WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Sentenced to death for the murder of his wife, Dr Richard Kimble is granted one last stab at clearing his name after an incident on the way to prison gives him his liberty. While the surgeon tries to discover the identity of the real killer, Samuel Gerard of the US Marshals keeps up his dogged pursuit, convinced – most of the way – that he’s tracking down a guilty man.
Chicago surgeon Dr Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) is in deep trouble: despite his ardent claim that a one-armed man was responsible for the violent murder of his wife Helen (Sela Ward), he has been convicted and sentenced to death. On the way to prison, the disruptive actions of Kimble’s would-be jailmates cause a massive train wreck, from which Kimble flees in a panic. Most of the authorities write the prisoners off as goners, but the instincts of US Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) tell him otherwise; they’re right, and Gerard catches up with Kimble in the tunnels of a dam, where Kimble protests his innocence before making a desperate plunge for freedom.
Miraculously, Kimble survives, and he begins a search for the one-armed man by looking up records at his own hospital, trying to keep the indefatigable Gerard and his trusty sidekick Cosmo (Joe Pantoliano) one step behind as they each search for justice. However, finding the murderer may ultimately be less important than why Kimble was put in the frame in the first place.
To be honest, I’m more familiar with Les Misérables, the story that gives The Fugitive its broad outline, than the successful 60s TV show which inspired this movie (Roy Huggins, creator of the show, is executive producer here). But in truth it matters little; the important thing is that any kind of chase provides the potential for a great deal of tension and excitement, and Andrew Davis generally realises that potential in a film which starts the chase early and barely lets up from start to finish. The Fugitive’s main selling point is that it fast forwards past the investigation of and trial for Helen Kimble’s murder, the police procedural stuff taking a back seat to a simple game of cat-and-mouse, Gerard pursuing because that’s his job and he’s not paid to ask questions (hence the famous exchange in the tunnel: ‘I didn’t kill my wife’; ‘I don’t care’.)
The real skill of the film, its cast and its screenplay (by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy) is that it makes both parties likeable and reasonable. Jones’ Gerard is a no-nonsense type with a dry sense of humour, a natural lawman’s sense of intuition and an occasionally conflicting loyalty to his badge, backed up to good effect by the typically wisecracking Pantoliano; while Ford makes a Kimble a believable runaway, desperate yet resourceful, scarred by the loss of his wife but determined to prove his innocence.
Maybe Kimble is too good – flashbacks to the night of the murder leave us in no doubt of his innocence, and (being a doctor) he can’t help but save lives wherever he goes – but Ford’s natural, action-man charisma smooths over most qualms, including his improbable survival when leaping from the dam. Andreas Katsulas, Jeroen Krabbe and David Darlow all play their less likable (is that vague enough?) parts well too.
The famous dam sequence is one of the highlights of The Fugitive – the other being the authentic train crash which grants Kimble his freedom – but the action is handled efficiently throughout. The only trouble is that the story necessarily front-loads the action, and although the characters remain compelling throughout, Kimble’s search for the one-armed man becomes visually less interesting as time goes on – for example, Harrison donning a hat to slip away during a St Patrick’s Day parade.
Good actors like Julianne Moore and Jane Lynch (in an early, non-comic role) are underused, whilst the film increasingly relies on false alarms and contrivances to maintain the heart-rate: would Kimble really risk visiting a prisoner, let alone a one-armed one? Meanwhile, the reason for Helen’s murder is a disappointing bit of corporate villainy, though the lengthy climax – the Chicago Police shooting on sight – is quite exciting.
The Fugitive is an uncomplicated chase movie without a shocking twist or dazzling style to call its own, but that’s not to criticise it; the lack of fuss and the concentration on characters with a bit of – well, character – is welcome in an age where bland, muscled heroes and frenetically-edited, deafening action rule the roost. Inevitably, by condensing the action into a single film, Davis loses much of the atmosphere the television show built up over 120 episodes; but Ford and Jones are personable enough to make an immediate and positive impact. There are certainly deeper, meatier thrillers out there, but this is a superior example of the craft all the same.