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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: Special Edition
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 affects 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: Special Edition
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.

While the rental disc exhibited signs of visual nasties in the 2.35:1 transfer it is pleasing to be able to say the retail version doesn’t suffer the same fate. What we receive is a solid visual presentation that does its best to make the dull browns and grey of the courtroom environment stand out. Sharpness is maintained throughout and problem areas such as Rohr’s striped jacket, a real sticking point with the rental disc transfer, come out unscathed. If anything the visuals are a little soft in the interior scenes, but that’s only a minor gripe. In all there’s a lot to like about the transfer.

The soundtrack for the retail version is the same as the rental disc.

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.

Thankfully the retail disc includes a stack of extras which really add value to the disc. While the rental version was logically bare-bones, the release you can buy on shelves comes packaged with extra material that is bound to please fans of the film.

First up is a commentary track with director Gary Fleder. For the most part Fleder seems very comfortable talking about the film, coming at it from a very “film school” angle, as he speaks about exposition, scene construction, editing, characterisation and general techniques used to facilitate certain outcomes. There are a few small silences dotted here and there but they only serve to highlight that Fleder is actually finding meaningful things to say as opposed to just rambling on. This is a solid commentary overall.

Fleder also commentates on a couple of deleted scenes included on the disc. The first is a scene involving Nick and Marlee on the phone, which Fleder describes as extraneous. The second is a simple exchange between John Cusack and Luis Guzman which was cut early on because the suggestions made by Guzman’s character were distracting. Both scenes are of low quality but still well worth a look.

Runaway Jury: Special Edition
Next up is a neat little extra featuring Hoffman and Hackman doing a short commentary on one of their scenes. Hoffman adds his (albeit mumbled) thoughts on the great bathroom sequence with he and Hackman, while Hackman himself comments on the penultimate scene with Nick and Marlee in the bar. While they are far too brief to be very in depth it is great to hear what the both of them have to say.

Still on the bathroom sequence, we have a piece entitled Exploring the Scene, where Gary Fleder talks about how the scene came about. What is interesting is that the scene wasn’t originally in the script, which Hackman reveals was created so that the two big names could work together. What could well have been your stock-standard featurette on a single scene surprisingly becomes a very interesting look at how the scene was created, and really ends up being an in depth look at how a film is written, rehearsed and shot. Hackman and Hoffman fans will love the behind the scenes look at how they work.

Continuing with the apparent obsession with Hoffman and Hackman, the next piece is entitled Off The Cuff, where the pair just talk. It might seem a little mundane but the two of them have a very intriguing rapport. Hearing them tell stories about how they met, what happened in New York and making it big in Hollywood is strangely compelling. At times it’s quite humorous as they subtly rib each other about various things. A great piece, which runs for just over eight minutes.

The next short featurette is entitled The Ensemble and looks at the bigger picture in terms of the cast, featuring interviews with John Cusack and Rachel Weisz among others. It’s a bit of a puff piece where they just pat each other on the back but at least we get to hear from other members of the cast this time.

Still going strong, the next featurette is a straight-up making of piece which runs for around 12 minutes. It’s your typical behind the scenes promotional short which is meant to be seen before you head out and watch the whole film. With that in mind the featurette works, yet there’s little value in watching it after you’ve already sat through the movie.

The visuals on the film are quite interesting, which makes the next piece well worth a look. Entitled Shadow & Light, this featurette looks at the cinematography for the film. We hear from Robert Elswit who was the chief cinematographer, as well as Gary Fleder and other members of the crew. Elswit goes through his motivations for many of the showcase scenes as well as his theories on cinematography as a whole. It’s an interesting piece for anyone attracted to the way shots are constructed.

Covering another aspect of the production, A Vision Of New Orleans deals with the production design on the film. Production designer Nelson Coates takes us through the courtroom, pointing out little touches here and there and the reasons behind their inclusion. The 12 Angry Men homage is a nice tribute.

And last but not least is a piece called Rhythm, which looks at the task of editing the film. With so many quick cuts, intercutting and slick editing techniques used for the film an accomplished editor was essential in getting it right. William Steinkamp is his name and he talks about some of the tougher scenes in the film, namely a fight sequence involving Marlee. Budding editors will lap this up.

That rounds out what is a darn solid extras package. Sure, not many of the featurettes stretch over ten minutes but the content is slickly produced and tightly constructed that you get all the relevant information in the short time period. Fans of Hackman and Hoffman will love the attention to their two characters in the supplements, while Gary Fleder’s commentary is a film theorist’s dream. There’s little to complain about with this package.

Runaway Jury: Special Edition
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. The retail release lifts the bar on all counts, with solid visuals, an effective soundtrack and a very informative extras package that will please all fans of the film. Have no hesitation in heading out to pick up this release.