Back Add a Comment Share:
Facebook Button
John Grisham is a very popular man among Hollywood screenwriters. The lawyer-turned-author has the ability to provide plenty of ready-made courtroom dramas which translate into interesting big screen tales. Though they’re not always right on the mark in terms of success, Grisham films have become the staple diet for anyone looking for a good courtroom stoush to digest on a Friday evening. And being a former lawman himself, Grisham carries a great deal of contempt for lawyers and justice. His latest, Runaway Jury, is classic Grisham in its cynicism, manipulation and the essence of a good story.

Runaway Jury (Rental)
The Grisham novel dealt with a relative minnow suing big tobacco for damages after the death of her husband. The film version shifts its focus to guns, presumably to steer clear of any comparisons to The Insider and cash in on the anti-gun sentiment which has festered ever since terrorism went up a notch. It’s a strange choice to make, since there are plenty more people opposed to tobacco and its effects than the right to bear arms. But the name of the game here is taking on the big boys in order to establish some responsibility on their behalf. With that in mind I don’t think it matters what the good fight is, just who it is fighting the good fight and how it effects those (in particular the jury) around them.

With the case due to appear before courts the formalities of selecting a jury must take place. And as the title suggests, the selection of this group of twelve isn’t as straight forward as it should be. On the gun company’s side is a man named Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman, chewing up the screen), an accomplished jury selection expert with a crack team of gophers behind him. Fitch takes pride in the fact he can almost ensure a verdict thanks to his exhaustive research on the prospective jurors, some underhanded intimidation tactics and highly illegal practice of being able to communicate with the lawyers in the courtroom.

When there’s a bad guy the good guy mustn’t be too far away. Leading the fight for the grieving widow is Wendall Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), a cluey yet average-looking lawyer who agrees to employ an eager young jury selector (Jeremy Piven) just so the cards aren’t entirely stacked against them. Together they manage to shuffle a few likely types into the jury box, giving them some sort of a chance against the might of the gun industry giants.

The wildcard is Nicholas Easter (John Cusack, an elementary casting choice), a young buck who tries ever so desperately to be excused for a Madden Football tournament but fails after raising the ire of the judge. But Nick knows full well what he’s doing, as it becomes perfectly clear he’s got another agenda to fulfil.

The support cast reads like an impressive list of character actors among a few recognisable names. Aside from the main players you’ve got Rachel Weisz as Easter’s devious squeeze Marlee plus a host of talented bit players such as Bruce Davison, Bruce McGill and Stanley Anderson to name a few. It’s a shame they all can’t be afforded a little more screen time as there’s a deep well of talent to mind in this one.

The film plays out with a few obligatory twists and turns but never just changes tack for the sake of it. While Hoffman does a great job of steering away from the bumbling hack lawyer we’ve seen so many times in the past, Hackman’s Rankin Fitch goes one better by simply charging through each scene with aplomb. Thankfully the writers gave the pair of them one juicy scene together which takes place in the courthouse lavatories, both characters fully engaged in a verbal sparring match that is easily the highlight of the film as a whole. The rest of the action chugs along nicely without being overly impressive, though Cusack’s charisma tends to enhance the everyman hero status of Easter quite well.

Runaway Jury (Rental)
The narrative of the film sits in a strange position for a courtroom drama. Not entirely focusing on the case like so many Grisham stories before (The Firm and example) yet not concentrating solely on the jury itself (like the brilliant 12 Angry Men), Runaway Jury tends to look at the whole scenario more from the outside in, using Weisz’s Marlee as a means to do so. This works because you’re never given anything that you’d instantly recognise from the countless previous courtroom dramas, so it makes for an enjoyable ride without providing anything spectacular.

On the whole there’s very little wrong with the overall effectiveness of the film. The acting is superb from an impressive line-up of A-list and veteran character actors, the story is a great little pot-boiler that could have actually benefited by sticking closer to the theme of the novel (again, the point may have been easier to get across had it been cigarettes instead of guns) and the way the tale is told strays from the norm at least a little to keep us interested.

Being a rental release it’s hard to establish just how seriously the visuals were taken on the disc. There’s plenty of space thanks to the lack of extras so the mastering could’ve produced a fairly impressive presentation. For the most part that’s the case, but the 2.35:1 visuals aren’t quite up to the standard of some other recent releases. Rohr’s jacket suffers the most from some sketchy rendering, though admittedly it’s not all that distracting in the whole scheme of things. The print is clean, colours are good even though there’s very little to work with in the palette, while the sharpness is sufficient without producing anything stunning.

It will be interesting to see how the transfer differs for the retail release, which will hopefully have to combat less space due to the inclusion of several extras. If this transfer turned out to be the final product you could be happy but it’s certainly not the most impressive presentation going around.

Even though the disc is afforded a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix here there is really little for the soundtrack to excel at. Sure, dialogue is clear at all times and the effects never dominate the sound stage at all, but the overall feel of this film doesn’t lend itself to anything stunning in the audio department. Bass levels are actually quite good, the surrounds are used sparingly for your odd effect here and there, while the experienced Christopher Young’s score fit perfectly into this kind of film and sounds quite good coming out of the surrounds. Nothing stunning at all but it’s still a good mix for what is there to work with.

The rental disc unsurprisingly contains nothing in the way of extras. Hopefully the eventual retail release will follow on from the Region 1 disc, complete with commentary tracks, deleted scenes and several featurettes. This is the kind of film that could benefit from some added information in the supplements section so we keep our fingers crossed.

Runaway Jury (Rental)
Certainly a better Grisham novel adaptation than films such as The Client, Runaway Jury is a good couple of hours entertainment. Watch it for Hackman and Hoffman’s first scene together alone, while the rest of the film more than holds its own. Hopefully the retail release will have a lot more to offer in terms of extras and a more impressive visual transfer, but for the film alone this is well worth checking out.