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Court of Appeal
By Laura Leon

Runaway Jury

Directed by Gary Felder

Fans of John Grisham books are up in arms about the fact that the big meanie of the author’s 1996 best seller, Runaway Jury, has been transformed from evil tobacco empire to evil gun manufacturers. Even some conservative pundits are getting in on the act, saying that the switch is due, no doubt, to the liberal Hollywood establishment’s hatred of the NRA. Memo to both parties: Get over yourselves. While it may be set in a courtroom, Runaway Jury is not at all about a legal fight, let alone an indictment of any particular corporation or cause, as much as it is a highly entertaining power struggle between jury specialist Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), idealistic prosecutor Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), and insider-jury-swinger Nick Easter (John Cusack).

The honey-tongued Rohr is representing the widow of a stock trader who, along with several coworkers, was gunned down by a disgruntled former daytrader. In seeking to get the powerful Vicksburg Firearms to compensate for damages, he tells the jury that he is only trying to make gun violence the problem of the gun industry. Unfortunately for him, the industry has hired Fitch, whose team of spooks clandestinely film, tape, research and follow any potential juror. “Trials are too important to be left to juries,” reasons Fitch, who knows which juror has a drinking problem, which has money troubles, etc., all for the purpose of tweaking their preferences, if need be. The one wild card for Fitch in this particular jury is Easter, an apparent aging slacker with no history. As the trial commences, both Rohr and Fitch are contacted by the mysterious Marlee (Rachel Weisz), who offers each his desired verdict for a cool $10 million. Before long, both Rohr and Fitch realize that Nick is the man on the inside working with Marlee, and it’s a tense, if overlong, race to see who wins, and how.

It’s easy for critics to pooh-pooh movies based on Grisham novels, especially on the grounds that the legalese is faulty. Gee, ya think? Find me the hard-working moviegoer who wants to plunk down $7 to hear an actual debate on, say, the merits of tort law, and I’ll show you a person who misheard the question. Grisham stories are rife with the stuff that makes courtroom dramas, be it Perry Mason, L.A. Law or Law & Order, so much fun—there’s a clear-cut bad guy (or guys), and the only thing standing between them and getting off scot-free is a vastly overwhelmed, deeply flawed crusader. That person in Runaway Jury appears to be Nick, whose evolution from man with a mission, however vague (is it the money he’s after, or something more?), to somebody who realizes just how far his actions fly in the face of true democracy, is grounded, incremental and quite believable. This probably has more to do with the fact that he’s depicted by John Cusack than with Grisham’s writing, but Cusack is equally masterful in depicting the kind of good-time Charlie who wants desperately to amuse everybody as he is in playing a much more tightly wound potential weapon. While Hackman has played this kind of nasty guy too many times to remember, he clearly relishes his role, giving it a downright cheerful soulnessness, especially in a scene where he verbally trounces Rohr. For his part, Hoffman finally ditches his usual supercilious posing and delivers a surprisingly humane, sensitive performance. You actually believe that his character cares about the law, and isn’t just chewing words.

The film goes on far too long and features a too-late, too-pat explanation of Nick’s and Marley’s motivations. Director Gary Felder has cast solid character actors as the other members of the jury, but without exception, they’re left to sort of dissolve into the background once they’ve made a brief impression. Among these are Nora Dunn as the alcoholic juror, Bill Nunn as the money-strapped grocer, Luis Gomez as, I guess, the Latino juror, and Jennifer Beals in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance as the statuesque juror. What, exactly, is the point? Weisz in essence repeats her performance from Confidence, in which she plays a con artist whose allegiances are questionable. Is she loyal to Nick, or is she out for herself? It’s all part of the fun, as is watching her gamely square off against both Hackman and Hoffman with no trembling in sight. Like so many other Grisham adaptations, Runaway Jury is the cinematic equivalent of a beach read—but as the days get shorter and the air so much colder, what’s wrong with that?

Must we suffer so: Owen and Jolie in Beyond Borders.

Charity Case

Beyond Borders

Directed by Martin Campbell

“The epic tale of the turbulent romance between two star-crossed lovers set against the world’s most dangerous hot spots” is the concept for Beyond Borders, a politically idiotic weepy that adheres to its marketing pitch much more closely than to reality. Angelina Jolie is Sarah, the fun-loving newlywed who dashes off to war-torn Ethiopia with a convoy of supply trucks after just one look at Nick (Clive Owen), the hard-boiled doctor who runs an African relief camp on a shoestring budget and a lot of guts. Unfortunately, Sarah is married to a bland Englishman (Linus Roach) who doesn’t understand why she wants to expose herself to disease, famine, and possibly death to prove her compassion (and neither does the audience—why not just send a check?).

