John Grisham's novels are clever constructions in which stick figures resembling human beings are moved around a kind of chess board, the moral versus the immoral, through standard openings, middle games and end games, until the good checkmate the bad. The stories are made up of nothing but moves and countermoves. They work on the page, where the reader can invest each character with his or her fantasy personality, but they're hard to translate successfully to film, because on screen they're visible as real, ten-foot-high human beings in the shape of people like - in this case - John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Rachel Weisz and Dustin Hoffman. And being real people, and good actors, they try to make their stick figures into believable characters. It's understandable, but futile.
"Runaway Jury," in a switch from the novel, which dealt with a tobacco company, is the story of a civil lawsuit brought against a gun manufacturer for complicity in the death of a husband and father who was killed by a disgruntled coworker who then killed himself. The company has brought in high-priced jury consultant Rankin Fitch, in the person of Gene Hackman, who is so evil he would be more believable as the villain in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. He sets up a war room right out of "War Room," and goes after every dirty fact about every juror in the pool. He will buy, beat or blackmail these jurors until they give him the right verdict.
The poor widow has hired as her attorney Wendall Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), a decent man who believes that decent people will do the decent thing. Is he na´ve or is he a fox hiding in the long grass? And then there is juror No. 9, Nick Easter (John Cusack), who you can bet has his own agenda, or why would he be in the film? And what is his connection with the mysterious Marlee (Rachel Weisz), who keeps making phone calls to the attorneys, promising to swing the verdict their way if only they will pay her $10 million.
If you've read the book, as I have, you know why Nick and Marlee are here; the pleasure should be in the getting to the revelation. But in the film, even though it runs more than two hours, everything has been so compressed (four writers are credited with the screenplay, which usually signifies big problems) that there's no time to breathe. At the trial, each side barely gets to present any testimony, and the talk in the jury room - a key in the novel - is a garble of private agendas and personality tics. Mostly, we watch as Hackman chews the scenery: "You're losing me my jury!" he shouts, more than once. Oh, and did I mention the ransacking of Nick's little apartment, or the assaults on poor Marlee? Or, once the jury has been sequestered, how easily Nick manages to leap over rooftops to meet with her and get back without being found out by the marshals guarding them?
The setting is New Orleans, the most beautiful city in America; but never has a film taken less advantage of it. Director Gary Fleder has no eye for his setting, nor even for his characters. There's more tension in any shot of "Law and Order" than there is in two hours of "Runaway Jury." So just in case you're not planning to see this film, let me assure you that the good guys win and the bad guys lose. If only real life were like that.