Unsung Gems – ‘The Fugitive’ exciting, mature and highly intelligent
Directed by Andrew Davis
Written by David Twohy & Jeb Stuart
There’s something fundamentally bizarre about a film nominated for seven academy awards, including best picture, being underrated. In fact, said film can’t even be cited as the victim of an Oscar backlash, and if esteemed net sources such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are to be taken at face value there certainly wasn’t a lack of critical esteem, and it’s reputed enough to be have been lampooned and referenced in various comedies and TV shows. Considering that on top of that The Fugitive is a huge amount of fun, and features two great household names delivering career best performances, the lack of love is a mystery.
Based on the popular 60’s TV show of the same name, even if only its blueprint, The Fugitive sees successful doctor Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) wrongly convicted for his wife’s (Sela Ward) murder. Damned by circumstantial evidence and shoddy police work, Kimble maintains his innocence and assurance that the deed was committed by a one armed intruder even as he is wheeled off to death row. Luckily for him, the prison bus he is being transported in crashes after an attack on the guards by fellow inmates, allowing Kimble to escape.
To hunt he and the other escaped felon down, a team of US Marshall led by Deputy Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) are drafted in. But despite only narrowly avoiding capturing during a near fatal clash at a water dam, Kimble adopts a disguise and heads back to his native Chicago to find the real killer, utilizing the help of various sympathetic ex-colleagues, including best friend Charles Nichols (Jeroen Krabbe). In doing so, he uncovers a pharmaceutical company led conspiracy that explains why a former cop would want him dead, but must evade the determined Gerard in order to reveal the truth and prove his innocence.
As already mentioned, Holes director Andrew Davis oversees a film that while a spiritual re-imagining of Roy Huggins’ cult show certainly isn’t compelled by any sense of loyalty to style or narrative. A doctor named Kimble is wrongly accused of murdering his wife, and after escaping is forced to go on the run from a lawman named Gerard in pursuit of exoneration and justice. Here is where the similarities end; campy serial adventure becomes exciting, mature and highly intelligent mystery thriller with dollops of unforced pathos to boot. At times, there are even shades of noir within a complex background of medical testing and subterfuge.
The way it works out is truly a joy on numerous levels, with Davis deploying the same action smarts which elevated the previous year’s Under Siege into ‘better than it should be’ territory and allying it with real thriller nous. From the opening bus/train crash to the much parodied dam escaping, and right through to a classic rooftop to basement final confrontation, The Fugitive sets hearts racing with intricate and dynamic set pieces that stop just short of being incredulous. There is a similar degree of genuine ecstacy and excitement from the discoveries in quieter times too, with revelations and crime solving making up a large part of the plot and being genuinely engaging when it could have been overly dry. The biggest thrill in the film is perhaps the dawning moment of realization when Kimble finally discovers who orchestrated his wife’s murder, rather than any of his death defying leaps.
Making sure that popcorn isn’t a word inserted into any shorthand description of the film’s appeal is a slick script from David Twohy and Jeb Stuart, a screenplay packed with intrigue as well as suspense, not to mention some great dialogue exchanges between well fleshed out characters. Said characters are then duly brought to life by some great performances, particularly the duo at the top of the tree.
While Tommy Lee Jones sparkles and entertains as the sardonic and smooth Gerard, a role which earned him an Oscar, the biggest revelation is Harrison Ford. Although the ‘decent family man pushed to extreme measures’ role he plays here was replicated throughout the 90’s by inferior action movies, he is perfectly cast as Kimble, delivering an intense and compelling performance. The burning desire within him isn’t made evident by speechifying or mugging, it is through a subtle display by the always understated Ford. We never once question his motivation, and only the cruelest of viewers would decline to cheerlead for him.
A supporting cast of mostly unfamiliar names prove to be authentic and interesting window dressing, and include evergreen character actor Joe Pantoliano and Lost alumni Daniel Roebuck and L Scott Caldwell as members of Gerard’s team, and the late Andreas Katsulas as the infamous one armed man. Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe, a last minute replacement for Richard Jordan, is also notable with an amiable yet ambiguous portrayal or confidante Nichols, and despite being short on screen time Sela Ward proves to be suitably alluring as Kimble’s wife Helen. Such flashbacks in similar films usually gorge on sentimental dross, but here they are natural and believable. The quest at the heart of the film is never milked for cheap emotion or built on flimsy schlock.
Adding to a great atmosphere is a superb score by the ever reliable and versatile James Newton Howard, musical arrangements that hit the action high notes as successfully as the lower key mystery chords, and some excellent use of the city of Chicago as a great visual setting for the unfolding story. Full throttle at times, the film is always visually interesting in terms of its locations and settings, giving real character to an environment that could have been deemed superfluous. While real recognition either by offers in the years since of by a nod on the otherwise fruitful 1994 Oscar night may have evaded Davis, he shows undoubted ability as a Director here.
On top of all this, The Fugitive proves to a film with enormous rewatch value, and much like the best thrillers of the decade, such as LA Confidential and Se7en, it reveals new secrets with each repeat viewing. This is the scale on which The Fugitive should be judged, shoulder to shoulder with the best of its genre. Why it isn’t, at least in the public eye, is a question that apparently will go on being unanswered.