When Hollywood announces that it’s going to rape the collective childhood memories of the baby boomer generation and desecrate another television classic for the big screen, the results usually resemble what comes out of the southbound end of a northbound horse. There are rare exceptions, like The Addams Family, which take on a new life of their own when translated to the movies, but having that level of talent on board is pretty rare for such an enterprise. Speaking of enterprises, the Star Trek films are a different kind of exception, being more of a resurrection using the original cast than an actual adaptation.
Hollywood often likes to say they are “re-imagining” these TV shows, which is a laugh. Between the TV adapations, the endless sequels and remakes, “imagine” is a dirty word in that town. For them to re-imagine anything is not only an execise in futile absurdity, but also a violation of the laws of physics.
Thus, if you had told people ahead of time that the 1993 film version of The Fugitive would not only be nominated for Best Picture but that one of its actors would actually take home a statuette, you would have been strapped to a bed, forcibly medicated and not allowed to use sharp objects. In that context, the artistic success of this movie makes raising Lazurus seem like a Vegas sideshow act.
What makes The Fugitive work for me is the trait shared by its dual protagonists. Both Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) and Deputy Marshall Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) are equally dogged and unrelenting in their respective pursuits: the doctor’s quest to find the man guilty of the murder for which Kimble was convicted and Gerard’s pursuit of Kimble himself. Both men are admirable for both their determination and their intelligence. This is not a movie that requires one or both characters to be abysmally stupid in order to advance the plot. It’s more like a chess game played out across a swatch of the American midwest.
Jones gets the showier, more colorful role since Kimble, by virtue of being alone for most of the film, doesn’t have much to say. Ford still manages to give an exceptional performance that is equal parts fear, wounded pride and anger at the injustices against him. In some ways, it’s a more pro-active variant on the role he played in the excellent Presumed Innocent. Jones’ Oscar-winning portrayal of Sam Gerard, on the other hand, is a force of nature. Tireless in his pursuit, he leaves his band of deputies panting behind him, exasperated by his wild hunches and equally exasperated when those hunches play out.
Another of the film’s strengths is the quality of its supporting cast, including Jeroen Krabbé as Kimble’s closest friend. Gerard’s team includes vividly drawn performances from L. Scott Caldwell, Tom Wood, Daniel Roebuck and Joe Pantoliano in the role that catapulted him to mainstream success.
Despite the life and dimension given to its characters, The Fugitive is still an action movie and, on that level, it’s an unqualified home run. Of all its memorable set-pieces, only Kimble’s dive off the dam fails to impress, with Ford’s “stand-in” being too obviously a dummy. The other action scenes, including the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the subway fight and the final rooftop chase, work at both the film’s superior character level and the straight action level. Of course, the film’s tour de force is the train wreck that sets Kimble free to pursue the real murderer. Made at the end of the pre-dawn era for computer imaging, The Fugitive eschews camera tricks and miniatures for the most impractical of all practical effects: actually wrecking a train. The terrifying level of reality found in this scene helps force us to accept everything that comes after, no matter how much it might stretch the bounds of plausibility. Fortunately, this movie doesn’t need that kind of help very often.
I think the greatest simple virtue of this movie is that, while they remained faithful to the characters and the premise of the original series, they chucked everything else overboard and simply set out to make a good movie. There are no winks at the audience, no cameos by the show’s original cast, no exercises in pointless nostalgia. This film would have worked just as well had there never been a television series. That’s a pretty good yardstick of success for this kind of movie and one to which few television adaptations can measure up. The Fugitive remains the gold standard by which such efforts are judged and, as long as they keep perpetrating movies like The Dukes of Hazzard, it’s not likely to be challenged any time soon.