The Fugitive Is a 2-Hour Chase Scene You Won't Want to End
By Robert Silva
If you’re looking for relief from exhausting CGI sequences, you’ll find it here.
The plot of The Fugitive is perhaps too simple: An innocent physician (Harrison Ford) is found guilty of murdering his wife, and he escapes to prove his innocence by finding the real killer — the fabled “one-armed man.”
It’s an efficient set up and it works because The Fugitive is not so much a movie as it is an engine for generating chase scenes, one smashing into another. Too much story would weigh down the runaway momentum that begins, literally, with a train crash, setting Ford’s Dr. Kimble off and running.
Based on the 1960s TV show, The Fugitive was directed by Andrew Jackson, who delivered muscular, intelligent action pictures throughout the 1990s, and has a knack for getting suspiciously strong performances from established stars, including Steven Seagal (Under Siege) and Chuck Norris (Code of Silence). He certainly knows he knows to play to the strengths of Harrison Ford, a silent actor born in the wrong decade, who can speak volumes with a weary grin.
That acting style is an inspired pairing with the verbal rat-a-tat of Tommy Lee Jones, in his Oscar-winning role as U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard. The laconic lawman chases Kimble with the same ferocity that Kimble pursues his wife’s killer, putting the audience in the slightly odd position of rooting for both men. It surely helps that Jones has a quiver of bone-dry comebacks at the ready.
“[Tommy Lee Jones] probably wrote 50 to 60 percent of his dialogue,” director Andrew Davis recalled in a 2009 DGA interview. “You're a coach, and sometimes you have a playbook, but sometimes the quarterback knows what he should be doing more than you do."
The two actors’ chemistry comes through full force in The Fugitive’s famous, oft-quoted dam scene. As Gerard and Kimble set eyes on each other for the first time, each give a brief position statement:
Kimble: “I didn’t kill my wife!”
Gerard: “I don’t care!”
Then Kimble makes a harrowing dive off a dam that’s thrilling, first because it’s real (Davis used a stunt diver), and also because it’s authentic in terms of character. This is how far he’s willing to go to prove they’re after the wrong guy.
In today’s CGI-reliant franchise films, it can feel like programmers have replaced the storytellers at the helm. In The Fugitive, you’re reminded that an action scene is a work of choreography, and that it’s easy to be excited when you’re clear about what’s going on. As the action tracks to Chicago, South Side-native Davis makes ingenious use of elevated trains and a St. Patrick’s Day Parade, where Kimble easily slips into the real-life crowd, and out of Gerard’s grasp. Considerable suspense is generated just by the fact that the stakes, and the geography, are clear.
Twenty-five years after its release, The Fugitive remains exhilarating rather than exhausting. People saw it more than once during its theatrical release. The movie played uninterrupted in multiplexes from August to December. Critic Gene Siskel, watched it twice before he reviewed it. It’s the unique thriller that doesn’t dilute on repeat viewings.
So, let’s say The Fugitive is the epitome of a great, nuts-and-bolts action movie. A shining example of visual storytelling. A fugue of the chase scene. Is there a deeper level to The Fugitive? A commentary on criminal justice, or perhaps Big Pharma? Sometimes it’s nice to just go to the movies, and escape. Take it from Dr. Kimble.