Runaway Jury

Runaway Jury (2003)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, John Cusack, Rachel Weisz
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Deleted Scenes, Featurettes, Interviews, and more

French politician Georges Clemenceau once remarked: "War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men." Jury "consultant" Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) embraces a more adaptable and personally lucrative philosophy for our overly litigious society: "trials are too important to be left to the jury." The war over a verdict lies at the heart of "Runaway Jury, " the 2003 film adaptation from the John Grisham novel.

The film opens with a gun rampage inside a law office, leaving five people dead. When one widow initiates a wrongful death lawsuit against the gun manufacturer who allows its products to be illegally sold, an industry consortium retains Fitch, to the tune of seven figures, to "buy" a favorable outcome to the trial. Corralling the highest surveillance technology, employing a staff of highly trained moles and operatives and living by a very loose interpretation of the phrase "jury tampering," Fitch has nothing but confidence that he will deliver on what he’s promised to his client.

What Fitch does not anticipate is that someone else also has their own plan for manipulating the verdict. The threat doesn’t come from Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), the plaintiff’s lawyer, but from jury member Nick Easter (John Cusack) and his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) auctioning the outcome to the highest bidder.

As directed by Gary Fleder, "Runaway Jury" is a taut, efficient courtroom drama/thriller. Legal dramas are intrinsically dramatic with opposing forces engaging for a singularly beneficial and mutually exclusive resolution. In every lawsuit or trial, one argument wins at the expense of the other. As Michael Crichton has made science the fodder for many popular novels, John Grisham has done the same with the American legal system in such novels, and subsequent movie adaptations, as "The Firm" and "The Client." What sets apart "Runaway Jury" is that the contest is not so much between two legal arguments, but three moral perspectives: Fitch’s ethical relativity, Rohr’s honest lawyering and Easter & Marlee’s "free-market" legal wrangling. The adaptation does take some liberties with the source. In the novel, the suit is against the tobacco industry and Rohr comes off just as opportunistic as Fitch. While not exactly earth shattering in its criticisms of how verdicts have become big business just like everything else today or tackling head-on the guns-as-constitutional-right controversy, "Jury" does present the battle of ideologies with enough intensity and popcorn movie bits that, like a "Big Mac" Value Meal, you walk away full but with the realization you’ve gorged on fatty, albeit tasty, junk food.

Where the filmmakers made their best bet was with the casting. Hackman’s Fitch reeks of cocksure, whether primping his perfect hair or justifying his pretzeling of the law. Hoffman matches Hackman by underplaying Rohr, proudly wearing his belief in the legal system on his sleeve. Hackman and Hoffman are bigger than life in their stature as movie stars and the film deftly utilizes that baggage. I’ve been a big fan of John Cusack since "A Sure Thing" and over the years he’s shown a shrewd eye for acting in (or producing) movies that are perfect for his boy-next-door face and Everyman demeanor. As Nicholas Easter, he’s a junior version of Fitch but somehow we don’t have the same revulsion even though they have the same aim. The rest of the supporting cast, from Weisz’s ultra pragmatic Marlee to Bruce McGill’s no-nonsense judge, is uniformly excellent.

Fox Home Entertainment’s DVD release of the film starts with an almost pixel perfect transfer. Presented in its original 2.35 aspect ratio with <$16x9,anamorphic> enhancement, the image is spotless and pristine throughout. (A separate full-frame edition is also available.) Detail delineation and color rendition are nothing short of jaw-dropping, from the sheen of the courtroom’s oak walls to the wrought-iron of the film’s New Orleans setting. Naturally, the source print is clean and there are no digital or compression artifacts. However, in a couple of dark scenes, the blacks aren’t completely solid. Nothing to storm Fox’s DVD facility gates over, but just an FYI.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 audio is appropriately enveloping when it needs to be, mainly serving the drama by keeping the dialogue nice and clear. The rear channels get occasional workout with music fill and a smattering of discrete sound effects. There’s not much LFE save for the few instances of gun fire, but what’s there packs a wallop and perfectly serves both the dramatic and thematic intent.

Fox has also provided a very generous helping of supplements, all contained on the same DVD-9 disc. The feature-length <$commentary,audio commentary> by director Gary Fleder is quite enjoyable. Gary covers a lot of territory in his practically non-stop narration. From the get-go, Gary thanks the viewer for their interest in the DVD and proclaims himself a "movie nut." His commentary more than confirms that, as Gary deconstructs scenes, recounts production headaches, points out film references, even discussing how he tried to tap into the "1980s John Cusack" persona in certain scenes. Fleder also provides commentary on two deleted scenes involving John Cusack, Rachel Weisz and Luis Guzman. Refreshingly, Fleder admits that the scenes were deleted because they "just don’t work." (Hmmm, have we been given the straight dope all these years about scenes deleted due to "pacing?")

The rest of the extras revolve mostly around the first on-screen pairing of Hackman and Hoffman. Two scenes, "The Washroom" and "The Bar" get analyzed by the two stars expounding on-camera in top & bottom split screen format. Hoffman explains how nervous he was during the filming and Hackman explaining the emotional perspective of his character in the "Bar" scene. Each go into great detail, talking about gestures and movements but having them on-camera meant having to visually jump between the two unnecessarily. I would have preferred audio-only commentary here.

The washroom scene gets even greater exploration with the fourteen minute featurette "Exploring The Scene." Video interviews with Hackman, Hoffman and Fleder, interspersed with film clips and behind the scenes footage explain how the scene came about (it’s not in the novel), the approaches and apprehensions of the actors and especially how the rehearsals on and off the set helped create this first-time pairing. Hoffman even jokes that the scene might get cut because "there are no young people in it or a woman in a bikini walking into the bathroom by mistake." "Off The Cuff" is a nine-minute, almost stream of consciousness, interview with H & H about their respective careers, their starts at the Pasadena Playhouse, trying to be like Brando by playing bongo drums and their combined ninety-year-history of creating characters. At times a mutual admiration fest and title-dropping session, the best thing here was seeing two guys swapping war stories…which happen to include winning two Oscars a piece.

"Making of ‘Runaway Jury’" runs about thirteen minutes with the standard sound bites, production b-roll and clips. Most interesting elements here are the evaluations of New Orleans food and comments from actual jury consultant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius. (Did you know that jury consulting as an industry has been around for 35 years?) Three remaining features, each about five minutes, cover the cinematography, production design and editing. I couldn’t find a theatrical trailer for "Runaway Jury" but there is a trailer for Fox’s "Man on Fire," presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and 5.1 audio.

"Runaway Jury" has "crowd pleaser" written all over it, but not because it’s got women in bikinis walking into bathrooms. Everyone responds to David taking on Goliath and when two of the best actors today fill those archetypal roles, helmed by thoughtful direction and a savvy script, we’re in for some damn good movie watching.