The Fugitive is the perfect example of tight economical blockbuster film making. It’s not bloated in exposition, it’s not meandered down by unwanted subplots, there is no Fugitive cinematic universe it’s trying to set up. It’s a simple straightforward action film that delivers on thrills, tension and suspense like movies were designed to do. Bolstered by two magnetic lead performances, The Fugitive is at its best when it’s a cat and mouse game between an innocent man trying to clear his name, and the United States Marshall hot on his trail.
Inspired by the 1960s TV show of the same name, The Fugitive takes the similar premise of Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), accused of murdering his wife (Sela Ward). He is of course innocent telling police the murder was done by an unidentified one-armed man, however due to circumstantial evidence, Kimble is convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection. But fate takes a hand, and in the first of the film’s many set pieces, the bus carrying Kimble tips over, and he narrowly escapes a spectacular train wreck running along in leg irons against the scattered debris and metal sparks by the giant locomotive. It’s a wonderful sequence and this is only in the first ten minutes of the film.
Pretty soon Kimble now finds himself on the run eluding the law, using his smarts to outwit his pursuers. But Kimble’s biggest threat comes in the form of United States Deputy Marshall Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), a no non-sense officer who stops at nothing to find his man. Kimble leads Gerard and his team through a memorable foot chase through a sewer (which evokes another classic cat and mouse chase in Les Miserables), ending in the film’s most iconic shot of Ford escaping Jones by jumping off a tunnel into a giant waterfall.
It’s a grand sequence that looks all the more impressive knowing that director Andrew Davis and his team used real life locations even though it’s apparent the body falling would not be Ford or a stunt double, but rather a dummy with very floppy legs. But the chase does not end there, and Gerard, refusing to believe Kimble is dead from the fall continues the search, while Kimble is determined to get his own man, the real person responsible for killing his wife.
The Fugitive is like clockwork, it runs at a set pace, and it doesn’t slow down. It’s the type of film where we see right away its destination, but the fun in it is finding out just how it gets there. We know it will be inevitable that Kimble will find the one-armed man, just as we know, it’s inevitable Gerard will finally catch up with Kimble. It’s exciting once we see these pieces coming together to a breathtaking climax and following along with Ford and Jones on their close-call interactions.
The film was a giant success financially, as well as critically being only one of a few summer blockbusters ever to be honored with a Best Picture Oscar nomination. As well as six others, winning Best Supporting Actor for Jones’ entertaining performance. As Gerard, Jones commands the screen bringing his usual gruff persona to the forefront, and a wily sense of humour.
Although Kimble is able to outsmart him, we know Gerard is no dummy, and we can sense he’s trying to think what his next move is. What makes the character so dangerous is his somewhat one-track mind of wanting to get his man. He’s not there to sympathize with Kimble, even when the evidence of him maybe being innocent comes to light, we are left to believe he will apprehend him at all costs.
Although Jones received the accolades, given his more showy role, it could be argued that Ford has the more difficult role. Being Harrison Ford, it’s very easy for the audience to get on your side, after all he’s practically everyone’s hero from childhood whether you worship Han Solo, Indiana Jones or both. But, unlike Tommy Lee Jones who gets the luxury to interact with other people in the film, Ford mostly remains alone, practically giving a silent performance with very little dialogue. It’s not a fussy performance and Ford is able to use his face and his eyes to let the audience in to what he is thinking. At his best, Ford could evoke that classic film star persona where he might be compared to a Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda; who also played men of few words but made you believe they could be caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
Though it’s now over 20 years old, The Fugitive hasn’t really aged at all. In fact, I wish there were more blockbusters being made like it. There are a few big movies today which you could argue have substance and real craft, which deal with real people with real circumstances but they are getting too far and in between. Today movies often get too complicated for their own good, and it seems they forget that what you really need is to tell a good story. The Fugitive is a really good story, told very well, and delivered with two very dynamic performances. It may play like a paperback novel from an airport bookstore, but it’s the type that once you finish it, you realize just how entertaining it is.