The Fugitive (1993) represents a kind of movie that Hollywood does best, but infrequently: the intelligent and realistic thriller. There may not be a movie with more rewatchability than The Fugitive. In today’s television model of getting the latest releases on TV sooner and sooner, I can think of only two movies from the ’90s that find themselves on broad appeal channels with regularity: The Fugitive and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and the latter is listed by users of IMDB.com as the greatest of all time. In fact, I’ve seen The Fugitive a dozen times and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen The Fugitive on DVD or VHS; the way I know it, it includes commercial breaks. My familiarity with it is not to suggest that I admire it exponentially; it’s a very good movie, not a great one, but there’s something to be said about it that draws you to it. You see it on, you say to yourself, “Well, I’ll watch it till the St. Patrick’s Day parade and then I’ll switch back to the game” and before you know it, the movie’s over. As I said, I’ve seen it a dozen times; I think I’ve seen the first scene maybe four times. That’s how it gets me, and that’s how it got me this latest viewing.
Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), a respected Chicago surgeon, has been convicted of murdering his wife. In an extended sequence of flashbacks, we get the details of the murder, which we learn upfront was perpetrated by a man with a prosthetic arm (Andreas Katsulas), the trial, and Kimble’s life as an intelligent, serious and well-liked doctor. The opening moments are indicators of the good hands we’re in, specifically screenwriters Jeb Stuart and David Twohly, who introduce the plot quickly and concisely so we can get on with the story, and director Andrew Davis, who efficiently disseminates the information. Davis’s frank and straightforward style serves the story well. He mainly stays out of the way but he adds enough point of view. After Kimble’s escape and the manhunt that dominates the movie, we are given many aerial shots of the city of Chicago, shots much higher than we are accustomed to, that accentuate just how difficult it is to find someone.
While being transported to the prison where Kimble will serve his life sentence, there is a clumsy escape attempt by another passenger and the bus is tipped over, allowing Kimble to escape, but not before saving the life of some of the injured passengers, guards included. Enter Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) and his wise-cracking, sarcastic team of U.S. marshals, who provide the motor for the rest of the narrative. From here Gerard and his team hunt down Kimble, each taking turns outsmarting each other. Kimble risks coming back to Chicago to try to track down the true killer of his wife, leading the marshals along the way. Jones, who won an Oscar for the performance, finds the perfect balance of gallows humor and dogged determination. In a movie with a near flawless script, I’m not shocked that the movie’s most famous retort, “I don’t care,” was added by Jones on the set. He also provides my favorite line of the whole movie, “We’re eating oranges and we’re making IDs.” A great mixture of sentence structure and delivery that says reinforces Gerard’s quickly sardonic nature.
The beauty of the movie is its ability to make the audience feel conflicted. From the get-go we want to see Kimble achieve his goal (in fact, one of the failings of the script is to insist on showing us how good Richard Kimble is; we get repeating sequences of him acting saintlike) but we also like Gerard. So we have two heroes whose aims are absolutely diametrically opposed and we root for both, a tough trick to pull off. It’s a technique that Hitchcock mastered, making the audience pull against their own desires. There’s a scene in Psycho (1960) when Norman pushes incriminating evidence, a car, into a lake. For the car to sink to the bottom, it would allow someone to get away with murder, something a normal audience would be against. The car starts to sink and then stops halfway and the audience gasps, tense that it’s not going to go. Why? Hitchcock was much more perverse in his manipulations than Davis, Stuart and Twohly are able to keep plenty of tension and conflict within the viewer. The movie provides a traditional villain as well, but it’s a side-story; the main battle is between two men, the hunter and the hunted, in which we want both to succeed. Of course, the story is about an innocent man wrongly accused, a Hitchcockian angle if ever there is one, but the movie isn’t interested in the it-could-be-you strain. We’re engaged with Kimble’s predicament, not dreading that it could be ours.
Part of the movie’s buoyancy can be attributed to its pacing. There’s a large set-piece every 20 minutes or so and each is compelling. After the bus crash and escape, there’s a famous sequence in a dam, then the equally famous St. Patrick’s Day parade, which is a monument of editing, coordination, invention, and humor, and the final showdown in the Chicago Hilton. The movie is very measured in its speed; it’s never rushed and takes the time to make diversions, especially during a raid by the marshals concerning another case where we learn quite a bit about Gerard.
Harrison Ford doesn’t get enough credit in general. Jones steals the show here but the movie falls apart without Ford. I’m not sure people realize how difficult being at the center of so much craziness is for an actor. Many people could be as colorful as Jones is here (though not as well) but Ford has to retain our focus. He is able to sell us the intelligence of the character along with the psychical ability all the while watching the strain of the daily unease of life on the lam. Despite it’s diversions, the pace is brisk, and there’s never a moment when the script stops to take stock on the ordeal Kimble is going through, but all that is on Ford’s face. The scenes between Jones and Ford, though brief, are the most electric in the movie.
The screenplay provides a good device, one of two detective stories. We watch Kimble pursue the truth then leave just enough breadcrumbs for the marshals without leading them totally. They’re both trying to figure out the same mystery but they go about it in different ways. When the movie has to resolve that mystery, the script is less solid. The twist seems more out of convenience than any actual motivation. It also falls into the trap of the witless local policemen. This is used as a device to show how smart Gerard and his team are but a little of this goes a long way and The Fugitive goes for it at length. If Chicago cops are this dumb and reactionary, I need to start robbing all the stores on the Loop. Jeb Stuart did write Die Hard (1988), which includes the dumbest authority figures in movie history so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. These are small complaints. The crux of the movie is about two men who won’t quit who are working against each other. It wants to entertain, to not insult you, and quicken your heart rate, and that it does. I can’t wait for the next lazy Saturday afternoon when I come in halfway and watch until the end.