Rohr: They're people, Fitch.
Fitch: My point, exactly.
A failed day trader in New Orleans, Louisiana shows up at his former workplace with a semiautomatic handgun and opens fire on the employees, killing several of them before turning the gun on himself. Two years later, Celeste Wood, the widow of one of the victims, claims that the gun manufacturer's negligence led to her husband's death and takes them to court, represented by lawyer Wendell Rohr (Hoffman).
Defending the gun manufacturer is attorney Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison), backed by jury consultant Rankin Fitch (Hackman) and his team of over a dozen employees, who set up an extensive surveillance system in the back of an abandoned costume shop to relay instructions to Cable in the courtroom. Fitch's team gather intelligence on the potential jurors for the case, including easy-going video game store clerk Nicholas Easter (Cusack). Fitch tries to manipulate the selection process to stack the jury with people likely to vote for the defense, but Easter baits the judge into putting him on the jury to give him a lesson in civic duty.
It soon becomes apparent that Easter and his girlfriend Marlee (Weisz) have a hidden agenda of their own, as Easter subtly manipulates the jury inside the courtroom (including getting them to vote Herman Grimes, a blind man with extensive knowledge of law, as foreman rather than Fitch's choice of inactive Marine Frank Herrera) and Marlee approaches both Fitch and Rohr with promises to deliver their desired verdicts for $10 million. Rohr decides he'd rather win the case on its merits, but Fitch is angered by the offer and fights back against the two grifters. The battle escalates as Easter's apartment is raided and Marlee is attacked by a hitman, while a key witness has a meltdown on the stand, threatening to scuttle Fitch's case. Just as deliberation begins, Fitch's researchers make a shocking discovery about who Easter and Marlee really are, and why they are so interested in the case.
This work provides examples of:
- Adaptational Heroism: While Rohr represents the "good" side in the original novel, it also explains how he is also manipulating the jury with his simple, country lawyer act in the same way that the antagonists are. In the film he is much more honest and only has one jury consultant who asked to work with him.
- The Artifact: In the original novel the Lawsuit of the Week had the plaintiff suing a tobacco company for her husband's death from smoking-related illness. The movie retains a number of references to the pros and cons of smoking (e.g. The Protagonist telling a neighbor that he should quit), which are a leftover from the source material.
- Bland-Name Product: Vicksburg Firearms. They dolled up a handgun with a 36 round magazine for the film.
- Damsel Fight-and-Flight Response: Marlee hits the guy twice and, when he still catches her before she manages to escape, she stabs his leg with a piece of wood.
- Decoy Protagonist: Deconstructed down to the core with a character who is introduced as a protagonist, and then promptly killed.
- The Ghost: We never see the whistle-blower who knew Vicksburg Firearms didn't care about criminals getting their guns. Director Gary Fleder explained if we saw the whistle-blower played by a name actor, we would wonder how Fitch got to him and where he went. It is kept vague, other than Rohr angrily asking Fitch if the witness was bribed or his family was threatened.
- Good Is Not Nice: Subverted with Nicholas, but played straight with Marlee. She treats Rohr with the same disdain with which she treats Fitch.
- Hidden Depths: Herman Grimes was almost excused from jury duty because of his blindness, but once he threw his knowledge of the law in the judge's face, he was accepted. It was this event that caused the jury to vote him as foreman.
- Hollywood Law: Several examples are relied on for the plot.
- Super Lawyer: Rankin Fitch. He's evil, has a command center filled with computer screens, and apparently capable of quickly breaking into encrypted files.
- Dream Team: Wendell Rohr and the two conspiring protagonists. In real life, it would mean serious prison time if caught (just as with Hackman's own attempted jury tampering.)
- Deus ex Machina Lawyer: The Hero lawyer only wins because one of the Super Lawyer's employees betrays him.
- Ironic Echo: "Well, you're only lead counsel for the defense, Mr. Cable. You shouldn't pretend to know very much about jury selection."
- Jury and Witness Tampering: At the core of the plot are attempts to coerce or incapacitate the jurors in a lawsuit against a gun manufacturer for gross negligence leading to the plaintiff's husband's death from an office shooting.
- Jury Duty: Subverted. The protagonist uses Obfuscating Stupidity and gives the judge all these trivial excuses not to serve as part of a Batman Gambit to make sure he is selected."It was like poetry. The judge threatened to hang me."
- Motive Decay:
- Doyle works for the defense. He's sent to find out some information about someone on the jury. Near the climax of the movie, his boss (played by Gene Hackman) tells Doyle he needs information before the jury deliberates. Doyle blows him off and continues to investigate, which makes no sense at all. Instead of telling his employer that the juror is using an assumed name, which would get him thrown off the jury, Doyle continues to investigate as if finding out what the juror's motivation is would be more important than winning the case.
- The point of this is that if said juror really is neutral, they can get him to win the case for them. This is quicker and simpler than derailing the court proceedings.
- Playing Possum: Marlee plays possum to stab a hitman's leg.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: Tobacco in the book was swapped for guns in the movie.
- Psycho for Hire: Mr. Janovich. He torches Nick's place and then assaults Marlee in her apartment.
- One replacement juror is a goth-looking young woman named Lydia Deets.
- Those would be some Bohrok-Kal in the opening.
- Fitch's line stating that "this man doesn't give a single, solitary droplet of shit about truth, justice or your American way" is a reference to Superman. Gene Hackman, who plays Fitch, used to play Lex Luthor in Superman films.
- Simple Country Lawyer: Dustin Hoffman plays this as Wendell Rohr, against Gene Hackman's jury rigger Rankin Fitch.