Left to right: Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) points his finger at Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) (Courtesy photo)

'Runaway Jury' takes a three-way battle of wits and runs with it

In lawyer-author John Grisham's 1996 runaway bestseller Runaway Jury, a big tobacco company is the defendant in a product liability trial. By 2003, legal judgments and local ordinances have shrunk big tobacco, and movie audiences have already seen The Insider defeat nefarious merchants of nicotine. So director Gary Fleder and a team of four screenwriters have traded smokes for smoking guns; Runaway Jury the film focuses on a civil proceeding in which the widow of a stockbroker murdered by a psychopath charges Vicksburg Firearms with culpable liability.

The CEO of Vicksburg is a cinematic heavy, a porcine tycoon grown arrogant and odious from trafficking in instruments of annihilation. Vicksburg is represented by a corporate attorney, but, to ensure immunity from the effects of its trade, the company hires Rankin Fitch (Hackman), a veteran specialist in jury management. "Trials are too important to be left to juries," says Fitch, who demands $30 million to guarantee Vicksburg immunity from legal judgment. With a crew of technicians, sleuths, and thugs, Fitch sets up a boiler room operation designed to rig the choice of jurors and then manipulate their verdict. He has reduced voir dire and the subsequent trial to a satanic science.

Runaway Jury
Dir. Gary Fleder; writ. Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland, Matthew Chapman, based on a novel by John Grisham; feat. John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz (PG-13)
Deep down, beneath Fitch's cynical, opportunistic veneer is a cynical opportunist who believes in nothing except crushing his opponent. "I'm in it to win, just like you are," he tells Wendell Rohr (Hoffman), the gruff plaintiff's attorney, who counts on a percentage of the final settlement. But, though not a public interest lawyer out to disarm the arms industry, Fitch is a decent fellow who believes in the rule of law. Nicholas Easter (Cusack) does not, and he manages to infiltrate the jury. In cahoots with a lover named Marlee (Weisz), he offers to sell the verdict to the highest bidder, beginning at $10 million. Runaway Jury runs away from the intricacies of Second Amendment law and corporate responsibility toward a layered thriller that uses New Orleans as a lively stage set for a three-way battle of wits among Fitch, Rohr, and Easter.

To accept the premise that one determined ringer can sway an entire jury, you might as well believe that Easter is a bunny. And all the blatant knavery that occurs throughout would surely cause a judge, even in Louisiana, to declare a mistrial. Yet, I say impeach anyone who tries to put an end to this entertaining jurisimpudence. •

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