REVIEW: U.S. Marshals (1998)

When accused double murderer Mark Roberts (Wesley Snipes) escapes custody in a plane crash, United States Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) is hot on his trail, accompanied by DSS agent John Royce (Robert Downey Jr). The more Gerard investigates, however, the more unlikely Roberts’ apparent homicides appear to be.

Hollywood loves sequels and pretty much always has, so whenever a feature film turns a tidy profit and clicks with audiences it is inevitable that some attempt will be made to produce a follow-up. In the cast of the 1993 action film The Fugitive – itself a remake of a television series – producing a sequel was a fairly difficult proposition. It would stretch credulity a little too far to have that film’s protagonist Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) have to go on the run from the authorities a second time, so that left antagonist Sam Gerard to simply hunt down someone else instead. You can go in two directions with that: keep the character but adapt them to a fresh narrative or setting, or simply rehash the original film beat-by-beat and hope nobody notices the similarities.

To their minor credit, the makers of U.S. Marshals chart something of a middle course, but there are still too many moments riffing off of The Fugitive for its own good. Couple that with what is a relatively weak screenplay and pedestrian direction, and you have a feature film that feels purpose-built to remind its audience of another much better feature film. U.S. Marshals has an early action set piece in which a runaway fugitive escapes a plane crash. The Fugitive had a much more effective and suspenseful collision between a bus and a freight train. U.S. Marshals has a jaw-dropping jump from an apartment building down to a passenger train. The Fugitive has a death-defying leap from a dam spillway into a river below. On it goes, beat by beat and line by line, until it really is worth ignoring U.S. Marshals altogether and simply watching The Fugitive again.

Wesley Snipes gives a strong performance as Mark Roberts, but his character suffers tremendously from never being properly set up. The Fugitive takes its time to establish Kimble, develop sympathy for him, and give a well-developed background to his job, his colleagues and his marriage. U.S. Marshals has barely introduced tow truck driver Mark Warren before revealing he is actually wanted criminal Mark Roberts, and barely half an hour later reveals him to be secret agent Mark Sheridan instead. The character winds up so mercurial that it is impossible to properly engage with his plight – and at that point half the movie is effectively wasted.

Not that the other half works too well: everybody just seems bored to even be there, particularly a visibly disengaged and overly laconic Downey Jr. Tommy Lee Jones simply looks like a grumpy man in the middle of a particularly annoying day; the snappy callousness of his performance in The Fugitive – strong enough to score him an Academy Award – feels blunted and reduced to stereotype.

Stuart Baird’s direction feels rote and unenthused as well. He is an excellent editor, with a genuinely impressive list of production credits, but for some reason that talent has never extended to directing. His camera angles are pedestrian, and he struggles to develop any sort of tension. It’s perhaps not surprising he has only directed two other films, Executive Decision (1996) and Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), since only the first of those three was particularly good. The other two just drain energy from the room.

Sam Gerard was a great character in The Fugitive, and there was always potential to spin him off into his own adventures, but a good hunter needs more exciting prey than this. U.S. Marshals commits potentially the worst action movie crime there is: it’s boring.

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