Friday, December 31, 2010

The Fugitive (1993)

Here is how I imagine The Fugitive came to the big screen.  Tired with the high expectations that come with making high profile sequels and adaptations of best selling novels, and bored with award-winning directors, Harrison Ford wanted to see if he could make a flop in the 90s.  "Get me that guy who actually liked working with Steven Seagal," he probably demanded, "and make sure the story is absolutely ridiculous --- maybe a film adaptation of The Mod Squad?  I was on that show once, you know."  And that's how it definitely (maybe) came to be: Harrison Ford starred in a movie by Andrew Davis (director of Above the Law and Under Siege, and was probably working on a title like Middle of Mayhem), the big screen adaptation of the long-running 1960s show, The Fugitive, where he will spend over two hours chasing a one-armed murderer.  The result was a box office smash and seven Academy Award nominations.  I would not have guessed it, but Harrison Ford didn't make bad movies...well, for another year or two, anyway.

After an evening spent attending a black tie event for the medical community, Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) arrives home to find his wife (Sela Ward) injured and dying on the floor.  She is not alone, though; Kimble struggles with her assailant, but is ultimately unable to detain him.  He learns one thing about the killer, though: he has one prosthetic hand.  Apparently, "It was not me, it was the one-armed man" is not terribly convincing to the Chicago police, although I'm sure the obvious signs of a struggle in the house, the lack of an obvious break-in, and Mrs. Kimble's generous life insurance policy were also factors in Richard's arrest.  Apparently, Kimble has the world's worst expensive lawyer, because he is found guilty of first degree murder and is given a death sentence, all on circumstantial evidence.  At this point, you might think that this will be a film dedicated to the appeals process of convicted felons.  But look at the title; it's not The Convicted, it's The Fugitive, as in "at large."  While taking the bus to death row, some of the other lucky convictees try to escape, which leads to the bus turning over on its side.  Good news, bad news, guys...most of you survived the accident, but the bus is now on a train track with a train heading this way.  Kimble barely escapes, rescuing one of the prison guards in the process, and finds himself a relatively free man.  What does a wrongfully accused man do in this situation?  Well, it's not like he can have anything tacked on to his sentence --- they don't have an extra crispy sentence --- so he goes on the lam, hunting down the one-armed man.  At this point, the US Marshalls show up to hunt down the fleeing fugitive.  Lead by Deputy Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), they perform some of the most competent police work you will ever see in a movie where the hero is not a cop.

Here are some reasons why this is a ridiculous movie:
  • The score.  Rarely do you have such bombastic music dramatizing such subtle things.
  • Obviously, the one-armed man thing.  Who hires a hitman with a unique visual characteristic?  What, were all the assassin albinos busy?
  • A successful doctor killing his wife to benefit from her life insurance policy.  Really?  How much research would it take for the police (or Kimble's lawyer) to discredit that as a motive?  "Hmm...he must have wanted to get even richer!"  Possible, yes.  Likely, no.
  • The circumstantial evidence.  Granted, this was made in 1993, but this sort of "proof" gets discredited within the first ten minutes of an ordinary CSI episode.  How about the lack of Mrs. Kimble blood in any area of the house where the struggle took place?  That took me all of ten seconds to think of.  I would hope his lawyer could come up with more.
  • The hair and beard.  Are you really going to tell me that a respected doctor who looks like Han Solo is going to let himself look like this?  Especially a married man?  Unlikely, at best.
    Laugh it up, fuzzball.  And get off my lawn!

Now, just because a movie is ridiculous doesn't mean that it is bad.  The direction is pretty straight forward and, aside from the scenes at the train tracks and the dam (both of which still stand up today), this isn't a special effects movie.  It's more of a thriller than anything else, and Andrew Davis does a good job allowing the audience and Kimble to unravel the plot together.  The performances are, for the most part, solid.  Harrison Ford is as good as ever, even if his "I'm going to jump" grimace is suspiciously similar to the look an old man makes before shouting at kids to get off his lawn.  Tommy Lee Jones steals the show as the prickly Deputy Gerard, a feat all the more impressive when you consider just how sympathetic Richard Kimble is; you have to be a pretty awesome character to get away with not caring about the main character and still be likable.  The rest of the supporting cast serves its function with several decent to mediocre performances, but nothing embarrassing.  Jeroen Krabbe plays a doctor friend of Kimble well enough, but he reminds me of a European Chris Noth in this film (just an observation, not a critique).  Joe Pantoliano, Julianne Moore, Sela Ward, and Jane Lynch all have noteworthy bit parts and Andreas Katsulas plays the evil one-armed man.  Nobody does a bad job, but nobody really does a good job, either.  I guess that's okay, since it lets you focus on Ford and Jones.

This is a pretty good good movie with a few very memorable action sequences.  Did it deserve a Best Picture nomination?  Personally, I doubt it.  Tommy Lee Jones did deserve his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, even if he did beat out a very deserving pair in Ralph Fiennes (Schindler's List) and Leonardo DiCaprio (What's Eating Gilbert Grape?).  I was surprised to find that the aspect of the film that kept me from loving it was not the plethora of mediocre performances --- they served their parts well enough, but were still kind of blah --- but a few lapses in the plot.  This is a convoluted story, but I expected Kimble to make smarter choices to evade the law.  Yes, he dyes his hair to change his appearance, but that dye washed out after one scene; I would have thought that the man would have wanted to keep changing his look, especially after Deputy Gerard catches a glimpse of his beardless face.  And the scene where Kimble cross references a list of one-armed men with people in prison --- how does a wanted fugitive walk into a prison without a back-up plan, in case the random one-armed man he wants to see isn't his wife's murderer?  Still, those are relatively small complaints in an otherwise entertaining movie.  It's too ridiculous (and too serious about being ridiculous) to be great, but it's still a good time.

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