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A Look Back: “The Fugitive”

September 1, 2013

“You find this man!” Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble.

For money reasons, I have not really gotten out to the movies this past summer, but I have been following what’s been going on as far as the box office goes, and all the stories that have been written dealing with that. As all of these big tentpole movies have crashed, we hear people speculating as to whether this means Hollywood will finally implode (as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicted a few months ago), while others say it really isn’t that bad (or, even if it is, nothing’s going to change), and still others remind us there are plenty of smaller movies out there to choose from that are still getting made. All of this, as Lynda Obst argued in her book Sleepless in Hollywood, is part of what she called “the New Abnormal”, but I would disagree in one respect; I don’t think it’s that new. After all, ever since the studios decided to chase the big dollars after Jaws and Star Wars changed everything (and no, I’m not one of the people who blames those movies, or Spielberg and Lucas, for what followed; Jaws was a really good movie, and while I’ve never been the biggest Star Wars fan, at least it wasn’t primarily a Cash Register job), we’ve basically lived in a boom-and-bust era. We get a lot of hits, and then all of a sudden, what seemed to connect with audiences doesn’t anymore, nor do many of the stars that came up during whatever the boom period was, and studios panic until the next big thing they can cannibalize comes along. The 1990’s may be known these days as when “independent film” (in quote marks simply because few people anymore really agree on what that meant, or still means) broke out, and how studios chased themselves trying to find the next Tarantino, or Tarantino-esque film, but that wasn’t the only trend they tried to jump on.

Though movies based on TV shows didn’t begin in the 90’s (this could be traced all the way back to the 1966 Batman movie based on the campy series starring Adam West, and had gained steam in the 80’s with the Star Trek movies, as well as the movie versions of DragnetThe Naked Gun – from Police Squad! – and The Untouchables), they certainly seemed inescapable that decade, with movie versions of, among others, The Addams Family (though, to be sure, that was also based on the original cartoon drawings), The Beverly HillbilliesThe Brady Bunch (which also inspired a sequel), Car 54, Where Are You?The Flintstones, MaverickMcHale’s NavyThe Mod Squad, and, of course, all the SNL-inspired movies (It’s PatA Night at the RoxburyStuart Saves His FamilySuperstar, and the Wayne’s World movies). And, of course, the studios didn’t give a damn whether the movies were any good or not because they figured the name recognition would get people into theaters, and even when it didn’t, that didn’t stop them from making more of the same. Given all of that, it’s still amazing The Fugitive, which gets a 20th-anniversary Blu-Ray release this coming Tuesday, turned out as well as it did. It’s even more amazing when you consider the director (Andrew Davis) was merely a workmanlike filmmaker at best who had never done anything that great before (or since), and like many big studio movies of the time, many hands worked on the script (ultimately credited to Jeb Stuart and David Twohy, who’s also credited with the story) and it was constantly re-written on the set. Finally, if anything, it holds up even better today.

To be sure, the TV series this was based on (created by Roy Huggins, who also produced the TV show Maverick and co-created The Rockford Files with Stephen J. Cannell) was one of the most popular shows on TV when it aired in the 60’s (it also had the first-ever series finale), and had a story hook that could easily transfer to the movies. Richard Kimble (David Janssen), a doctor, is convicted of killing his wife, even though he insisted a one-armed man was really the killer, and is sentenced to death. When the train taking him to be executed derails, Kimble escapes, and goes from town to town to try and find the one-armed man, while in turn being pursued by Lt. Philip Gerard (Barry Morse), a dogged and honest cop who was with Kimble on the train, and only wants to bring Kimble in regardless of whether or not he’s guilty (Huggins always insisted the show was nothing more than an update and reworking of Les Miserables, even though some thought it was also based on the true story of the Samuel Sheppard case). Each episode would have Kimble come into a town, perform some act of kindness, and then be forced to flee again when either Gerard was hot on his trail or someone else figured out his identity, at least until the final episodes, “Judgement Day Parts I & II”, the latter being the most-watched episode of television in the U.S. ever at the time (later passed by the “Who Shot JR?” episode of Dallas).

