Trial By Jury (1994) – A Review

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A review of the 1994 courtroom thriller Trial By Jury, starring Joanne Whalley, William Hurt, Armad Assante and Gabriel Byrne

A big time mobster is on trial. The DA is passionate to get him behind bars. It will be up to the jury to decide on the verdict. 

One of these jurors is an innocuous woman who is ready to perform her public duty. sitting in the jury box and listening to testimony. She has an antique clothing store, has a young son and is now sitting in the jury box. This mobster wants to be sure to get a not guilty verdict and threatens this woman’s son to deliver him a hung jury or else! 

What other choice does she have, but to argue his case to her fellow jurors and sway them to acquit him? 

Trial By Jury, is a very tedious, unexciting film. It’s meant to be part courtroom drama, part thriller with some mob flavoring sprinkled over it. It does neither well. It starts to become such a disjointed mess weaving away from the central hook of the story of a woman having to sway the rest of a jury not to convict a clearly guilty mobster that aspect becomes almost an afterthought. 

Trial-By-Jury-1994-courtroom-thriller-Gabriel-Byrne-Joanne-WhalleyThere’s the setup of notorious mobster Armand Assante sitting in court. DA Gabriel Byrne feels confident that he’ll be convicted once the jury hears the evidence. Then there’s poor juror Joanne Whalley getting targeted by Assante’s lackey, ex-cop William Hurt to deliver the threat.

It’s simple enough, and at first looks like it could be an entertaining potboiler, but the film doesn’t seem like it knows where else to go once that is set in place.

The courtroom proceedings are really dull, mainly consisting of mob cohorts pointing their fingers at Assante. There’s nothing exciting or dramatic that takes place in the courtroom. It’s clichéd shouting witnesses, at one point Mike Starr jumps to his feet and has to be restrained. It’s not an exciting case to watch unfold.

Thinking about it, I don’t recall anything the defense does other than deny all these allegations courtesy of Assante’s lawyer Richard Portnow. They don’t put up much of a fight for their case. I guess their whole defense plan is just to bank the verdict on Whalley. 

By the way, despite such a high profile case with this intimidating mobster that is getting heavy press coverage, the judge doesn’t order the jury to be sequestered. They all go home everyday and gossip about the trial at lunch. 

Trial-By-Jury-1994-William-Hurt-Joanne-WhalleyMeanwhile, behind the scenes Hurt keeps his presence around to intimidate Whalley. His character then begins to shift and becomes sympathetic towards her. We don’t understand why he’s had this sudden change of heart. It’s not convincing at all. 

When it comes time for Whalley to start arguing for Assante in order to save her sons life, that too is very underwhelming. There’s no huge dramatic arguments in the jury room, no building tension and it never feels like Whalley is frantically fighting or being creatively manipulative to sway everyone not to believe the tremendous amount of evidence against him.

In fact, Whalley is ordered to hold out and make it a hung jury. She argues so good she actually sways several jurors to her side. Now that would be interesting to see how exactly she managed that. Of course, the film doesn’t show us how she accomplishes this dramatic reversal. It’s all a big letdown. 

There are some unintentional comical moments. Like, the convenient way Hurt obtains Whalley’s information. It’s a very clunky setup where the film makes sure we know that Whalley is using her credit card to buy lunch. Assante paying Whalley a late night visit at her apartment. Whalley being abducted in broad daylight on a busy city street and thrown into a trunk of a car. Hurt’s sudden compassion for this innocent woman. Having a full blown shootout in the middle of a park. And what about the weird cameo by David Cronenberg playing himself??? 

Trial-By-Jury-1994-thriller-Joanne-Whalley-Armad-AssanteI won’t even get into the climax where Whalley feels guilty that she manipulated her fellow jurors and Assante was found not guilty. She sets out to right those wrongs by visiting him in his mob mansion with a plan in hand. The end is just so predictable yet so improbable that it just left me rolling my eyes.

I think had the movie leaned into the ridiculousness more, it could have been a full blown parody of courtroom thrillers that were so popular at the time. 

The film has good actors. Whalley, Hurt, Assante, Byrne, along with Kathleen Quinlan and one of my favorite character actors Ed Lauter. But the story gets so unnecessarily convoluted and the pace starts to drag there’s nothing interesting left for you to get drawn into. It’s not shot particularly well either. It really felt like I was watching a 90s cable TV movie. 

Every scene with Byrne consists of him just repeating again and again how he wants to convict Assante. Apparently he’s the only one in this city who cares and can do anything about this crime boss. Hurt, playing against type, wanders around the courtroom, at first threatens Whalley, then becomes sympathetic towards her. I guess at some point he has a full blown attraction towards her. He does what he can with how his heel cop ultimately has a redemptive turn, but it’s all so poorly written it becomes less of his ‘big moment’ and more like ‘oh yeah, that happened’.

Joanne-Whalley-in-Trial-By-Jury-1994-thrillerAssante just parades around being the showy, arrogant mobster. I assume he’s meant to be something along the lines of a John Gotti-type of character. 

Then there’s Whalley. She’s incredibly attractive and likable, but I’m not sure she has the star quality to headline this type of film. She kind of plays ‘the Ashely Judd’ role. This role just seems like it would fit in with all the successful thrillers Judd would go to star into during the late ’90s early 2000s.

I’ve read Whalley got the part after Jodie Foster, Nicole Kidman and Demi Moore turned down the film. Moore ironically would star in The Juror, which was basically the same premise as Trial By Jury.

When it was released, Trail By Jury didn’t even make a minor splash. Critics weren’t kind to it and it bombed at the box office. Maybe it would have performed better had Judd starred in it. Whalley would go onto starring in the lead role in the TV mini series Scarlett, but even after that high profile gig, she never shot to the A-list of actresses.

I haven’t seen The Juror, but I would guess it has to be the more entertaining film ‘threatened juror’ movies between the two. Trial By Jury ends up being quite the forgettable mediocre thriller. 

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