaway Jury isn't really an actors' movie. Hackman's fun to watch, of course, but he can pull off a meaty, Machiavellian turn like this in his sleep. Hoffman, for his part, simply seems to be counting the moments until the movie's over. Cusack is solid enough and Rachel Weisz (as Cusack's partner in crime) gets off a few good licks, but the movie basically just relies on Grisham's crowd-pleasing plot twists and Fleder's faceless but efficient technique to carry it along. It's all engaging enough and sometimes even modestly exciting, but almost never particularly memorable — a classic empty calorie thriller.

The rest of the cast, from Nora Dunn to Jennifer Beales, is underused and eminently forgettable, but then again, why shouldn't they be? After all, they're playing characters who don't have hidden agendas and aren't particularly brilliant or exceptionally good or evil. Dunn plays a juror who tipples from a pint of booze hidden in her purse and gets reduced to a punch line for a lame joke. Beales doesn't get to utter a single line until the movie's almost over and mostly just stands around the jury room with a furrowed brow and a concerned look on her face. They're as close as Runaway Jury comes to real people, and the movie doesn't have a clue what to do with them.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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