Tulsa TV Memories

"Runaway Jury"
A Review by Gary Chew

Gene Hackman

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

It’s almost as if Gene Hackman is a returning guest star on the television show, “The Law and John Grisham.” And this particular episode has Dustin Hoffman, too, another fine actor, making his first appearance in the courtroom drama series that airs weekly on NBC. But wait, isn’t that John Cusack there in the cast? And look, that’s Rachel Weisz. Wait a minute!

John Cusack“The Law and John Grisham” isn’t a dramatic TV series, it’s a feature-length movie that just seems like a dramatic TV series. Oh boy, the seemingly constant broadcasting of all those hour-long NBC crime/cop & courtroom dramas on so many channels is affecting the movie business more than I thought.

If I hadn’t been in a shopping mall cineplex the other night attending a screening of this movie, I would’ve sworn I was vegged-out in my easy chair at home with the local NBC affiliate on watching this week’s episode of “The Law and John Grisham,” which really isn’t what it’s called at all. The title is, to be honest, the same one John Grisham gave his book, “Runaway Jury.”

Now, that doesn’t mean the film isn’t well done for what it is. But, after seeing Clint Eastwood nailing it with his new film, “Mystic River” just the night before, I have to say that “Runaway Jury,” is merely pretty good television. And, if you haven’t noticed lately, that kind of TV is really damned good and so hard to find.

The fact that four---count ‘em---four men are credited with the screenplay for this Grisham novel telegraphs what to expect of the script. Since there’s already been a movie about the bad tobacco companies (“The Insider”), this committee of four screenwriters has changed Grisham’s novel about jury tampering in a court case that involves bad tobacco sellers into one that involves bad gun sellers. And, what with Michael Moore’s success with “Bowling for Columbine,” that’s probably the smartest thing that’s been done writing this screenplay. There are a couple of reasons for that.

Hackman is Rankin Fitch, who, from a mile away, can spot a potential juror that’s ripe for blackmailing. During jury selection, Fitch, with his gun dealer defense team, is sequestered in a warehouse/laboratory filled with technological gear, observing the court room from afar. Fitch barks commands to a hidden ear piece worn by the lead attorney on site with the jury. This is actually more like ABC than NBC. Just think of “Alias’” Jennifer Garner, in a tight spot in some cold and anonymous Eastern European enclave, being given orders, via satellite, by her CIA mentor half a world away in balmy L.A.

Dustin Hoffman, as Wendall Rohr, is the good attorney for the good plaintiff. He’s trying to get a hefty settlement for a young widow whose husband (played by Dylan McDermott) was shot to death at the office by an irate former employee armed with a high-powered assault weapon. Besides a big settlement, if Rohr wins the case, he figures getting such weapons off the street stands a better chance. Hoffman’s idealistic character very much wants that to happen while Hackman’s character doesn’t, as he says in the film, “give a s---!”

Dustin Hoffman

How John Cusack and Rachel Weisz work into the story is the tampering part of “Runaway Jury.” Cusack as Nicolas Easter, is on the jury and Weisz as Marlee, his girl friend, is outside the court house and in other venues around New Orleans (where the film was shot) confronting first, Fitch, then Rohr. She’s playing one side off the other for millions to sway the jury one way or the other. Easter can, if you suspend enough disbelief, influence his impaneled colleagues to render a verdict that gets the most money for him and Marlee.

Rachel Weisz

Oh, is there anyone in this movie that’s a good guy except for Dustin Hoffman? You won’t get that information from me, but I do have to say that the answer is telegraphed in the script. (Remember the committee of four I mentioned earlier?)

Now, to the two reasons why I think it’s a good thing that this story was changed from tobacco selling to gun selling. First of all: ticket selling. Gun control is one of the hottest of social issues. (I enter into the wording of the second reason at the risk of not sounding appropriately neutral or dispassionate.)

Maybe it might cause there to be one less schoolyard shooting in America’s busy and horrific future with high-tech personal firearms. (See Michael Moore for statistical details of deaths.)

Some complain that “Runaway Jury” is just more wearisome moralizing. Yes, that may be. The screenplay certainly isn’t going to win an Oscar, but I find it even more wearisome and greatly distressing to keep reading about innocent people being blown away like Dylan McDermott is in the first reel of this pretty good movie that’s sure to be seen on television in a year or so.

You can watch a trailer on the official "Runaway Jury" site.

Gary Chew can be reached via email at garychew@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2003, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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