Most movies based on TV shows (particularly the Star Trek movies) seemed like extended episodes of the shows instead of movies. What Davis, Stuart and Twohy did instead was deliver the show in microcosm. Instead of going around the country, Kimble (Harrison Ford) essentially stayed in and around Chicago, and while some other details were changed – a pediatrician on the show, Kimble was now a vascular surgeon, instead of having a strained marriage, he was happily married to Helen (Sela Ward), so the “motive” now was money (while the motive of the real killers was something else entirely), the “one-armed” man now had a prosthetic arm, and Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), whose first name was now Samuel, was a U.S. Marshal instead of a police detective – Kimble was still accused and convicted of killing his wife, he still escaped from a wreck (a bus wreck, but still), he still set out to clear his name, and Gerard was still his dogged pursuer.

Dr. Eastman (Julianne Moore) being questioned by Gerard. Originally, Moore’s part was bigger (which is why she’s billed so prominently even though she only has three short scenes), becoming a love interest for Kimble, but test audiences nixed the idea, and I think they were right to do so. Moore does make the most of her limited part.

Even when the filmmakers deviate from the original, they still honor it in small but crucial ways. Perhaps in a nod to Kimble being a pediatrician on the show, there’s a crucial scene where Kimble is in Cook County Hospital disguised as a janitor (he does so to access computer records of those with prosthetic arms), and he’s stuck in the hallway while a number of kids who were victims of a bus crash are coming in (cops are in the area, so Kimble doesn’t want to arouse suspicion). Kimble sees Joel (Joel Robinson), one of the victims, in obvious pain, and when Dr, Eastman (Julianne Moore), the head ER physician, tells Kimble to wheel him to an observation room, Kimble instead takes Joel to an operating room (he checks the X-ray and writes a diagnosis for the doctor there to check). This exposes him, of course (Dr. Eastman confronts him, and he takes off), but we see Kimble doing this throughout the movie. When the bus carrying Kimble and other death row inmates crashes (a few of the inmates coordinated an attack, including stabbing a guard (Pancho Demmings)), Kimble won’t help the guard until his partner (Richard Riehle) unlocks his cuffs first, but when that guard and Copeland (Eddie Bo Smith Jr.), the only other surviving prisoner, escape from the wrecked bus to avoid an incoming train, Kimble pushes the injured guard out of the bus before jumping from it himself. Later, when Kimble has gotten to a local hospital to bandage himself up after the wreck, he’s disguised himself as a doctor and shaved off his beard, and is about to escape scot-free when an ambulance pulls up with the injured guard. The guard, despite his condition (and being in the cold for so long, as well as the severity of his wound), recognizes Kimble, but while he puts an oxygen mask on him to keep the guard from talking, Kimble also tells the paramedics as they wheel him away to tell the doctors inside about his stab wound. Finally, late in the movie, when Kimble finally comes face-to-face again with Frederick Sykes (Andreas Katsulas), the man with the mechanical arm who killed his wife, on a subway train, Sykes shoots a transit cop dead (a passenger had recognized Kimble and pointed him out to the cop), and after he subdues Sykes, Kimble checks the cop’s condition first before making his escape.

All of this is done to demonstrate Kimble’s essential decency, just as in the original. We do hear from a couple of colleagues and friends – Dr. Charles Nichols (Jeroen Krabbe) and Dr. Kathy Wahlund (Jane Lynch) – who proclaim his innocence (though we find out there’s a reason why Nichols is doing so), but mostly, we see this through Kimble’s actions and his thoughts (he has nightmares about the fight with Sykes, and about finding Helen dead). Of course, that’s not the only actions of Kimble’s that get demonstrated. This being an action movie as much as an adaptation of a TV series, we see Kimble not only survive that bus wreck (and subsequent train wreck), but also a jump from a dam as Gerard is about to arrest him. Everyone else, of course, insists Kimble couldn’t have survived that jump, but Gerard knows better, and so do we, thanks to the fact Ford is playing him (Ford doesn’t play too much above his station here, giving Kimble a limp, and making his physical fights more brutish than usual, but that serves as a balance). Those who haven’t grown up on Ford playing Han Solo and Indiana Jones may not necessarily buy Kimble’s physical prowess here, but Davis, as with many directors before him, smartly plays off Ford’s persona to make what might seem unbelievable seem not just possible but right.

