Gene Hackman Is a Smug and Greedy Villain in This John Grisham Adaptation

The Big Picture

  • Gene Hackman delivers a brilliant performance as Rankin Fitch, making the money-hungry jury consultant a likable and intimidating character.
  • Runaway Jury revels in its outlandishness, with ludicrous storytelling and cinematic bully tactics, but effectively explores and critiques gun control and the justice system.
  • The entire cast, including John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman, and Rachel Weisz, deliver stellar performances, but it is Hackman who steals the show with his portrayal of a devious antagonist.

Gene Hackman is a household name when talking about brilliant villain actors. Hackman’s critically acclaimed career has spanned six decades, and he has portrayed more than his own fair share of iconic characters onscreen. He was Lex Luthor after all, and also played one of the best cinematic heavies as Little Bill in Clint Eastwood‘s Unforgiven. However, one of his more underappreciated roles was in a John Grisham adaptation. In Runaway Jury, Hackman plays Rankin Fitch, an intelligent and shady jury consultant who is involved in a potential swaying of a verdict. It is one of his finest roles, and one where he also had the opportunity to finally share the screen with his good friend and former roommate, Dustin Hoffman.

What Is ‘Runaway Jury’ About?

Image via 20th Century Studios

Runaway Jury follows Nick Easter (John Cusack), a young man who works in a video store, chosen to be a jury member for one of the biggest cases in the United States. Jacob Wood was killed inside his office building by a man wielding a semi-automatic pistol, and his wife Celeste is suing the guns’ manufacturer, Vicksburg Firearms. The company has procured the services of Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), an expert jury consultant who pulls out all the stops through technology, surveillance, and downright disregard for right or wrong. Little by little, Fitch finds out that Easter is no ordinary juror, and is in cahoots with his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) to manipulate the entire jury and play the trial. Marlee asks both Fitch and prosecutor Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) for $10 million in exchange for a verdict, both of which initially deny.

Things seem to be going the way of the prosecution until the whistleblower and star witness of the prosecution fails to appear in court. Rohr assumes it was the work of the defense, and begins to accept that the trial is slipping out of his hands. He requests access to the firm’s emergency fund to pay off Marlee, securing the victory for his client and his own morals. However, his values get in the way, and backs off the deal, telling Marlee that he will take his chances. Fitch, on the other hand, absorbing pressure from Vicksburg Firearms, wants to get in on the deal. The amount is raised to $15 million after a botched attempt on Marlee’s life. The money was successfully wired by Fitch, but the verdict goes to the prosecutors. It is revealed that Nick and Marlee are survivors of a school shooting in Indiana, and wanted to get revenge on Fitch for representing the gun company in the subsequent lawsuit.

‘Runaway Jury’ Revels in Its Outlandishness

Image via 20th Century Fox

One of the most commendable things about the Gary Fleder picture is its adherence to its ludicrous storytelling. There are dozens of offenses committed in this entire film, particularly in the methods Fitch uses to gain information about the prospective jurors, such as blackmail and espionage. The montages of Fitch and his team fishing information out of his targets are hilariously unrealistic, reminiscent more of a spy movie rather than a court drama. These are all bully tactics that are quite cinematic, but with a narrative that’s so enticing, it pushes the viewers to go along. ​​​​​Its ending where the jury decides for the prosecution because of their disdain for one of the jury members lies a bit on the fantastical side of things, but goes along with the entire motive of suspending the audience’s disbelief. However, it is also interesting to note that it is in this outlandishness that the film drives home its point: it explores and critiques both the politics of gun control and the justice system.

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Runaway Jury‘s central tenet is achieving justice, and it illustrates how a system may ultimately be corrupted despite the existent moral and social codes. Bringing in the case of the ever-raging debate on gun control and the Second Amendment, Runaway Jury makes it more compelling, and it becomes a battle between values and the strict boundaries of the law. Trials are often boring and tedious for some, but the weight of its premise partnered with the film’s wackiness puts viewers on the edge of their seats. It is an ingenious maneuver, effectively hammering home its heavy message. This is exemplified in the instances where Nick Easter’s fellow jurors’ past misdeeds are put into question by Fitch’s men. A cheating wife is told that his husband will know of the news, the secrets of a man with HIV will be revealed to his conservative environment, and a money-hungry husband will be sent to jail should the verdict fall in favor of the prosecution. It presents an interesting perspective because in the eyes of the picture, and most of the time in real life, people can be bought. The price and currency just fluctuate depending on the circumstances.

Gene Hackman Is Brilliant as Rankin Fitch in ‘Runaway Jury’

Image via 20th Century Fox

Whenever Gene Hackman plays the antagonist in a movie, the project immediately becomes memorable. In the case of Runaway Jury, it is no exception. Hackman’s brilliance shines in portraying the money-hungry Fitch, filled with the gravitas of a seasoned actor who is so in tune with his abilities. Despite the ill-intentions of the character, his performance delivers a likable aura around Fitch. If you think about it, who wouldn’t want to be represented by a person who puts all of their time, effort, and expertise into meeting the objective? Fitch is calculating, manipulative, and downright intimidating, and one would only wish that he was on their side.

He is someone who audiences hate to love, and Hackman extracts every single bit of his acting chops to make it so. It is also put front and center in the film’s heart, a sequence between Rohr and Fitch, represented by two acting juggernauts in Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. The confrontation is one of two polar opposites. Fitch is greedy for that corporate loot, while Rohr is hanging on to his moral compass. Rohr bemoans his opponent’s dirty way of doing things, arguing that this is not the way it’s supposed to be. Rather than acceding to his contemporary’s pleas to do the right thing, Fitch doubles down on his acts and basically says that that’s the way things are. Fitch wins this round and becomes one of the most essential scenes in Hackman’s entire filmography. Hackman’s brilliant mixture of subtlety and smugness in this particular series of events is his signature volcanic outburst in disguise. Going toe-to-toe with a fellow heavyweight, and coming out the better man is indicative of the magnificent job he has done.

The entire cast of this film delivered as well, acting-wise. John Cusack, with his signature bravado, becomes a sympathetic character who the audience can identify with. Hoffman is humanistic in his approach, becoming the much-needed emotional center of a world slowly accepting anarchistic tendencies. Weisz is nothing short of spectacular and is the driving force of the film’s entire narrative. Despite these stellar performances, it is Gene Hackman who ultimately steals the show, and brought audiences one of the most devious antagonists in his myriad of dastardly villain roles.

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