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Runaway Jury

So much for civic duty. Those who think a panel of twelve men and women — impartial citizens all — is an effective way to check the power of a single black-robed jurist on the bench will learn in Runaway Jury (2003) that juries themselves are far from impartial. They can be shaped by competing attorneys during the initial voir dire process. In high-stakes civil cases involving millions of dollars, jury consultants will employ a variety of tactics (some legal, some perhaps not) to compile in-depth profiles of each jury member. And in the world of John Grisham's popular legal fiction, if one person was determined enough, they could get themselves impaneled, gain the jury's confidence, and then offer to sell a verdict to the highest bidder. John Cusack stars in Runaway Jury as Nick Easter, an unassuming New Orleans video-store clerk who finds himself summoned to potentially sit on the most prominent civil case yet seen against the American firearms industry. Supporting the plaintiff's widow — whose husband was shot at work by a disturbed day-trader — is attorney Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), who agrees to accept a greenhorn, idealistic jury consultant in Lawrence Green (Jeremy Piven). But Rohr's financial backing from a variety of gun-control groups is no match for Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison), who has the substantial bankroll of four firearms manufacturers at his disposal. It's those manufacturers who bring in the best jury consultant in the country, Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman). And in Fitch's case, "consultant" is a euphemism at best — the seasoned pro assembles a team of technical experts to fashion a black-ops command center, complete with banks of computers, a secret camera link to the courtroom, and radio communication with the counsel's table. But on the first day of trial, both attorneys are clandestinely offered a favorable verdict — for a price. Before long, they are contacted by a mysterious woman, Marlee (Rachel Weisz), who proves that she can manipulate the jury, even when sequestered. Rohr is inclined to dismiss her offer, despite the risk of losing his case. However, the crafty Fitch is willing to play every angle. He presents Marlee with a counter-offer, but he also discovers that Nick Easter is the mole — and he'll stop at nothing to eliminate the grifters from "his" jury.

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Despite having film careers that span decades, Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman never shared the screen before Runaway Jury. It's a surprising fact, considering that the two were close friends long before they became famous, meeting at the Pasadena Playhouse in the '60s and then sharing a New York apartment as struggling actors. They are given just one face-to-face scene here, a brief confrontation that the filmmakers admit was an afterthought — like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro's coffee-shop scene in Heat (1995), it does nothing to advance the story, but audiences probably would find the film a lesser experience without it. The picture succeeds by Grisham's clever plotting, which fuses three separate worlds (plaintiffs, defendants, and con-artists) with a series of clandestine communications while the central case plays out in the courtroom and amongst the sequestered jurors. As with most Grisham films, this one is elevated beyond a TV-movie potboiler by the first-rate cast, who bring their known strengths to a Hollywood product and never stray from their A-games. Cusack, now in his late-thirties, mixes his natural boyish charm with a shifty sensibility. Hoffman straddles the film's moral center, torn between his desire to uphold the law and his need to win. Hackman dons his black hat with sinister volatility — charming his foes when necessary, losing his temper like Popeye Doyle when he feels his case is slipping away. If Runaway Jury deserves any knocks, it's for being nothing more than a mainstream Hollywood feature that pitches its appealing, glossy product with the theatrical trailer and TV commercials, and then delivers said entertainment as promised. But it could be a lot worse — particularly when so many mainstream Hollywood movies can't even do that much. Fox's DVD release of Runaway Jury features a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Features include a commentary by director Gary Fleder, three deleted scenes with commentary from Fleder, two scenes with commentary from Hoffman and Hackman, a "making-of" featurette (12 min.), a spot on the ensemble acting (4 min.), a look at Hackman and Hoffman rehearsing their one scene together (14 min.), and an interview segment with H&H, who share a relaxed, witty banter that underscores their long-standing friendship (9 min.). Keep-case.

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