“Richard, do you want to get shot?” Tommy Lee Jones as U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard.

Gerard is handled in the same way. Instead of being a lone wolf, like he was in the original (though he would work with the lawmen of whatever town he was in), Gerard now works with a team of others from the marshal’s office, including Cosmo (Joe Pantoliano), Biggs (Daniel Roebuck), Poole (L. Scott Caldwell), Newman (Tom Wood), Henry (Johnny Lee Davenport) and Stevens (Mike Bacarella). This Gerard is just as driven as the TV version was (when Biggs claims Kimble is dead after his jump from the dam, Gerard responds, “That ought to make him easy to catch!”), but there’s also something contemptuous about him, which comes out in his opening scene, where he gets out of his car, surveys the bus and train wreckage, and says, “My, my, my, my, my. What. A. Mess.” As Anthony Lane pointed out in his review, another actor might have just said the line fast, and expressed a note of sympathy, but not Jones, which immediately makes him more interesting. It also has the effect of making the people around him working that much harder, not only because of their intelligence and hard work, but also because they want to please Gerard, or, as he calls himself, “Big Dog”*. This is a group that is always kidding around with each other (when Gerard chides Poole for not wearing boots at the site of the wreck, she wearily cracks, “Next train wreck”; Biggs goes on to ask why they’re always mothering her, and Cosmo deadpans it’s because they love her), always asking each other questions (after it’s discovered Kimble was working at Cook County Hospital, Cosmo wonders aloud to Gerard why Kimble would risk himself this way), and can also figure out what to do from a simple nod or gesture from Gerard (as when they chase Kimble in the tunnels of the dam). Unlike the Chicago cops, who are set in their ways (and possibly corrupt, if you believe one of the theories about the movie**), the sheriff and his deputies at the train wreck, and the prison guards, this group is intelligent and thoughtful, and it all seems to come from Gerard.

Over the years, there’s been a backlash against the fact Jones won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance here. Part of that, of course, is many of the roles Jones ended up playing over the next decade or so ended up being variations of Gerard in some form or another (particularly The ClientVolcano, and the Men in Black movies, not to mention when he reprised Gerard for U.S. Marshals). And also, to be sure, 1993 was an extraordinary year for that category; Leonardo DiCaprio (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?), Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List), John Malkovich (In the Line of Fire), and Pete Postlethwaite (In the Name of the Father) were Jones’ competition, all of them were amazing performances, and in a lesser year, any one of those performances would have been a sure winner (in his column for New York magazine that year, William Goldman called it the best Oscar category ever, and he may be right). Still, I submit Jones was a valid choice (I would have made him split the award with Fiennes), and here’s why; even though Kimble does perform, as I mentioned before, acts of kindness and bravery throughout the film, we are predisposed to root for him, but by the end of the film, we’re rooting for Gerard as well. And it’s not because he gains any sympathy for Kimble (as demonstrated in arguably the most famous scene of the movie; when Kimble tells Gerard, “I didn’t kill my wife!”, and Gerard replies, “I don’t care!”), but it’s because his intelligence (as well as the intelligence and work of his team) leads him to that conclusion. Gerard is very protective of his people, and while he playfully refers to himself as “big dog”, he’s no braggart outside the group (at a press conference, he’s noticeably uncomfortable), but the closest he ever comes to showing even a hint of emotion when it comes to Kimble is when he questions Dr. Eastman about her encounter with Kimble; when he asks how the boy Kimble took to the operating room is, and Eastman replies that Kimble saved the boy’s life, Davis and cinematographer Michael Chapman hold on a close-up of Jones for a few seconds as he registers that information. It may be from this point on Gerard comes to regard Kimble in a different light, but again, Jones makes sure we get that through Gerard’s intelligence and hard work (as well as the work of his group). When Gerard tells Kimble at the end, “Richard, I know you’re innocent!”, it feels earned, not a nod towards pathos. Gerard earns our sympathy simply by doing his job well, thanks to Jones, and that’s why he deserved the Oscar.

