Landing on August 6, 1993, nobody expected much from The Fugitive. It was directed by Andrew Davis (previously director of Steven Seagal action flick Under Siege) and written by David Twohy (later of Vin Diesel sci-fi film Pitch Black) and starred a man who had, up to this point, been strenuously denying his action picture past. What the film offered Harrison Ford was the opportunity to have his cake and eat it too, being the hunted and persecuted Dr. Richard Kimble who, if need be, could take care of himself.
He would need to. Having been convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, the murder of his wife (played in flashbacks by Sela Ward), he has a dogged, relentless team of U.S. marshals tracking him, toplined by an aggressively snarky and cynical Deputy Gerard (with Tommy Lee Jones in a role he was born to play). With a nationwide search underway, it all comes down to a game of wits played between the two men, with Kimble looking for the real killer to clear his own name, and Gerard out to get his job done.
In one of the more memorable scenes, Gerard has tracked Kimble to an aqueduct over a cliff face. Inside, kneeling with his arms raised behind his head, Kimble insists his innocence. “I didn’t do it,” he says.
Gerard, with gun trained on his target replies, “I don’t care!” Knowing that his hunter is by-the-books bound, Kimble does the only thing he thinks of — launching himself out of the aqueduct into the waterfall and the river. Now, setting aside the preposterous possibility anyone outside of James Bond could survive such a plummet, the filmmakers are aware that they have the audience in that magical state of suspension-of-disbelief. It’s the same one that allows Luke Skywalker to sink the blast into the hidden vulnerability of the Death Star, or the one that lets you believe Sheriff Brody can shoot an airtank in a shark’s mouth to blow him to hell. It’s the point where you’re into the story enough not to pick it apart and go along for the ride, provided those behind the camera don’t get too brazen with their indulgences.
The film is based on the 1960s TV show created by Roy Huggins, starring David Janssen as the wanted Kimble. Although amped up considerably for the big screen, the main details remain consistent across the two formats.
There was little enthusiasm given to the movie just before its release. It was based on an old television property, a tactic seemingly always in fashion with studios like Warner Bros., but it is easily believed they were asking themselves, “Does anyone actually remember The Fugitive as a show and is anyone likely to care?” With that, the movie was dumped into August, once the shallow grave of summer flicks. It is different now, when there seems to be no shortage of big-budget blockbuster flicks debuting all year long. In the ’90s and before it, however, an August release was a mark of shame. Ford himself had sworn off his punch-throwing personae of Indiana Jones and Han Solo (both of which he has recently reconnected with), instead attempting to craft a filmography of presumed “legitimacy.” But like Tom Hanks, or another actor that flirts between action and drama, Bruce Willis, Ford has a credible everyman quality people immediately buy into. It’s why his version of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is so immediately acceptable, and the line between Richard Kimble and Ryan in terms of characterization is hair-thin.
Audiences were sold, making The Fugitive a hit, giving Ford even more action-cred, and eventually provoking Warners to greenlight the pseudo-sequel U.S. Marshals. The hunted figure in that movie was the less sympathetic Wesley Snipes, and all the fears the studio had with the first film were realized with the second. There would be no Deputy Samuel Gerard franchise.
That is and isn’t a shame. In a sense, Gerard was ported into the character of Agent K in the Men In Black films — not intentionally, mind you. Jones’ cynical, laconic delivery carried both through some of the rougher plot patches in each film. Both characters have an end game and neither is inclined to back down from it. Jones, while not being a comedic actor in the traditional, face-mugging sense, is darn funny in both. Evidence of that comes from the scene between Gerard and team member Deputy Marshal Bobby Biggs (Daniel Roebuck) when, in describing a situation that doesn’t ring true, Biggs calls it “hinky.”
“I don’t know. Strange,” Biggs replies.
“Weird,” Marshal Henry adds.
Gerard responds, “Well, why don’t you say strange or weird? I mean hinky, that has no meaning.”
“Well, we say hinky,” Biggs says defensively.
The elevator doors slide open into the building’s chrome-enhanced corridor. Gerard has no patience for the etymology of slang. “I don’t want you guys using words around me that have no meaning. I’m taking the stairs and walking.”
Biggs, brought low by something so inconsequential as a colloquialism, mutters under his breath, “How about ‘bullshit?’ How about ‘bullshit’, Sam?”
Without the presence of Richard Kimble or the backstory of the manhunt, there was a belief that even your standard procedural would have worked with these characters, and with these actors playing them. Daniel Roebuck regularly jumped over the barrier between movies and TV, back when that viewed as a terribly bad thing for one’s career and image. You ascended to film, and only descended when you were damaged goods at the box office. Tommy Lee Jones had moved past his TV years mostly. His time as Woodrow Call on Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove doesn’t count as that mini-series is as epic as any silver screen western.
On recent rewatch of The Fugitive, I’m struck by how sedate it is compared to most action-suspense films now available. Admittedly it is a twenty-year-old movie, so of course the pace of these modern things are going to be harder and faster by comparison, but storytelling hampered due to the expense of an extra car chase or two extra explosions seems like an awfully high price to pay. The Fugitive, even in the thick of a manhunt in downtown Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day, works because you’ve grown to like both the hunter and the hunted. The only way to accomplish that is to get to know the characters. There doesn’t seem to be enough time for that now.