Watching Hollywood's endless stream of John Grisham adaptations -- The Firm, The Chamber, A Time to Kill, etc. -- it would be easy to assume that Grisham is the worst sort of hack writer, with simplistic morals that usually overwhelm logic and come close to contravening the very law the author is supposed to be an expert in. Reading The Runaway Jury, however, it becomes clear that this isn't so: By page-turner standards, Grisham's a good writer, no literary giant perhaps, but certainly able to provide a few hours' worth of decent entertainment. Then you watch the film version, Runaway Jury, and it becomes clear -- as easy to read as Grisham may be, he's still not simplistic enough for Hollywood's standards. No doubt the author's raking in sufficient dough from big-studio checks that fealty to his work is immaterial, but it's no coincidence that the only really good Grisham-based movie to date is the one he wrote for the screen himself, the Robert Altman-directed The Gingerbread Man.
The novel The Runaway Jury presents even more problems than usual for a movie adaptation: Its protagonists are far from virtuous, and its subject matter partially dated. Although the drama in both book and film revolves around the perennial issue of jury-tampering, Grisham's 1996 book featured a lawsuit against the tobacco industry, which at the time would have been a precedent-setting case -- remember, presidential candidate Bob Dole was on the campaign trail then saying that he didn't believe cigarettes were addictive. Big Tobacco has since had its day in court and lost, and besides, recent revelations indicate that cigarette companies are heavily into movie product placement, so why blow that cozy relationship? Instead the movie gives us an issue more beloved by Democrat-voting movie-biz types: gun lawsuits.
Thus the story now opens with a shooting, and proceeds with a case in which the victim's widow sues the gun company for damages. It's a trickier issue than cigarettes, primarily because there's no right to inhale dried burning leaves enshrined in our Constitution. Can a gun be considered a defective product if it kills someone? Isn't that what it's supposed to do? The film tries to make an analogy to the Joe Camel ads targeting children, pointing out gun ads that promote features like "fingerprint-resistant finish" that presumably appeal primarily to criminals. While a good argument, it's not as easily cut and dried -- in the book, a big company's product directly kills its user; onscreen, a big company's product winds up in the hands of a psycho who kills someone else. Had they opened the film with a gun-suicide, possibly an accidental one due to a confusing safety catch or something, the similarities might be more apropos.
The lawyer for the plaintiff is Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman, adopting the kind of Southern accent that doesn't exist outside of Tennessee Williams plays), and his opponent in the courtroom is Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison), but the real guy he needs to be worrying about is Cable's unscrupulous boss Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman, fully armed with his trademark "Heh heh-heh" chuckle). Fitch has a base of operations more suited to the CIA than a gun lawyer, a sort of snoops central whence he unethically retrieves every iota of information he can get on all prospective jurors. If for any reason he can't find their likely biases, he'll look for blackmail material. One way or another, they'll vote his way, regardless of the trial evidence.
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But one juror comes without any apparent paper trail -- Nicholas Easter (John Cusack), seemingly a part-time student who works in a software store. Easter makes it through the selection process, but once in, it becomes clear that he has more than justice on his mind. Working in conjunction with mysterious blackmailer Marlee (Rachel Weisz), he aims to swing the jury whichever way he chooses, all dependent upon which lawyer is the first to agree to a ten-million-dollar bribe.
It's not a bad premise, and certainly far from a bad cast: In addition to the major players, we get Bruce McGill, Luis Guzman, Cliff Curtis, Jeremy Piven, Nick Searcy, Orlando Jones, Jennifer Beals, and Nora Dunn. Unfortunately the director is Gary Fleder, who wasted a similarly stellar cast in Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead. In trying to expand the film's setting beyond the court and the jury rooms, Fleder screws up a simple thing. Grisham's text might have been better suited to a TV movie, or even a play, in which character interaction would be key. Here we get some token chase scenes, and a change of setting from Biloxi to New Orleans, mainly to include a vacuous interlude (which doesn't even make sense by movie's end) set in a voodoo shop. The director was at least smart enough to include a new scene in which Hoffman and Hackman confront each other in the men's room, but it comes more than an hour and a half into the film and is the only such exchange. Pacino/De Niro in Heat it ain't, but we make do.
Then there's the humor. In-jokes about cigarettes abound, notably a sanitized version of the kids' song "Big Rock Candy Mountain" with politically incorrect references to cigarette trees excised, but it'll be lost on any who didn't read the book, and those who did will wonder why they bothered with an inferior adaptation. Grisham's text was actually funnier, with the petulant jurors acting -- at Easter's behest -- like spoiled children at every opportunity; the one major instance of such to survive the translation is a scene in which Easter spontaneously manipulates the jury into saying the Pledge of Allegiance just to prove to Fitch and Rohr that he can. One newly inserted joke is truly bizarre -- the addition to the jury of a Goth girl named Lydia Deets (Corri English), after Winona Ryder's character in Beetlejuice.
By the end, everything's wrapped up in a neat package, and the protagonists' apparent amorality either explained or negated. Easter in the original book was ruthless enough to drug a blind man into a state of near-death, which was part of the fun; here, as played by Cusack, he's just another lovable rogue. Cusack is inherently charming enough that audiences will generally like him no matter what (recall his sensitive hit man in Grosse Pointe Blank), so it's too bad Fleder didn't have the guts to truly test that. By contrast, Hackman, playing it gleefully amoral, walks away with the film, for what that's worth ... which is a video rental for fans of the actors involved. Yes, that's video, not DVD -- four bucks at Blockbuster is more than you ought to be paying.