|Over the past decade, the quality of the feature film legal thrillers based on John Grisham best-sellers has conspicuously declined in quality, but it's refreshing to see that a taut piece of story-telling can still be created from one of his novels. The Firm and The Pelican Brief represent the best of the films based on his novels, and while Runaway Jury can't eclipse The Firm, it still stands as one of the most entertaining legal dramas released in recent years. And that success is due almost entirely to the performances of the leading cast.|
Since the plot borders on the ludicrous at times (in translating the book to the film the lawsuit was modified from a tobacco lawsuit to a lawsuit against a gun manufacturer) and because of a few holes here and there, the fact that every single performance can be complimented is a vote in the casting director's favor. It's often the case that a film will depend on the quality of its performances when the script can't come up to scratch. Though that's not to say the script itself in Runaway Jury is a bad one.
It contains most of the standard cinematic devices usually present in a thriller, so the script can probably be considered adequate, given the difficulty of making a precedent-setting case appear realistic. And it's probably worth mentioning that individuals who would agree with the rights of the gun manufacturer depicted in the film might be angry at the screen simply because the filmmakers' views on the subject are so evident. Though in the end, the motivation of the two characters attempting to manipulate the jury (John Cusack and Rachel Weisz's characters) becomes more important than the actual ideals for which they stand.
Their motivation is a visceral one, dealing more with a certain human emotion that always makes for a successful storyline. (I'll refrain from actually mentioning the emotion so as not to give away the ending - which would become blatantly obvious if I were to do so). The ending itself is mildly predictable even if you haven't read the book or know the entire store, but given the nature of that motivation, it's clear the screenwriters (and Grisham before them, in a similar fashion) knew how to engage the audience's emotions and keep viewers interested in the outcome of the story.
But helping the screenwriters mightily are those performances. With an admirable amount of accolades and critical success behind them, the four top-liners of the film are each the recipients of multi-faceted characters whose decisions show them to be capable of making bad decisions. Nobody in the film is a completely virtuous character and because the same can be said for people in the real world (excepting the late Mother Teresa, perhaps), the excitement of the film is bumped up a notch, since it's not always evident which direction a character will choose.
Therein lies the "mild" surprise of the outcome of the film. Thankfully, it's just not glaringly evident what's going to happen next. That's not to say you can't count on a few chase scenes and fist fights and the usual assortment of physical action of a film based on a Grisham novel. Even though these films are always about buttoned-down lawyers, there always seems to be a chase scene or two hanging about. And that's what I mean about predictability. You've seen it all before, but amazingly, the screenwriters were able to mess things up just enough to lessen the pressure on the actors to carry the entire creative weight of the film.
But since those actors are all capable of portraying their characters realistically and with a bit of gumption, the film is rather plump in its laurels. Hands down, Gene Hackman takes the largest slice of the talent pie in this film. He plays one of the evil characters, but makes that character amusing and sagacious despite the character's wicked nature. Just the character's name, "Rankin Fitch," practically demands that the man be artful and sharp-witted. And Hackman delivers with a top-of-the-line performance.
As his adversary on the other side of the legal debate, Dustin Hoffman makes an impressive case as "Wendell Rohr," nearly mastering the southern accent (the film takes place in New Orleans), though his performance is the weakest of the leading cast simply because his character is the one with the least amount of depth. As lovers that spend only a few scenes together on screen, Cusack and Weisz cook up a decent amount of chemistry with one another and plug a impressive amount of emotion into each of their characters.
Runaway Jury is slickly made with a beautiful view of the streets of New Orleans in nearly every frame and is smartly edited with more than one montage scene sliding by without destroying the pace of the film. The performances are more than appropriate and the actors take their characters far enough into the territory of the surreal to make the strained credibility of the plot seem less than obvious. This film is by far the best Grisham thriller to hit the screen in the last decade, and stands as a suitably thrilling thriller, despite some heavy-handedness concerning gun ownership in the United States, which just might anger some viewers.
Review by Kelsey Wyatt.