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Review: 'Runaway Jury' verdict: a winner

Terrific acting from terrific cast

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Runaway Jury
Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman in "Runaway Jury."

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(CNN) -- "Runaway Jury" is the best big-screen adaptation of a John Grisham novel since "The Firm" in 1993.

Sure, it's extremely manipulative and at times wildly implausible, but it is a rip-roaring good suspense thriller with plenty of twists and turns, and it showcases excellent acting chops from Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, John Cusack and Rachel Weisz.

The film is also noteworthy because it's the first time that Hoffman and Hackman have ever shared the screen. The two Academy Award winners have been friends since the late 1950s, when they were beginning their careers in Los Angeles workshops and the Pasadena Playhouse. They were even roommates in New York for a time. They actually only appear together in one scene in the film, but it's a pivotal moment, and both come out swinging.

The film is set during a civil trial in New Orleans, with the defendant changed from a tobacco company in the book to a gun manufacturer in the movie. The firearms company is being sued for millions of dollars for creating an automatic weapon that was sold to a man who went on a shooting spree, killing numerous people.

Hoffman's character, Wendall Rohr, is an honest lawyer with a heartfelt respect for the law and the system. He represents the widow of one of the victims. Hackman plays Rankin Fitch, a ruthless jury consultant working for the gun company who will stop at nothing to secure a victory.

Opposite sides

Runaway Jury
John Cusack plays a juror and Rachel Weisz a mysterious agent in "Runaway Jury."

The film puts these two men at the opposite ends of the moral spectrum. Rohr worships the law. Fitch doesn't believe in due process and holds the whole concept in contempt. At one point, Fitch tells his clients "trials are too important to be left up to juries."

Cusack plays Nick Easter, an idealistic young man on the jury. Weisz plays a mysterious woman known only as Marlee who sets out to rig the jury for the highest bidder.

Fitch sets up an amazing high-tech command center in an old French Quarter warehouse, where his team of experts sets out to assess potential jurors, even putting them under surveillance. The plan is to find out anything they can about each juror, and then blackmail them into siding with the gun company.

On the other side of the aisle, Rohr has hired his own consultant, played by Jeremy Piven, but he's unknowingly handicapped, since he follows the rules regarding jury selection. Eventually, both sides are contacted by Marlee, who offers a winning verdict for $10 million. The game is on.

Holding the screen

Hoffman and Hackman are wonderfully cast. Both men are experts at holding the screen, and you can't take your eyes off either of them. When Hoffman signed on for the film, his character was expanded from the one in the original novel, heightening the dramatic tension in this battle between the good guys and the bad guys.

This is Hackman's third film based on a book by Grisham: he also appeared in "The Firm" and "The Chamber" (1996). Grisham is known for his highly charged scenes, and Hackman is an expert at delivering the goods when it comes to that kind of material.

Weisz and Cusack are also in top form in their highly ambiguous roles. You're not really sure exactly where they're coming from until the very end.

Director Gary Fleder, who cut his teeth in TV at the helm of the Emmy Award-winning series "The Shield," infuses this film with taut suspense, using unexpected camera angles and creative editing. In some movies, courtroom scenes can stop the action cold; Fleder keeps the furious pace going and the tension building until the surprising final scene.

"Runaway Jury" opens nationwide on Friday, October 17, and is rated PG-13.

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