Jeroen Krabbe as Dr. Charles Nichols. Originally, Richard Jordan was supposed to play the role, but he fell sick (he died soon after the film was released), and Krabbe did an able job of stepping in.

At this point in his career, Davis was mostly known for directing genre pieces, most famously with Steven Seagal (Above the LawUnder Siege), and while some were good as far as they went (The Package is a decent film, and Under Siege I like in spite of Seagal, not because of him),this represented a giant leap for him, even though it was a genre piece as well (the movie also featured many actors who had worked with Davis before, including Jones (The Package and Under Siege), Pantoliano (The Final Terror), Wood (Under Siege); even actors in smaller roles, like Andy Romano (Under Siege), who’s the judge at Kimble’s trial, and Juan Ramirez (The Package), who plays the train passenger who recognizes Kimble). Unfortunately, Davis wasn’t able to make the jump into better work; Steal Big, Steal Little was an oddball comedy that was an interesting try, but didn’t quite work, A Perfect Murder (a loose remake of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder) wasn’t bad, but felt routine, and the less said about Chain ReactionCollateral Damage (his worst film) and The Guardian, the better. Still, credit should go to Davis for not pounding us over the head with explosions (though admittedly, the score by James Newton Howard, while good, could have been toned down some), but allowing the action to develop naturally from the story, and for the most part, staying within the possible limits of the characters (except for the leap off the dam, which, as I said, is acceptable because of who did it). From my point of view, the problem with the trends Hollywood chases isn’t necessarily the trend itself (though there are certain genres I’m not a fan of), but the fact the studios simply take what they think are the elements necessary to a success, and ignore things like plot, character, dialogue, and intelligence behind the camera, which are all necessary to make a good movie no matter what the budget or the subject matter. Putting it simply, if there were more studio movies that turned out like The Fugitive did, we wouldn’t be talking every so often about a crisis in movies.

*-Along with Gerard and Cosmo, the relationship explored with the most detail between Gerard and one of his men is the one he has with Newman (this especially comes out in the sequel, U.S. Marshals), possibly because he’s the youngest and (most likely) the rookie of the group. Newman gets used in three of Gerard’s best moments. The first comes the morning after the train wreck, when Gerard orders everyone else to perform some kind of duty, and everyone’s gone except Newman. Without looking around, Gerard asks, “What are you doing?” When Newman says he’s thinking, Gerard replies, “Well, think me up a cup of coffee and a chocolate doughnut with some of those little sprinkles on top, while you’re thinking”, and again, we hear the contempt. Later, after Gerard and the others track down Copeland, Gerard has to shoot Copeland while he’s holding Newman hostage; afterwards, while recovering, Newman bitterly tells Gerard he’s got hearing damage. For a moment, it seems like Gerard is going to be fatherly towards him, especially when Newman confirms he thinks Gerard should have bargained with Copeland. Instead, Gerard leans in and whispers, “I. Don’t. Bargain.” But near the end of the film, when Newman has found a crucial piece of evidence, Gerard tells him he’s sending a group of cops to him (Newman is at the hospital, while Gerard is at his office), tells him, “Don’t let them give you any shit about your ponytail” (my favorite line of the film), and congratulates him on a job well done. You can see Newman visibly swell with pride as he thanks Gerard. Again, this is well-earned.

**-Since Sykes was a former cop now working security, there’s a theory about the film the reason why the Chicago cops were so insistent on Kimble being the one who killed his wife is they were trying to protect one of their own. That’s an interesting thought, but I don’t think it’s demonstrated in the film, even in an intuitive sense. I think it’s simply the same reason why, in so many cases, people in authority continue to insist someone’s guilty even when it’s been proven they’re innocent; they simply don’t want to admit they’re wrong.

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2 Comments
  1. I’ll have to admit that I didn’t want to like this film back when it was released, but it happened to actually be quite good and worth that six bucks or whatever I paid to see it. I haven’t seen it in a few years, but your post is a nice prod to the ribs to check it out if it hits cable again. Or perhaps I’ll just buy the Blu-Ray at some point…

    • Thanks! I have to admit, when I first heard about it, I wasn’t necessarily enthused about it either (even though, at that point, I did trust Harrison Ford), but it remains crackling entertainment.

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