Dir: Gary Fleder. US. 2003. 127 mins.

John Grisham adaptations were big box office performers in the mid-nineties but it's been almost six years since Hollywood last put one of the author's brisk legal thrillers onto the big screen. This Regency Enterprises version of Grisham's 1996 bestseller about a hijacked corporate liability trial has the well-crafted feel and juicy casting that helped turn The Firm and A Time To Kill (another Regency project) into major hits but it lacks the emotional punch necessary to match those films' $100m-plus domestic box office totals. Still, the novelist's continuing popularity and the sterling cast should produce a decent audience of older moviegoers and ensure that Runaway Jury out-performs later Grisham flops like The Chamber and The Gingerbread Man in the US market (where Fox opens the film this weekend). The distinctly American legal theme might limit the film's potential in international markets though solid video and TV sales could make up some of the difference.

Apparently because Michael Mann's The Insider had already covered the subject of cigarette company litigation, the Big Tobacco trial at the core of Grisham's novel becomes, in the movie, a multi-million dollar case brought by a bereaved widow against a consortium of gun manufacturers. Representing the widow is decent but pragmatic Southern lawyer Wendall Rohr (Hoffman) and manoeuvring behind the scenes for the gun companies is ruthless jury consultant Rankin Fitch (Hackman). The real Machiavellis, however, turn out to be jury member Nick Easter (Cusack) and his mysterious friend Marlee (Weisz).

Screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders), Rick Cleveland (The West Wing) and Matthew Chapman (Color Of Night) do a skilful job pulling the essential elements out of Grisham's densely packed plot and punching up important moments for a movie audience. They also - less subtly and less successfully - give the movie a more morally straightforward ending than the novel. Director Gary Fleder (Kiss The Girls) manages to keep court and jury room dialogue to a minimum and set much of the story in atmospheric New Orleans settings.

Neither Fleder nor the writers, however, manages to completely solve the adaptation problems posed by Grisham's book. Even with the plot stripped down, the film has to move at a rapid clip, so rapid that the audience does not have time to get very emotionally involved with the story or characters. And because much of the material excluded from the book is backstory on the jurors and other characters the film ends up feeling bereft of human interest.

The four characters who get most of the film's attention - juror Nick, legal eagles Fitch and Rohr and outsider Marlee - have little opportunity to interact because of their respective roles in the trial. And that's a particular shame given the calibre of the cast.

Individually, the performances are watchable without being particularly enthralling. Hoffman is most engaging because his character appears to be most affected by the course of the trial. Hackman's character is more one-dimensional and doesn't show the intensity he had on Grisham's page. Cusack is well cast, but the true motivation of his and Weisz' characters is revealed too late in the story to generate much interest.

When the characters do get to interact the results are mixed. Weisz and Hoffman have a nice scene together, but the big showdown between Hoffman and Hackman (acting together for the first time in their careers) is a disappointment, lacking the fire that might have made it stand out from the characters' otherwise cool strategizing.

Prod co: Regency Enterprises/New Regency
US dist:
20th Century Fox
Arnon Milchan, Gary Fleder, Christopher Mankiewicz
Exec prod:
Jeffrey Downer
Brian Koppelman & David Levien, Rick Cleveland, Matthew Chapman, based on the novel by John Grisham
Robert Elswit
Prod des:
Nelson Coates
William Steinkamp
Costume des:
Abigail Murray
Christopher Young
Main cast:
John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Bruce Davison