The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Runaway Jury

So you check the mail, and that dreaded letter appears, the one you fear finding...JURY SUMMONS!!!  Ah, the benefits of a democracy where accused crooks get to be tried by a jury of their peers.  Too bad about being on the jury though.  You get to meet all sorts of new idiots, get paid very little, and in general, are taken away from your everyday life.  That is unless you're on a jury in the movies.  There you get to meet Henry Fonda, save the world, and deal with all sorts of intrigue and deception behind the scenes of the courtroom trial, like 2003's Runaway Jury.

That description of course minimalizes the movie and the duty of being a jury member.  Based on a novel from courtroom master John Grisham, this 2003 thriller benefits from a very strong, very deep cast that turns in worthy performances from top to bottom.  The main idea of the novel/movie is one that should make you chuckle.  Someone actually wants to serve on a jury.  As for their motivations, I can't give everything away here.

After two years of pretrial, a court case is finally going to trial.  A lawyer, husband and father (an uncredited Dylan McDermott) is gunned down in his office along with 10 other employees.  The man's wife is suing the guns distributor with a famed prosecutor from New Orleans, Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), agreeing to take the case.  The arms companies understand that if this case is lost, they stand to lose possibly billions of dollars, and hire a specialist to make sure the verdict goes their way.  His name is Rankin Finch (Gene Hackman), and he specializes in blackmail and deception to get the right jury candidates on the jury and then use them to his advantage.  One juror, Nick Easter (John Cusack), isn't going to go along so easy though.  With help from his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz), Nick plans to blackmail Finch into paying for him to sway the jury.  Of course, the offer stands for Rohr too so whoever comes through with the $10 million gets his jury.

As I reviewed several weeks ago with Primal Fear, courtroom dramas translate incredibly well from play, novel, and TV to the big screen.  It's a setting that is naturally full of tension and nerves so when you throw a halfway decent script into a mix with a very deep cast, it can be hard to mess that formula up.  In a nice twist though, the courtroom drama is secondary here with the behind the scenes situation ending up being far more interesting.  Cusack's character starts off as this clueless dolt, and then you realize he's the one duping us all along.  But with girlfriend Marlee, are they looking for a huge payout or do they have ulterior motives with their actions?

That's where I was a little disappointed with this Gary Fleder-directed courtroom drama; the ending.  Easter and Marlee clearly know what they're doing and more than hold their own in these confrontations with the always-intimidating Gene Hackman.  You're honestly not sure of their intentions for much of the movie, but it's apparent they are not just in it for the money.  When their true motivations are revealed in the last 10 minutes, everything fits together nicely that can be wrapped up with a nice bow.  But there is something missing, and for me, the finale limps to the finish.  I won't call it sappy, but it certainly tries to pull at the heart strings.  It is not necessarily a bad ending, but not the one I envisioned.

Complain about whatever you'd like from this movie, but the casting is basically off-limits.  And with so many names, characters drift in and out, but almost each one is given their chance to shine.  The jury includes chameleon-like Cliff Curtis as an ex-Marine, Jennifer Beals, Nora Dunn, an uncredited Luis Guzman, and several other recognizable faces.  In the courtroom, Bruce McGill plays Judge Harkin, Bruce Davison plays defense lawyer Durwood Cable (doesn't he just sound bad?), and Jeremy Piven is a jury specialist working with Hoffman, and Stanley Anderson as the face of the guns distributors.  As two of the four main leads, Cusack and Weisz work well together, Weisz especially standing out from the crowd with her performance.

What really stuck with me though was the performances from Hoffman and Hackman, two of the biggest stars to come out of the late 1960s and then the 1970s.  Before this 2003 drama, the two had never worked together so it's a treat to see them in the same movie.  The problem though? Originally they weren't even supposed to have a scene together.  Problem solved when a quick rewrite had the two in a confrontation in a courthouse restroom that echoes De Niro and Pacino talking in Heat (the DVD special features discuss this in detail).  It's a scene full of great dialogue and a camera that never really stops moving, pushing the frenetic conversation to an even more anxious level.  Their performances on the whole stand out from the rest of the movie, but their scene together -- almost 7 minutes long -- is a big reason to watch this movie.

So overall a flawed courtroom drama, but one that is definitely worth looking into.  The story is set in New Orleans, and while location shooting doesn't always jive well with typically inside courtroom dramas, Fleder does show off the city when given the chance.  Above everything else -- including an ending that didn't blow me away -- the cast is the main reason to watch this one.

Runaway Jury <----trailer (2003): ***/****         

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