Sarah first encounters Nick when he crashes a posh benefit she’s attending, and at which Nick’s starvation poster child is whisked away by immigration authorities, only to die that night on a London street. The problems of the world’s poor, apparently, are the fault of fat-cat charity fundraisers. Using ill and orphaned children (the effects of starvation are computer-generated) as guilt-inducing props may the queasiest of the film’s faults, but it’s certainly not the only one. Whipping up a patently phony romance in the midst of great suffering doesn’t exactly qualify as social responsibility, either.

And responsible is what the film seems desperately to want to be, even though the heedless actions of Sarah, and especially the boneheaded Nick, cause catastrophe in relief camps from Cambodia to Chechnya. But the senseless globetrotting does allow Jolie some great wardrobe opportunities, and she looks equally fetching in sub-Saharan white gauze or a Russian fur hat. Certainly Nick thinks so, and he stops hammering her on her pampered ignorance after she shows up in Cambodia just in time for a showdown with the Khmer Rouge. Nick, who comes off as an action junkie with a death wish, pays off the Communists in exchange for access to vaccinate the peasants. He does this with the covert aid of a CIA spook, which dilutes his uncompromising morality more than a little. And in case anyone should miss the allusions to Doctor Zhivago (and a few other epics), the agent, Steiger, is played by Yorick van Wageningen, a dead ringer for Zhivago’s Rod Steiger.

As the years slog by (for more than two hours), with changes in hairstyles to indicate of the passing of time (from ’80s to ’90s), Sarah endures her loveless marriage for the sake of her son and dreams of the indefatigable Nick, who doesn’t learn a thing from his close calls with doom. Owen makes a decent effort at moderating his steely-eyed cynicism into teary-eyed fatalism (with the help of some very noticeable glycerin eyedrops), and Jolie is sincerely maudlin in a role that echoes her work with humanitarian organizations, especially when Sarah gives her big speech on the plight of the world’s 50 million refugees. But the question here isn’t whether or not Sarah and Nick will ever find happiness together, but why Jolie didn’t make a serious film on the causes that are worked into this fatuous melodrama like so much shock-value backdrop.

—Ann Morrow

Army of Ennui

Buffalo Soldiers

Directed by Gregor Jordan

Adapted from the satirical novel by Robert O’Connor, Buffalo Soldiers is about miscreant soldiers who turn to criminality as a way to relieve the boredom of being stuck on an army base during peacetime. Although it crackles with black-humored dialogue, the film must’ve lost something in translation; namely, a reason for the audience to care. Graft in the military is as old as foot rot and lousy food, and as directed by the directionless Gregor Jordan, the film has nothing new to add except the setting—West Germany shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall—and some action-film pyrotechnics.

What gives this rambling, violent satire an entertaining edge is Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Ray Elwood, a clerk in the supply office who sells army goods to German mobsters. Elwood buffaloes everyone he encounters, especially his buffoonish but kindly commander (Ed Harris), and he’s always negotiating, even while bedding the commander’s wife (Elizabeth McGovern). Elwood also stays in good with an M.P. drug dealer by “cooking” his heroin for him. In a milieu full of macho hotheads, he holds his own by avoiding aggression and remaining blasé under pressure, while his derisively soft-spoken delivery leavens the film’s nihilistic excesses.

It’s business as usual until Elwood and his cronies get their hands on a truckload of high-grade weaponry worth millions on the open market, which occurs the same day they get a new supervisor, the hardass Sgt. Lee (Scott Glenn). Lee puts the screws to Elwood, Elwood retaliates by making it with the sergeant’s rebellious daughter, Robyn (Anna Paquin), and the weapons deal goes horribly awry. By the time Elwood falls for Robyn for real, the film is past the point of being able to humanize itself with a fillip of romance. Opening with the senseless death of a junkie conscript, Buffalo Soldiers is relentlessly mean-spirited. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea for the Army to strong-arm criminals into serving their country, but that’s not reason enough for populating the film with characters who are either stupid, callous, vicious, or all three. The most interesting element, Glenn’s wily, war-hardened sergeant, is pushed into the role of an actioner psycho. And it’s depressing to see the beautiful McGovern tricked out as a blowsy shrew.

Apparently, there’s supposed to be some existential absurdity in how Elwood’s corruption sets up a chain reaction of ever-greater venality, but it doesn’t come across. Late in the game, he wearily explains that there’s always some war somewhere with someone. Ennui may be a suitable excuse for him, but not for the audience.

—Ann Morrow

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