‘The Fugitive’ at 25: Why It’s Better Than Ever

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the fugitive 25 year anniversary (1)

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This late summer released shocked pop culture in 1993, and it’s just as good today. Here’s why.

Arriving at the tail end of the summer of 1993, “The Fugitive” seemed like a late-in-the-game long shot … until Warner Bros. unveiled that trailer.

Despite a busy summer of rampaging dinosaurs (the first serving of “Jurassic Park”), Tom Cruise outrunning mobster lawyers (“The Firm”), Clint Eastwood punching out John Malkovich (“In the Line of Fire”) and Sylvester Stallone climbing a mountain in a tank top (“Cliffhanger”), “The Fugitive’s” money shot dropped our jaws.

After being cornered by pursuing U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), on-the-run fugitive Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) dives head first off a ledge into a roaring river below.

It was enough to make audiences take notice and line up in droves once again.

Not only would Andrew Davis’ “The Fugitive” become a surprise blockbuster, it did something that rarely happens in terms of monetary success. The film opened on Aug. 6 1993 and dropped a mere 5 percent the following weekend.

Clearly, the Ford-on-the-run thriller was a word of mouth smash, the kind of action movie for grownups that the May-August movie season rarely trots out.

Today, it still stands as one of the all-time great summer movies (indeed, it holds up far better than Ford’s “Air Force One”) and, in a manner that reflects the pessimism of Jones’ relentless pursuer, is timely in its dark worldview.

FAST FACT: “The Fugitive” earned $183 million at the U.S. box office, while the sequel “U.S. Marshals” earned $57 million … without Harrison Ford.

Based on the popular, Roy Huggins-created TV series that ran four seasons from 1963-1967, “The Fugitive” begins with a chilling black and white sequence. We witness the murder of Helen Kimble (the luminous Sela Ward). The white flashes that break up the shots stand in for police photographs being taken afterwards, though they also suggest the blunt force of every brutal moment of the murder.

When Dr. Kimble, embodied by a bearded, vulnerable turn by Ford, discovers the murder scene in his bedroom, it’s the horrible beginning of a Kafkaesque case that builds around him: the evidence against him is compelling, the police don’t like him and Kimble’s only defense is the claim that the murder was committed by a “one-armed man.”

The opening credits aren’t even finished when Kimble has been tried, sentenced to death and is put on a prisoner bus. When the vehicle crashes in spectacular fashion, Kimble flees the scene and Gerard makes capturing him a full-time obsession.

It’s to the credit of the editors (six are listed) that not only do the establishing scenes briskly set up the premise and get the film immediately off and running, but we’re allowed to doubt Kimble’s innocence. Until a telling flashback appears late in the first act, we don’t see for ourselves that there really was a One-Armed Man who savagely bludgeoned Helen Kimble to death.

Because Ford’s intuitive, mostly silent performance is so moving and we’ve seen him in this position before (namely, in “Presumed Innocent”), we wonder for a while if, indeed, it’s possible he might have committed the crime.

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Despite how involving and thrilling “The Fugitive” gets, it’s an especially grim film. There are moments that demonstrate what a good man Kimble is, particularly a sequence where he risks revealing his identity to help a young boy in a hospital.

Yet, the film is about how Kimble can’t trust anyone and that seemingly everyone he encounters is likely to turn him in. Over the course of the film, Kimble discovers he has no allies, no one he can really trust and that a conspiracy to destroy his life is real.

By the film’s end, even when Kimble can’t run anymore and everything is out in the open, the conclusion the film leads him with is quite sad. I won’t spoil any of the third act but the film makes me wonder- even if Kimble proves his innocence, what kind of life does he still have afterwards? Of course, someone at Warner Brothers decided to make a sequel, albeit one minus Harrison Ford.

The bloated but engaging, quite exciting “U.S. Marshals” came in 1998 from ace action movie editor-turned-director Stuart Baird. Ford’s Kimble is replaced by the less interesting Mark Sheridan, played by a game Wesley Snipes.

