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"Runaway Jury"

ONLY LEGAL experts will be able to determine the extent to which the plot of "Runaway Jury" is plausible. Can juries be actually manipulated as they are in this cinematic adaptation of a John Grisham novel? But then verdicts (in the American judiciary system) are won and lost by the conclusion of the jury process — and with millions involved it is not unreasonable to believe that some desperate companies would go to any length to ensure and influence potential jurors.

Helmed by Grey Fleder, what gets this drama to flourish happens well before the events are depicted. But you do know that it is about manipulating the jury. Far fetched perhaps, but done effectively by holding the layers of deception and slowly stripping them away frame by frame.

The case involves gun manufacturers who make it easy for people to acquire them, leading to several incidents of random shootings. A young mother and now a widow bring a case against a gun maker and someone who has earlier withstood previous legal attacks on the company's profitability and business.

The spirit of New Orleans is made evident from the pathways and the ambience, as the film opens. But it is also a gun lobby hotbed and it is not very easy to nail those fellows down. Dustin Hoffman is the crusading attorney, Wendall Rohr, representing the widow with his better-paid counterpart, Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison), across the aisle as defence. They cannot afford to lose the gun boys so they enlist the help of an unscrupulous and wily consultant, Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), to make sure the jury outcome is favourable. He has to guarantee success or else...

The process of choosing the jury is marvellously done with split screens and fast cuts that bring in the element of tension when both sides have to accept a particular candidate — and each candidate has been clandestinely investigated.

When one receives an invitation to serve on the jury it does not have them whooping for joy, and so it is not surprising that Nick Easter (John Cusack) is reluctant.

But when he is thrown some questions by the judge, he slyly and subtly challenges a rejection. And when he tells his accomplice Marlee (Rachel Weizs) that he has been selected and there is joy, you know there is more to it than meets the eye.

Cunning is the word as the parties clash in their differing interests. For Nick and Marlee it would seem it is all about money — and when the attorneys discover that Nick is exerting influence on the jury members from within, they realise the stakes are high. And Marlee strings both sides along for ten million dollars or the verdict goes the way she chooses. Their real motives are revealed in the climax.

Casting wise, Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman are pitched extremely well, while John Cusack does a good job as someone playing a deeper game. The way the screenplay is written it is favourably disposed towards gun control, which is not the premise a lawsuit ought to begin with. But then every story has to have the good guys and the bad ones. And as a subject of drama, the good guys always need to win!

CHITRA MAHESH

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