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The Runaway Jury

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The Runaway Jury

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For a stretch in the mid-'90s, it became as tough to avoid John Grisham in movie theaters as on airplanes. Glossy, star-laden adaptations of the author's Frommer's-guide-thick thrillers chased one another out of the multiplex until, after the mishandled release of Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man, Grisham movies seemed to disappear. The Runaway Jury ends that absence, but little seems to have changed in Grisham country since the last visit. Men with sharp suits walk through colorful Southern streets, phones only ring ominously, and the law remains a good idea more in theory than practice: It's administered by an irredeemably corrupt network of landed fogies, and put on the right course only when idealistic youngsters adopt similarly shady tactics. In The Runaway Jury, the action hinges on a high-profile suit filed against the gun industry after a disgruntled day trader's shooting spree takes out a brokerage firm staffed by uncredited guest star Dylan McDermott. The novel concerns a suit against the tobacco industry, but here, the action is so far removed from the issues that the case might as well involve Bruce Banner suing the creators of gamma radiation. In a performance that seems to pay tribute to Matlock-era Andy Griffith, Dustin Hoffman plays an idealistic liberal attorney eager to take on slick gun-industry lawyer Bruce Davison. Even freelance jury consultant Gene Hackman, and the army of spies and high-tech surveillance equipment he's assembled to ensure a gun-friendly jury, don't scare Hoffman. (And perhaps they shouldn't, given that Hackman's expertise seems limited to spouting statements like "We love fat women. They're tight-fisted and unsympathetic.") But neither side reckons on John Cusack, a juror whose friendly demeanor masks an agenda of his own. "Trials are too important to be left to juries," Hackman says at one point. Director Gary Fleder and the small firm responsible for the screenplay seem to feel that films are too important to be left to audiences. With bam-bam editing, Fleder puts triple exclamation points after every key moment, from an opening scene that cross-cuts between McDermott's death and footage of his child's birthday party to Hackman's visit to cigar-smoking, gun-making fat cats in antique leather chairs. Though star-packed to the point of absurdity–juror Luis Guzmán has little to do but nod his head every once in a while–The Runaway Jury doesn't know what to do with its players. It lets Hackman spend most of his time barking into a cell phone, and even botches a bathroom showdown between him and Hoffman. Their stock Grisham-isms were already exhausted five years ago, and now, they seem ready for a permanent mothballing.

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