Directed by Gary Fleder
Written by Brian Koppelman & David Levien, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman
While the John Grisham light shone bright in the mid-90s, after the release of The Rainmaker in 1997, there was quite the drought all the way until this release, Runaway Jury in 2003. So after 6 films released in the span of just 4 years, we go 6 years? I wish I would have researched why that might have been before writing this review, but it’s fascinating to me. As my wife is a huge fan of Grisham’s novels, I know there were plenty of other titles that should have presented themselves as options to adapt. So why this one? Why after so long? And perhaps more interestingly, why no more after? I guess with anything, the “fad” passed and audiences were on to the next big thing in the theater, which is what makes Runaway Jury such an interesting “comeback”, as it very clearly tries to adapt to the cinematic stylistic changes of the late 90s/early 00s.
After a man, along with his many co-workers, are brutally murdered in an office shooting, his wife decides to sue the gun manufacturer, making this New Orleans court case a huge media frenzy with tremendous judicial implications. That means jury selection is paramount to getting the desired verdict. Defense brings in jury specialist Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), who has made a career of reading people. Meanwhile, the plaintiff attorney (Dustin Hoffman) takes on a young, ambitious lawyer (Jeremy Piven) to help. But both are left scrambling after jury selection finds Nick Easter (John Cusack) on the 12 person panel. Easter and his partner “Marlee” (Rachel Weisz) are prepared to blackmail either side of the case, promising to deliver whichever forks over a huge sum of money the verdict they desire.
What was immediately apparent to me was that this was not your traditional Grisham movie. And without having read the novel, I can’t say whether this was a case from pen to paper or from paper to celluloid. This is less a courtroom drama and more a spy thriller, which was strange to me until I started to consider the type of movies popular at the time. Especially with Gene Hackman, I got strong Enemy of the State (1998) vibes, and even could see the editing influence of The Bourne Identity (2002). Given this shift in style from the more traditional narratives previously in this series, it was actually quite refreshing. That’s how I would describe the whole film even after seeing six rather similar stories. Runaway Jury is just different. We haven’t really seen the jury process yet in a Grisham film, and I am very glad they concentrated on that. While the narrative may go off in different, more exciting directions, it was still cool to see the importance of jury selection highlighted in this series of courtroom dramas.
Now the question is, while the film goes in a new, exciting direction, telling a story we haven’t seen in a Grisham film before, does it do it well? Mostly, I suppose? I was quite surprised really at how effective this was, but maybe I was just hankering for something new. There are certainly some rather cartoonish depictions, especially of Gene Hackman’s character. The chopped up sequence of potential juror research is at once hilarious in how series Fitch is and also impressive in how committed Hackman is to the character. And generally, all the performances work, even if Hoffman and Piven seem strangely sidelined. Hoffman especially shines brightly when given the opportunity. It’s a good ensemble performance from the cast, with no one asked to carry the film.
There were moments during this marathon where I thought I just wanted it to end, as it felt like the good movie was the exception and bad one was the norm. Now we go out on two pretty good, entertaining films and I find myself wanting more, not understanding how such a popular author’s work could run so dry all of a sudden cinematically. I’m sure there’s a good answer, and ultimately, if the series continued I’m sure there would be plenty more poor films on the horizon. But I am very thankful to have gone on this journey and discovered what the Grisham fuss was all about, and catch up with a few very good movies along the way. I have no regrets consuming these interesting, largely entertaining films, and would welcome a renaissance if Hollywood ever decided to return to the well.