The format is intact: the first act kicks off with a chair gripper of a set piece (a plane crash instead of a locomotive), the second act concludes with the fugitive alluding Gerard by jumping off a high platform (here’s it’s an unlikely but still pretty cool bit that Peter Parker himself would have appreciated) and the conclusion reveals a major conspiracy and a sympathetic supporting character involved in a sinister double-cross.

It’s all very workmanlike, in the way producer Arnold Kopelson’s late 90’s Warner Brothers movies always were (they include “Eraser,” “Outbreak” and “Murder at 1600,” all sporting no-nonsense opening title credits).

“U.S. Marshals” even made news for coming this-close to dethroning “Titanic” at the box office (ironically, it would be a TV-spinoff, the woeful “Lost in Space,” that ended the five month-long, #1 streak of James Cameron’s epic).

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However, the biggest flaw of Baird’s better-than-expected follow-up is that it doesn’t understand the appeal of the original. While Jones and fellow Marshals from the original Daniel Roebuck, Joe Pantoliano and Tom Wood return, the most compelling character in “The Fugitive” wasn’t Gerard but Kimble. Can you imagine a sequel to “Forrest Gump” without Tom Hanks that chose to follow Lieutenant Dan instead? That’s “U.S. Marshals.”

There’s much to treasure about “The Fugitive” today, and not just the still-gripping cat-and-mouse game Ford underplays against Jones’ showy, fascinating Oscar-winning turn. There are dozens of sharp supporting turns, like the late Andreas Katsulas as The One Armed-Man, Jeroen Krabbe as Kimble’s colleague and even Jane Lynch pops up in an early role.

Julianne Moore has a memorable bit as a fed up doctor- this was back when Moore would take a break working for Robert Altman and Todd Haynes by appearing in movies like this and “Assassins.” James Newton Howard’s deservedly recognizable score still succeeds at keeping viewers on the edge of their seats and the film’s pacing is as fierce as Kimble’s ongoing journey.

Davis has yet to top this movie, though he really tried three years later, with the ’96 Keanu Reeves/Morgan Freeman chase flick “Chain Reaction, which plays today like a guilty pleasure B-movie version of “The Fugitive.”

Here is that rare TV-to-film adaptation that stands so firmly on its own, it doesn’t need familiarity with its source to garner appreciation. The late twentieth century had a bizarrely extensive list of tube-to-cinema adaptations, including baffling, unnecessary flops like “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Car 54, Where Are You?,” and “McHale’s Navy.”

Rather than outwardly evoke the original series, the ’93 version simply gives us a broken man, in pursuit of a shadowy murderer, while the whole world is on the lookout for a wrongfully convicted fugitive. This is one of Ford’s milestones as an actor and among his best films.

While “The Fugitive” may celebrate the tenacity of a protagonist’s tortuous quest for justice, its unique in its darkness; Kimble’s obstacles are enormous and the film’s paranoid vision of an unjust system bearing down on a riotous, intelligent and well-meaning man feels in line with today’s deeply troubled social climate.

DID YOU KNOW: The final episode of TV’s ‘The Fugitive’ aired on Aug 29, 1967. The show, starring David Janssen, ran for four seasons on ABC.

The central conspirators against Kimble, namely those working for the McGuffin that goes by “Provasic,” are corporate, shady, wealthy and corrupt bureaucrats with criminal ties. Kimble’s greatest strengths are his compassion, visible empathy and surmountable intelligence. Kimble is smart, kind and innocent but lives in a world that is constantly punishing him for this.

The most iconic bit- when Girard corners Kimble for the first time, Kimble declares, “I didn’t kill my wife.” Girard’s retort (everybody now): “I don’t care.” There’s a cynicism in Gerard, and the film itself, that feels synergistic with today’s climate. The most heroic thing about Kimble is that he helps people during his periods of hibernation and evading the authorities.

He’s a Good Man, indeed, but there can be no real reward at the end of his quest, as he’s lost so much in the film’s first five minutes alone. Unlike Hitchcock’s Everyman at the conclusion of their battles for innocence, Ford’s Everyman doesn’t get Eva Marie Saint (or Moore) as a consolation prize. In the end, he’s just lucky to still be alive.




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