Runaway Jury 

(PG-13) 3 1/2 stars

(PG-13) 3 1/2 stars
In the mood for a big juicy John Grisham melodrama? Back in 1997, I panned The Rainmaker, another film based on a Grisham book, complaining that the tale was overwrought and the hammy performances of the older actors undermined the more credible work of the younger ones. About a year later, the film popped up on cable and, since I was mostly reading a book anyway, I didn’t change the channel. To my surprise, I found myself putting down the book to pay full attention to the movie. I’ve watched it again since then and had a dandy time. Runaway Jury is overwrought, taking an issue of substance — whether gun manufacturers should be culpable for how they market their wares — and turning it into melodrama. John Cusack and Rachel Weisz give performances that are fairly down to earth, while Dustin Hoffman and — especially — Gene Hackman chew scenery with gusto. It’s all very cheesy, and quite enjoyable on that level. Hackman plays Rankin Fitch (great name!), a “jury consultant” whose job is to research potential jurors so that only the ones most sympathetic to his client get selected. Fitch employs a staff and all the latest high-tech gadgets to dig up dirt on the jurors, so that pressure may be exerted if needed. “A trial is too important to be left up to juries,” hisses Fitch. Oooooooh! Hopefully, real-life jury consultants are not so extreme. Of course, their very existence is repellent, even if they abide by the letter of the law. But I digress. In New Orleans for a civil suit against a gun manufacturer whose product was used to shoot up a worksite, Fitch does his stuff for (get ready for another great name) defense council Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison). But wait, someone is on the phone. Seems a woman identifying herself as only as Marlee (Weisz) is serving as contact for juror Nick Easter (Cusack), who claims to be able to sway the jury. If Fitch wants the win, he’ll have to pony up $10 million. What Fitch doesn’t know is that the same offer has been made to the plaintiff’s attorney, Southern gentleman Wendall Rohr (Hoffman, and what a fine name his character is sporting), with the same proposal. Let the Machiavellian games begin. John Cusack and Rachel Weisz give strong, spirited performances and provide the moments of quasi-credibility that allow the whacked-out material to glide by. Dustin Hoffman has a fine old time speechifying. When he gets especially outraged, his voice sounds like the female soap-opera character he played in Tootsie. As for Gene Hackman, the man clearly has the time of his life finding ways to make Fitch ever more despicable. Hammy performances in a cheesy story. Runaway Jury isn’t just a movie, it’s lunch.

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