Directed by Gary Fleder. USA. 2003.

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Lawyer turned novelist John Grisham writes formulaic books that sell by the trainload, making him an obvious target for the Hollywood machine looking for formulaic movies that sell by the planetload. The thing is, the movie industry was drawn to Danielle Steel for the same reason: so why are Ms. Steel's rags-to-riches femi-narratives relegated to TV movie status, whilst Grisham movies regularly attract A-list casts, directors and writers? The answer must be somewhere in the demographic, of course, or maybe it just boils down to the fact that everybody loves a good courtroom drama. Why, we might reasonably ask? Especially those of us who have actually been in a courtroom and experienced firsthand how resolutely undramatic it actually is. Maybe it's the tension - the distillation of the conflict/resolution pattern intrinsic to every Hollywood narrative. Or maybe it's just because they attract all the aforementioned talent: McConaughey and L. Jackson in A Time To Kill, Cruise and Nicholson in A Few Good Men. The fact is, people would want to see these movies regardless of the subject matter.

Runaway Jury is a case in point - it resembles a fantasy cast. John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and Rachel Weisz all get a chance to sink their illustrious teeth into roles meatier than the average Hollywood film has room for. That's not to mention the supporting ensemble, which is bursting with classic "Oh yeah - it's that guy/girl again from suchandsuch a movie!" We are talking Jennifer Beals, supplementing her diverting turn in Roger Dodger with a non-role as a juror; the legendary Luis Guzman, following likewise; Jeremy Piven, Cusack's old buddy in Grosse Pointe Blank ("Ten years, man - ten years!"), donning a superb toupee and enjoying himself as a righteous jury consultant; and many, many more.

Whilst you are busy having fun actor-watching, the movie chugs along at a smooth, enjoyable pace with the requisite twists and turns that are not too preposterous, and finishes up with a denouement that, despite almost tipping into oversentimentalisation, is a slow-mo dream for all NRA-hating liberals.

Slow-mo is utilised by Gary Fleder at a couple of other junctures, where it comes across as quite superfluous. Other than that, however, the direction is not overly ostentatious, sensibly allowing the cast and script to get on with their excellent jobs. It might seem a shame to see Fleder, who burst so gloriously onto the scene with Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead, reduced to the predictable Hollywood thrillers he has been churning out since - but maybe that triumphant debut was more to do with the writing talents of his friend and sometime collaborator Scott Rosenberg. Rosenberg has gone on to pen two more classics, after all: Con Air and Beautiful Girls. The pair re-united for the little seen Phillip K. Dick adaptation, Impostor, but perhaps Rosenberg needs to get some more original material together if he wants to make Fleder's career interesting again.

That's not to say that producing excellent Grisham-based entertainment such as Runaway Jury is anything to be ashamed of; Coppola and Altman have both been there, without as much success. What's more, Fleder gained the kudos of putting movie legends Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman on screen together for the first time. Whilst their pivotal scene skirts close to bathos by virtue of being set in a bathroom, littered with legalese and having Hackman dwarf Hoffman by a ridiculous amount, the encounter works. It will probably not become as iconic as the De Niro/Pacino diner face-off in Heat, but Hackman and Hoffman utilise their considerable presences to ensure this effort is almost as exhilarating and existential.

Runaway Jury represents all that is possible within Hollywood: pleasing stars, intelligent writing and polished presentation. It's not a runaway success in terms of innovation, or provocation (the issue of gun control, ostensibly a fertile ground for debate, is not really explored in any great depth) but this is incidental with such filmic Ronseal: it does exactly what it says on the tin, leaving viewers to emerge doused in an impermeable glaze of entertainment.

Peter Anderson
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