When the jury is stacked

'Runaway Jury,' the latest John Grisham adaptation, has a star-studded cast.

All movies are innocent until proven guilty, so I walked into "Runaway Jury," based on John Grisham's novel, with an open mind.

I don't care much for Mr. Grisham's writing, but the cast looked excellent - Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, John Cusack - and the story's premise encouraged me to expect an absorbing look at important moral questions, including the one raised by the advertising tagline. Are trials really "too important to be decided by juries," and if so, who's manipulating our legal system in undemocratic ways?

I started getting skeptical during the opening credits, when I saw that no fewer than four writers helped adapt Grisham's book into movie form. Was the story so intricate that a single screenwriter couldn't handle it? Or would this be another case of filmmaking by committee, with help called in to juice up a project that wasn't moving smoothly through the production pipeline?

From the evidence on the screen, it appears that "Runaway Jury" was worked over by too many Hollywood hands. What could have been a thought-provoking tale, driven by characters and ideas, has morphed into a gimmicky melodrama that becomes hard to believe after a promising first half.

Set in New Orleans, the plot centers on a woman's lawsuit against a gun manufacturer whose product killed her husband in a bloody, irrational shooting. Hoffman plays her conscientious attorney, whose sympathy for her grows from a deep dislike of what too many lethal weapons are doing to society at large.

But it may not matter how brilliantly he argues her case, because the defense team has hired a jury-selection consultant (Hackman) with a small army of assistants, high-tech devices, and a determination to sway jurors by any means necessary. And he may well succeed, since a member of the panel (Cusack) has told both sides he'll ensure a favorable verdict for money.

The story's ethical issues - related to gun marketing, courtroom profiteering, and the probity of the jury system - deserve far more serious treatment than they receive in this disappointing film, which culminates in a set of twists that are as hokey as they are surprising. Hackman and Hoffman do their best to bring the overwritten dialogue to life, as do Cusack and the generally able supporting cast. But the tricky, unfocused screenplay defeats them.

After arousing high expectations, "Runaway Jury" turns out to be a trial to sit through.

Rated PG-13; for violence and profanity.

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