One more in a long list of courtroom potboilers from prolific novelist John Grisham and Co.
The Firm. The Client. The Chamber. The Pelican Brief. The Rainmaker. And now Runaway Jury. Novelist John Grisham is nothing if not adored by Hollywood actors and directors (Gene Hackman, whose role in Runaway Jury is his third in a Grisham film, gushes, "He writes highly dramatic kinds of scenes for actors and we like that"). He's also entirely predictable. This time around, a New Orleans jury gets tampered with in a big gun manufacturer trial. The gun maker is in court defending itself against charges of "negligent distribution methods" that prosecutors say allowed a deranged day-trader to strafe his coworkers, killing 11 souls. On behalf of one of the widows, attorney Wendell Rohr files suit against the company that made the gun used in the terrible assault.
Working for the defense is Ramkin Fitch, a jury consultant who's hardly averse to resorting to bribery, blackmail and brutal intimidation to make sure his side wins. On this case, though, he's not the only one interested in manipulating the outcome. Juror number nine, Nick Easter, isn't there by accident. He got himself on this jury for a reason. A reason soon to become more than evident to Ramkin. So it's a covert war in and around the courthouse as Fitch and his team of high-tech specialists thrust and parry with Nick and his partner in crime, Marlee. Covert because if anyone's caught, the judge declares a mistrial; something nobody wants. War because there's potentially hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.
For Wendell, there's more riding on this case than publicity, money and the respect of peers. He's in it for the principle of the thing. He cares about the outcome because he's convinced he can save lives by winning. So whether he's right or wrong, his motives are noble. He also makes a good point about how contemptuous spirits always turn malignant and ruin lives.
Early on, there's a remark made identifying Saint Catherine as the patron saint of unmarried women and jurists. Nick makes a point of looking for some sort of good luck charm that might help him avoid jury duty (not that he really wants off the jury). A rosary dangles from a cabby's rearview mirror. Fitch yells that he hates Baptists and Democrats with equal fervor. To win over his fellow jurors, Nick asks them to remember a soldier friend of his he says died in Iraq. When a woman suggests doing so by reciting the Lord's Prayer, he responds, "I couldn't ask anybody to pray." Later, he claims to be agnostic.
Nick and Marlee turn out to be more than just "business" partners; they also share a bed. Marlee takes off her shirt (she's wearing a bra) and the two kiss passionately before the scene shifts to the next morning. Jokes are traded about a sex change operation, "big girls" and birth control.
The movie opens with scenes from the fateful shooting that prompts the trial. It's more intense than explicit as muzzle flashes and loud bangs send office workers scrambling for safety. Nick tussles with an intruder, then chases him to his car and smashes several of his windows with a metal pipe after being almost run down. Fitch's men trash Nick's apartment, then set it afire. Marlee also fights off an ill-intentioned man, stabbing him in the leg after they get into it at her home. She also hits him over the head with a beer bottle, pokes her fingers into his eyes and kicks him in the crotch and face. He tries to choke her, smashes her into a wall and comes at her with a knife.
Elsewhere, a prospective juror spreads fake blood on his shirt, prompting security guards to wrestle him to the ground and drag him out of the courtroom.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and a dozen s-words elevate the profanity count to about 40. Jesus' name is abused once. God's three or four times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Fitch turns to booze when he's upset. Bar scenes include images of patrons drinking. A juror sneaks shots of whiskey during the trial (she's thrown off the jury for it). Another juror tries to commit suicide by combining alcohol with a bottle full of sleeping pills. A juror and other minor characters smoke.
Other Negative Elements
This movie makes a mockery of the judicial system by not just implying that jury tampering happens, but that it is routine and easy to get away with. Fitch insists "trials are too important to be left up to juries." Even when the judge finds out that one of the juror's apartment has been torched, he doesn't intervene. It's implied more than once that the only way to further one's agenda or beliefs is to lie and cheat.
Fitch declares that "fat women" make great jurors because they're "tight-fisted and unsympathetic." A juror is blackmailed with threats to expose her for having had an abortion. Another, who is HIV-positive, is also threatened with exposure.
I had hoped to write this review without diving into the murky waters of gun-control politics. But alas, the contents of Runaway Jury won't allow for that. So, without taking sides, I'll note that it is the anti-gun lobby that runs away with this jury—the one onscreen and the one sitting in theaters. Impassioned arguments are presented both for and against gun control, but there's no reasonable question about where the filmmakers' sympathies lie. The way the trial ends and the way scenes are couched indicate that gun makers should be held responsible for how their products are used and that the current legal effort to elevate levels of gun control is inherently more valid than efforts to prevent new laws.
Upon learning I was reviewing this film, a colleague remarked that she had read the book it was based on. "Was it good?" I questioned. "I'm sure it was," she responded, "but all of Grisham's books sort of blend together after awhile." As do his movies. Despite its inclination to pull the trigger on a heated handgun debate, there's very little here that sets this Grisham film apart from any other. It's a taut, courtroom drama dotted with desperate men and women with their claws fully extended, fighting for whatever it is they believe in—be that justice, revenge or lots and lots of money. Not that diehard fans will mind, especially since Runaway Jury's cast is A-list and its execution above average. Still, families interested in reading (seeing) this new chapter should take the time to carefully weigh all the evidence (political bias, depicted violence, brief sexuality and vulgar language) before crowding into the courtroom.