MASTERPIECE: The Fugitive (1993)

There are many good films released around the world every year. Masterpiece celebrates the best of the very best: genuinely superb works of cinema that come with FictionMachine‘s very highest recommendation. If we had our own Criterion Collection, these are the films we would want it to include.

In all honesty, movie adaptations of old TV shows are not supposed to be this good. Directed by Andrew Davis and released to cinemas in 1993, The Fugitive takes the premise of Roy Huggins’ 1960s drama series and propels it into a pretty much faultless chase thriller. Everything is working in complete harmony: the screenplay, the direction, the performances, the design. It is all perfectly aligned to tell the best possible story.

Thoracic surgeon Dr Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) comes home to find a one-armed man in his house and his wife murdered. Wrongfully convicted for the crime, Kimble is sent by bus to prison to await execution. When that bus crashes, Kimble is able to escape – and begins to hunt for the one-armed man to prove his innocence. Hot on his trail is US Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), a merciless and driven professional prepared to do anything to get Kimble back in custody.

It is worth considering the comparatively unusual structure of The Fugitive. Most stories, whatever the medium, have a protagonist attempting to achieve a goal and an antagonist attempting to prevent it. Sometimes there might be multiple protagonists or even multiple antagonists. In some cases the antagonist may not even be a character but an environment as in Frank Marshall’s Alive (1993) or Joe Penna’s Arctic (2018). While there are villainous characters in The Fugitive – the one-armed man (Andreas Katsulas) and whoever employs him – for the majority of the film there are simply two protagonists. Kimble and Gerard are both heroic, but have mutually incompatible goals. If one succeeds, the other automatically fails. It creates a potent combination that is rich in character and increases suspense.

Rich characters require talented actors, and in this regard The Fugitive benefits from some of the best. Tommy Lee Jones had been appearing in American films since 1970, playing a growing range of characters in the likes of Love Story (1970), Rolling Thunder (1977), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), and JFK (1991) before the enormous success of The Fugitive rocketed him to super-stardom. Jones’ rapid-fire dialogue and deadpan expressions were a perfect match of actor and material. His iconic delivery of Gerard’s hard-target search monologue (“every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, hen house, outhouse, and dog house in that area”) likely won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor all on its own. Even during shooting Jones worked consistently to harden his character wherever possible (one example: when given the line “That isn’t my problem,” when Kimble first tells him he did not kill his wife, Jones changes it to a blunt and unsympathetic “I don’t care.”).

Jones played the showiest part; Ford played the more difficult. Acting is, in the main, a process of back-and-forth between two or more actors. As the saying goes: “Acting is reacting”. For much of The Fugitive Kimble is alone, leaving Ford with the tricky task of acting without anybody else in the scene against whom he can react or interact. Ford’s sharp, naturalistic performance is a tremendously impressive achievement, and arguably the best work of his long career. It is appropriate that Jones was honoured for playing Gerard. It is a tragedy that the Academy did not even see fit to nominate Ford for an Oscar.

There is a tremendous momentum to The Fugitive, gained from its double-chase structure. James Newton Howard’s musical score works like an undercurrent: even relatively sedate scenes get a sense of building tension and urgency. The film comes packed with action sequences and chase scenes, yet in every case keeps its characters relatively grounded. When Kimble jumps from a dam spillway, it is seen as a death-defying act. More often the action keeps to a relatively small scale: the climax is effectively a fist-fight in a hotel laundry.

There is simply no slack to The Fugitive. No characters or scenes feel extraneous. It is the perfect example of everybody involved in a film doing everything right. It is no surprise that the film itself was showered with award nominations and became a popular hit. It is pretty much an instruction manual for effective action-thrillers.

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