Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 09 July 2009
Source Warner Brothers DVD
Categories Favorites: The Action Movie
Do they still make them like this? In strikingly succinct fashion, director Andrew Davis’ take on The Fugitive plunges into its simple wrongfully-accused plotline, charging through the courtroom conviction of the innocent Dr. Richard Kimble in delightful movie shorthand – the judge spits “May God have mercy on your soul,” and our hero flinches at the falling gavel before we cut to a prison door slamming shut – and then on to the frantic unraveling of the film’s central mysteries, the search for clues punctuated by a series of spectacular action setpieces. Films like this speak a language of their own, and The Fugitive is more than fluent—indeed, it’s rather articulate, using familiar beats to build irresistible momentum, particularly in the early going. It’s a big film but not a bloated one, an unapologetic popcorn thriller that manages to paint in broad strokes for a large audience without giving the impression that the filmmakers believe the majority of that audience to be idiots.
Like the sixties TV series on which it’s based, the 1993 incarnation of The Fugitive tells the story of a skilled medical doctor on the run from the law following the brutal murder of his wife. (Sela Ward, whose only task is to look elegant in pearls and die tragically, plays Mrs. Kimble. To her credit, she leaves more of an impression than others might have in the same part.) And as with the TV series, we never for a second doubt Kimble’s innocence, or his belief that the real perpetrator is an elusive “One-Armed Man.”
Kimble is the perfect action hero – combining cleverness with remarkable physical resilience and a wealth of compassion – and because he’s played by Harrison Ford, an actor with a gift for the right level of understatement, not to mention a movie star already lodged in our hearts as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, we buy into the good Dr. Kimble’s perfection without putting up much of a fight. Of course he saves a sick kid in the midst of an undercover mission at a hospital. And of course he uncovers the conspiracy behind his own frame-up. We wouldn’t expect anything less, so we only smirk a little at the research montage that wraps up with Kimble lying asleep, a copy of The Atlas of Limb Prosthetics splayed out on his chest.
But like a good buddy-cop film, a good chase film really thrives when the hero has the right counterpart to bounce off of. Tommy Lee Jones’ Sam Gerard, the deputy US Marshal who spends the entire film doggedly on Kimble’s trail, makes for a worthy foil, just as sharp and just as tough as his quarry, but more cynical, with an enjoyably dry sense of humor. (Jones is terrific in a role that would prove popular enough to haunt his career. He reprised it officially in 1998’s U.S. Marshals, and the character has informed Jones’ onscreen persona in everything from Men in Black to No Country for Old Men.) Gerard’s evolving understanding of Kimble, which eventually leads to grudging respect, makes for a far more interesting (long distance) relationship than the one between Kimble and the (metaphorically) mustache-twirling villain-proper, which may be why the film’s fairly standard climactic mano-a-mano hero vs. villain punch-up lingers on the mind less than many of the moments shared between Kimble and Gerard.
One bit that I’ve never forgotten – Gerard shouting “Richard!” and prompting Kimble to instinctively respond and give himself away – speaks of the canny simplicity of the film’s best moments. Even those big, honking, iconic bits – Ford’s Kimble fleeing a smashed-up train or leaping off of a dam – are lean and straightforward in a way that too many thrillers fail to be. At the time of The Fugitive’s release, Washington Post critic Desson Howe aptly called it a, “juggernaut of exaggeration, momentum and thrills—without a single lapse of subtlety.” And in this case that’s just fine. Just after The Fugitive’s final credits roll over footage of the Chicago skyline, we see a brief eruption of fireworks over the city, a suitable parting shot for a film that’s loud and dazzling—in a good way.
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