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" A woman’s heart is an ocean of secrets "
— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

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Runaway Jury has all the advantages of a Hollywood blockbuster. It has a great cast (John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, and Rachel Weisz) and a big budget. It’s based on a best-seller by an author (John Grisham) with a proven book-to-movie record. In short, it uses all the tricks and talent of an industry whose product is designed to thrill.

But look behind the action and you’ll find very little substance.

All Rise

Hoffman and Hackman square off over guns, money, and power
Hoffman and Hackman square off over guns, money, and power

The movie opens, appropriately enough, on Nick Easter (Cusack) receiving a jury summons. Nick would rather sell video games at the mall than sit on a jury, but he answers the call to perform his civic duty, however reluctantly.

The movie also introduces the two legal minds who will square off across the courtroom. Wendell Rohr (Hoffman) represents the plaintiff, the widow of a victim of gun violence. Rankin Fitch (Hackman), does not represent the defendant — a gun manufacturer — instead he is the defendant’s jury selection expert. For all practical purposes, however, he is Rohr’s opponent.

A third party comes into play after half an hour, someone who claims to be able to affect the jury’s outcome. The slick power broker Fitch wants to play hardball with this jury-tamperer, while Rohr, who at one point deliberately spills mustard on his tie, seems to be naively caught off-guard by the cynicism and cold calculation of his opponent and the outsider.

Aim for the Head

Watching Runaway Jury is a thrill. It has mystery, double-crosses, a foot chase, some scenery-chewing fights. Even the process of voir dire is edited into a pulse-pounding montage.

Perhaps that’s the problem. The movie aims for your gut so often that it forgets to aim for your head.

The trial in Runaway Jury purports to settle whether gun manufacturers can be held responsible for victims of gun violence. Specifics aside, it would be a huge risk to the gun industry should they lose. When the outsider first appeared, Fitch could have had the trial stopped, or at least postponed, either of which would have been hugely to his advantage. Yet he stands back and says “let’s wait and see.”

And then there are the specifics of the trial. The only damning evidence we see is an advertisement for a gun with a “fingerprint-resistant” finish. That’s hardly grounds for pinning a disgruntled worker’s murder-suicide (why would he care about fingerprints?) on a gun manufacturer.

As if to make up for the lack of a convincing case, director Gary Fleder paints the gun manufacturer and his entire legal team as evil, greedy, pin-striped villains. Such a heavyhanded approach is guaranteed to alienate pro-gun Americans. At least Runaway Jury isn’t as bad as The Life of David Gale, but that’s not saying much.

Inconceivable

Add it all up and you have a movie that is hard to swallow, at least all at once. There are so many double-dealings from so many opposing sides that it’s inconceivable that nobody takes the dirty laundry to the judge or to the press.

The little thrills, however, make the movie easier to swallow, at least scene by scene. It’s actually kind of fun. I could imagine going out to dinner and this movie with friends and having a good time. But in a couple of years and you’ll be back to watching 12 Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution, and A Few Good Men, having forgotten all about Runaway Jury.