Runaway hit: Jury 'duty's a pleasure

Runaway Jury has the makings of a runaway hit. It's the kind of movie that got me hooked on movies, long before I got into foreign films and American indies.

John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, and Rachel Weisz head an amazing cast of both familiar and unfamiliar actors, with the likes of Orlando Jones popping in for one brief scene.

Gary Fleder's rapid direction glosses over the tiny airholes, as well as some punctures, in the engrossing screenplay. Adapted from John Grisham's novel, it's a legal thriller of course, set in New Orleans.

The subject of the central trial has been changed from the novel because since it was written precedents have been set in liability cases against tobacco companies. Here it's a gun manufacturer that's being sued by the widow of a man who was one of 11 killed when a fired employee came back to shoot up a brokerage firm.

Most of the film is dedicated to the premise that money overrides principle in America. (No news there.) The five biggest gun manufacturers have pitched in to pay for the defense because they know that as soon as one of these cases is lost, the floodgates will be open.

Runaway Jury introduces a career you may not have considered– or known about: jury consultant. This is someone who advises the lawyers in a case about who to select for a jury and how to influence them.

Tops in this field is the gunmen's man, Rankin Fitch (Hackman). (He could never go into politics with a name like that.) He shows his contempt by describing the courtroom smell as "furniture polish, cheap cologne, and body odor," and telling another attorney, "If you're relying on testimony to win this case, you've already lost it." Fitch has a team that puts the FBI to shame and begins surveillance on prospective jurors as soon as they receive their notices.

Interestingly, although movies like this usually pit one attorney against another, Fitch is more important to the defense than their lead counsel (Bruce Davison). The attorney for the plaintiff, Wendall Rohr (Hoffman), halfheartedly accepts the services of an eager young jury consultant (Jeremy Piven), then pretty much ignores him.

An unexpected wrinkle in this case is Marlee (Weisz), who contacts both sides, guaranteeing to sway the jury their way– for a price. Our first of many surprises (and you may want to stop reading here, although it's revealed fairly early in the proceedings) is that she's in cahoots with Nick Easter (Cusack), who appears to be serving reluctantly but actually got himself onto the jury for this purpose.

One thing that's difficult to swallow in this age of no privacy is that Nick has managed to erase all traces of his past, prior to coming to New Orleans eight months ago. And because movie audiences are no more interested in principle than gun manufacturers are, there are a few contrived action scenes to up the entertainment value. Why else, for instance, with the jury in court all day, would Fitch send his hatchet man (Nick Searcy) to search Nick's apartment at a time Nick could catch him there?

It's hard to believe no mistrial is declared (Judge Bruce McGill makes clear his disinclination at one point) as the weaknesses of various jurors is exploited, and pressure brought to bear on them. No one seems to notice when one juror's apartment is burned down.

But editor William Steinkamp keeps the information coming at such a pace– sometimes you'll be surprised what you absorb subliminally– that you don't have time to dwell on implausibilities. You'll probably feel you know all the jurors intimately and only realize in retrospect you wouldn't recognize half of them if you saw them in the lobby on the way out.

Early in the proceedings, Fitch describes Nick as "an entertainer. He wants to make everybody happy." The same might be said of Grisham in print, and he's found a perfect counterpart in Fleder. Since the trial has to have a verdict, people on one side of the debate aren't going to leave happy, but everyone's been entertained.

Video tip: You've probably seen Fleder's thrillers, Kiss the Girls and Don't Say a Word, but check out his underappreciated first feature, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead.