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Runaway Jury

With nearly a dozen major motion pictures based on his books, it is virtually assured that anything John Grisham puts down on paper will hit the big screen eventually. As a testament to his popularity, Grisham has sold more than sixty million copies of his novels in the last decade, making him the most popular author of the 90's. Courtroom dramas have become a major market, perhaps in part due to Grisham's success, so this is likely not the last time his name will be mentioned.

In the opening scene, a crazed gunman charges into a law office and opens fire on its employees. No surprise, Runaway Jury then cuts to the familiar setting of a Deep South courtroom. On behalf of a victim's wife, Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) is suing the manufacturer of the weapon used in the shooting for criminal negligence in the distribution of automatic weapons. In order to sway the decision in their favor, the gun people enlist the services of jury consultant Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), a master at sizing up a juror's politics in a single glance. However, this time Fitch goes against his first impulse and chooses Nick Easter (John Cusack). As it turns out, Easter has his own agenda and makes an offer to both Fitch and Rohr; ten million dollars in exchange for a favorable decision.

As a whole, the story is pointed and sensible, though a tad predictable (Do you really think that the gun people are going to get a decision in their favor?). Anchored by the commanding performances of both Hackman and Hoffman, the majority of the film is quite entertaining. This is not to say it is without its shortcomings. One particularly confusing sequence occurs when Easter goes to a local witchcraft shop and encounters the mysterious Marlee (Rachel Weisz), who he pretends to have just met. In reality, these two are lovers and partners in crime. Since no one is watching, either this behavior is unjustified, or they are engaging in some sort of sexual role play. Who knows?

There are also some minor problems with the film's conclusion. Since there is a twist (sort of), I won't go into any details, but in addition to getting a bit sappy, it seems a bit too neat and tidy to be believable. However, the real problem with the movie is how the jurors are influenced. Cusack's methods of persuasion boil down to providing a warm shoulder for others to cry on. This, on its own, does not seem sufficient to make the other jurors so malleable. Had the main players been more innovative in how they manipulated the jurors, the movie would have been more effective.

There is a basic concept in statistics known as the bell curve for distribution. Generally speaking, it states that things become exponentially less common as they deviate further from the average. Simply stated, 'good' happens a lot more often than 'great'. Like Grisham's previous efforts, The Firm and A Time to Kill, and so many others, Runaway Jury is good. What it is not is great.

STARS: 2 out of 5