2003, Gary Fleder

I really miss the days when there was a surplus of serious, adult-themed thrillers with skilled actors taking on relatively conventional parts and elevating the material to something entertaining without trying to force itself to be exceptional. These days we don’t get those middle-ground kind of films anymore, it’s usually either the small independents or the large blockbusters or awards prospects, with nothing in between. Runaway Jury is one of those middle films that you don’t see anymore, and while it is definitely nothing to write home about, I still found it an extremely enjoyable ride with a solid cast of some of my favorite actors.

John Cusack (my eternal comfort food of actors) and a pre-Oscar Rachel Weisz take on the roles of lovers making a play to sell off a jury to the highest bidder. Cusack’s character gets inside while Weisz works to play to the opposing counsels. Dustin Hoffman is the morally upright prosecutor looking to make the big bad gun company pay for their weapons being used in an office shooting and, despite a questionable New Orleans accent, he’s clearly having a lot of fun in the role, which shows. Gene Hackman opposes him, but not in court; rather he’s the master jury manipulator, working behind the scenes for the defense to try and rig the jury to bring the outcome of the case his way.

Directed by Gary Fleder, it has a slick style that fits well with the John Grisham source material, but really it’s the actors who elevate this above its conventions. Cusack brings his usual charismatic humanity to the leading role which makes it easy to root for this guy even when he’s doing questionable things, and Weisz is plenty alluring and intelligent. Hackman and Hoffman both command the screen, working into their own distinct personalities that they’ve cultivated over the years. Neither stretches far beyond what you’re used to seeing from them, but they have more presence than the large majority of actors and they draw you to them in each of their scenes.

All four provide for some thrills that keep this one moving along at an exciting, well-balanced pace and the script gives just the right amount of turns to keep you focused and guessing. The final reveal perhaps opens up one too many plot holes with everything that comes before it, but nothing to an extreme that would be very detrimental to the overall pleasurable experience that the film had accomplished to that point. Runaway Jury is a fine, if unexceptional, film that makes me nostalgic for the days not too long ago when we could get these kind of pictures on a routine basis.

B-

Film #247 of The 365 Film Challenge.

1994, Joel Schumacher

There was a time during the ’90s where a few things held true in the film industry that don’t really hold up anymore. For one, Susan Sarandon was able to lead a movie, as she did many times. Along with that, legal thrillers were all the rage, particularly if they had the name John Grisham attached to them. These things have gone out of style and, if you ask me, that’s a real shame. For my money, Susan Sarandon is one of the best actresses to have ever hit the screen and I’ve got to admit that I have a real soft spot for legal thrillers — even the bad ones are usually at least somewhat enjoyable for me.

The Client, adapted from a Grisham novel, certainly isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s a serviceable thriller with a great performance at its core from Sarandon. I think it would have been much better had it been worked on by better people behind the camera, notably the soft efforts of director Joel Schumacher and writer Akiva Goldsman. Neither of these guys really have the kind of bite that was necessary for the material and so a lot of it follows conventional roads while taking dark themes and instead of going for the throat, they back off into this Rob Reiner area of vanilla softness. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it definitely prevents it from being something more than what it ends up being.

Still, it’s the cast that highlights this picture and even outside of Sarandon they put together a really fine ensemble group. The supporting cast is loaded with ’90s faces who would later break out, like Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony LaPaglia and William H. Macy, but the central performances come down to Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones and Brad Renfro. The Client was Renfro’s film debut (something Grisham insisted on, as he didn’t want an established child actor in the lead) and in spite of a few typical “annoying kid” moments, he pulls it off pretty well.

Sarandon, as I mentioned already, takes on her role with a fierceness as only she knows how and she knocks it out of the park in what is one of her finest performances. She’s strong and assertive while also harboring some deep flaws of her own and a rich backstory that she utilizes to round out her character more than we’re given on the page. Tommy Lee Jones is rarely off his game and here he gets to mix that Texas charm of his with a shade of black, although his character takes a strange turn in the final act that felt really underdeveloped to me. The Client isn’t a memorable film by any means, but for someone like me who loves Sarandon and gets his kicks often on legal thrillers, I can’t say it was a waste of time by any means.

C

Film #231 of The 365 Film Challenge.