-By Daniel Eagan

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Loosely based on the John Grisham best-seller, Runaway Jury wavers between courtroom thriller and message drama. Buoyed by a flamboyant performance from Gene Hackman, the film works best as an example of prime star power. Now that the blockbuster season is over, it will grab an early share of viewers looking for weightier fare.

After a massacre in a brokerage office, an angry widow sues the gun industry for her husband's death. Representing her is Wendall Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), whose folksy mannerisms disguise a sharp intellect. Millionaire gunmaker Garland Jankle (Stanley Anderson) can't afford to lose the case. He hires jury consultant Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) to make sure defense attorney Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison) wins.

Fitch and his team use high-tech methods to tilt the jury in their favor during jury selection. As he says, 'Trials are too important to be left up to the juries.' Rohr relies more on instinct, and on help from freelance consultant Lawrence Green (Jeremy Piven). Both sides are blindsided by Nick Easter (John Cusack), a juror who has concocted an intricate scheme to extort money from both the plaintiff and the defense.

Helped on the outside by his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz), Nick quietly tries to assume control of the jury. Marlee demands millions from Fitch and Rohr, orchestrating examples of Nick's increasing power when they balk. Meanwhile, Fitch sends Doyle (Nick Searcy) on a search to ferret something from the past he can use against Marlee and Nick. With the stakes so high, Fitch will stop at nothing to win.

Like most of Grisham's work, Runaway Jury poses difficult obstacles for film. Director Gary Fleder succeeds in managing the reams of exposition, much of it ultimately irrelevant, that have to be delivered. He has more trouble finding a balance between not one, but two David vs. Goliath scenarios. An expertly staged chase injects some life into a story that is largely confined to interiors. The film includes several persuasive speeches against the gun industry, but fails to address the moral and ethical issues behind Nick's scheme. And for all the build-up, the jury deliberations are seriously underwritten.

Cusack is an appealing performer, but his persona is too wholesome to bring out the darker aspects of his character. Weisz is far more convincing, holding her own even during gratuitous action scenes. Hoffman has fun with what was a minor role in the novel. He and Hackman share one scene in a men's room that is a marvel of acting expertise, but this is really Hackman's movie. He brings so much power and conviction to his role that he threatens to throttle everyone else into submission.

Grisham originally staged the trial against the tobacco industry. Guns prove to be just as worthy a target, but the acting is what sets Runaway Jury apart from other adaptations of his work. Hackman in particular elevates what could have been a middling story into something to remember.

-Daniel Eagan

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