There are two sure things in the sleekly machined legal thriller "Runaway Jury." One is that grizzled screen veterans Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman — playing a pair of grizzled courtroom combatants — will engage in an ethical shootout in which one man reaches for his ideals while the other quick-draws on cynicism. The other sure thing is that the spirit of the law will be upheld (this being Hollywood), but only after everyone has had plenty of nasty fun (this being Hollywood).
You don't need to watch the "Law & Order" triumvirate to see that America is mad about crime and punishment. We love forensics and autopsies, brusque-talking cops, tough-minded prosecutors, soulless defenders and wicked, wicked criminals. Give us a dead body and we're there — night after television night, page after bestseller page — peering over specialist shoulders and going, "eeeyuuw ... show me more." If there's something faintly repulsive about this dark obsession, it's because no matter how much science gets thrown into the mix, no matter how high-minded the courthouse drama, there's no escaping that it's death that got us here in the first place. (Necrophilia is now a national pastime.)
Based on the John Grisham potboiler and directed without a gram of personality by Gary Fleder, "Runaway Jury" begins with a terrible bang. In a prologue guaranteed to disturb anyone who's ever worried about the guy in the next cubicle, a gunman opens fire on his former co-workers in a New Orleans office, killing 11 and wounding a handful of others. It's an effectively unpleasant scene made all the more potent because it unfolds from the terrified point of view of one of the gunman's targets, who — in a clever bit of casting — is played by a well-known actor. Even four decades after "Psycho," the sudden death of a familiar face isn't just a shock to the system; it's a fiendishly smart way to stack the decks.
Grisham, aided and abetted by four credited screenwriters, stacks the decks with consummate skill. Two years after the office rampage, the widow of one of the victims sues the company that manufactured the gun used in the killing spree. The lawyer representing the widow, the righteously named Wendall Rohr (Hoffman), believes in truth, justice and the American judicial way, as well as off-the-rack suits and some well-honed folksy guff. Across the aisle, working for a clandestine consortium of gun manufacturers, smirks Hackman's Dickensian-sounding Rankin Fitch, a "jury consultant" whose big-city sneers and alligator shoes epitomize the judicial evil that has helped turn Grisham into a phenomenon. (A onetime lawyer, Grisham knows that sometimes the best villains aren't the mopes under lock and key.)
Fleder is overly fond of whipping the camera around — he tries to ratchet up the tension with fast-swooping moves — but along with his professional crew, he's come up with a dark, glossy look that gives the film a patina of noir by way of a luxury-car commercial. It's a smooth, comfortable ride all the way, with Hackman and Hoffman, of course, the ultimate in fine engineering. Hoffman's deep-fried accent disappears whenever he raises his voice, but he's a pip to watch. The same goes for Hackman, who can do this sort of pro forma villainy in his sleep, yet invests even his lesser roles with unnerving ferocity. The showdown between the two may smell as fresh as an old barn — it was written specifically for the film — but it's also richly entertaining garbage.
Although the story now takes place in New Orleans rather than Biloxi, Miss., and the court fight involves Big Guns rather than Big Tobacco, the film hews close to the book's underlying question of whether the law can — or should — be left in the hands of the average Joe and Jane. How the film's top-billed star, John Cusack, who plays juror Nick Easter, helps answer this question constitutes most of the mystery in "Runaway Jury." Along with a shady lady named Marlee (Rachel Weisz), Easter seems to be running some serious interference during the trial. He baits the judge (Bruce McGill), massages his fellow jurors with the scrupulous attention of a shiatsu therapist, and plays one legal team off the other for reasons that shift from clear to cloudy.
How it all plays out comes as a nifty surprise, involving a series of dramatic twists. Still, despite the minor jolts, the larger shock here is the free-range cynicism. For all the lofty speeches and attention to procedure, what puts the story in gear isn't abstract matters of jurisprudence, but the myriad ways that people fail: as citizens, as colleagues, as friends, as intimates. In the end, this isn't a movie about the evils of the gun industry or the corruption of the legal system; it's about the perils of leaving the law in the hands of the people. "Runaway Jury" hinges on the brutal murder of one man. But as is the case with so many legal thrillers, the corpse filling the chalk outline and lying across the autopsy table isn't just one poor, solitary slob — it's the body politic in all its lethal and tragic imperfection.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for violence, language and thematic elements
Times guidelines: Some violence, adult language
John Cusack ... Nick Easter
Gene Hackman ... Rankin Fitch
Dustin Hoffman ... Wendall Rohr
Rachel Weisz ... Marlee
Bruce Davison ... Cable
Regency Enterprises presents a New Regency Production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Gary Fleder. Writers Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland, Matthew Chapman. Producers Aronon Milchan, Gary Fleder, Christopher Mankiewicz. Based on the book by John Grisham. Director of photography Robert Elswit. Production designer Nelson Coates. Editor William Steinkamp. Costume designer Abigail Murray. Music Christopher Young. Music supervisor Peter Afterman. Casting Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times