John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman
Directed by Gary Felder
Running Time: 127 mins
Rated: M

Based on John Grisham's novel of the same name, Runaway Jury is the type of legal drama we hope is not remotely true. It is frightening to contemplate the measures Rankin Fitch (Hackman) goes to in coercing jurors for his own ends.

One normal, busy Monday morning a depressed employee walks into his former office and shoots everyone in sight. His main target is the boss, whom he shoots at point-blank range, and then turns the gun on himself. The grieving widow of the boss takes the gun manufacturer to court for selling such a lethal weapon to the public. She hires the honourable and successful New Orleans lawyer, Wendell Rohr (Hoffman). A decision for the plaintiff would set a precedent which would destroy the profits of the gun industry. The firearm company hires jury-selection expert Rankin Fitch (Hackman), to make sure they get the jury they want. "Trials are too important to be left to juries", and so he sets about using fair and foul means to secure the verdict.

As the trial proceeds it becomes clear to both sides that there is third party working inside and outside of the jury room for its own ends. Who are they? Why are they involved? And what verdict do they want?

In the book it was the tobacco industry that was put on trial. No doubt screenwriters Brian Koppleman, David Levin, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman thought The Insider was too recently produced to go down that path again so soon. They have made an intelligent and equally passionate case in their reworking of Grisham's novel.

Runaway Jury is an excellent courtroom drama. The lead performances from Cusack, Hoffman and Hackman are terrific. There are a host of distinguished character-actors in minor roles, who have less to do, but make the most of it. It is only Rachel Weisz who fails to convince us of the duplicity of her character.

Director Gary Felder keeps the action tight and William Stenkamp's editing is first class.

In the novel and the film much is made of John Cusack's name, "Nicholas Easter". It's clever shorthand for the story. St Nicholas is associated with Christmas and in between then and Easter the major season is Lent, the time in the Christian calendar when we face up to sin, repent and are converted again to the light.

Runaway Jury is a Lenten film, but let's hope and pray it's just the work of John Grisham's vivid imagination, otherwise the scales of Justice are being outweighed by people who are anything but blind.

Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the Director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

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