In the mid-'90s, John Grisham could have stopped naming his novels and just scrawled "Film Script Draft No1" on the cover. The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client, The Chamber, The Rainmaker, The Gingerbread Man and A Time To Kill all marched into cinemas as quickly as JG could cook up a new corporate-bashing, lawyer-loving plot.
Yet they never seemed truly happy on celluloid. Despite star casts and meaty plots, Grisham's thrillers made glossy, comfortable, underachieving movies - entertaining but forgettable. Just ask Francis Ford Coppola, whose direction was all but anonymous in The Rainmaker.
And Runaway Jury isn't about to break the mould.
Hardly surprising, really: director Gary Fleder might have offbeat minor classic Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead buried deep on his CV, but he's best known as the solid, stolid professional behind mid-range guff like Kiss The Girls and Don't Say A Word. He's a fella you can trust to take a complex story like this - there's action going on in three separate arenas: the jury room, the offices of Fitch's jury consultants and the courtroom itself - and keep it streamlined and clear. But that's about it. And when you have got a cast like this, don't the words "streamlined and clear" just strum your disappointment glands?
Cusack, Hackman and Dustin Hoffman (as the trial's prosecuting attorney) are great players but you can't just let them coast along. With a script geared towards keeping the principals apart for the bulk of the movie - as Weisz's go-between girlfriend shuttles between them offering to sell the verdict to the highest bidder - it should have been down to Fleder to boot their performances up a notch. But he appears to fear failure too much to make it happen, instead letting Cusack fall back on his familiar wide-eyed, head-tilting mannerisms, while Hackman just plucks a ready-made slick nasty off the shelf. Only Hoffman puts in the extra ounce, his neat, ambiguous turn leaving you unsure if he's a true believer or just another hired gun.
What we have here, then, is a glossy crowdpleaser with just enough additional spin to keep you teetering off balance. Fine, but you can't help wishing that Fleder had taken a few more risks, pushed his cast that bit harder and gone for a unanimous victory rather than simply dodging a guilty verdict.
A thriller that sticks to the Grisham formula after Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man tried a new recipe and came unstuck. Next case, please...