A man betrayed. A crime unsolved. The chase begins. Loosely based on the landmark television series that ran on ABC from 1963-1967, Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive (1993) is a character-driven roller coaster ride with few equals. Certainly, no thriller since The Fugitive has come anywhere close to recapturing the antagonistic buddy-buddy relationship that unexpectedly blossoms between wrongfully accused convicted murderer, Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) and caustic U.S. Marshal, Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones); the pair at each other’s throats and on opposite sides of the law in a race against time to get to the truth behind the one-armed man.
In preparing the movie director Davis went through countless permutations of its screenplay, a gestation period of approximately twenty years before producer Arnold Kopelson was given the green light over at Warner Bros. Even then, Kopelson received polite ‘advice’ that he was making a serious mistake. No one had attempted to condense a popular TV series into a movie since Hecht-Lancaster’s production of Marty (1955). But Kopelson had a gut feeling about the project’s success and so did Davis who continued to tinker with the plot throughout the shoot, screenwriters Jeb Stuart and David Twohy on constant standby as the story continued to morph.
For the most part the changes made throughout distilled the narrative down to its essentials – the exoneration of Richard Kimble. Somewhere along the way editor Dean Goodhill came up with the idea of eliminating virtually all of the backstory into a six minute montage in flashback, intercutting the murder of Kimble’s wife, Helen (Sela Ward) with Kimble’s incarceration and conviction. Lost in this editing process was Julianne Moore’s role as Dr. Anne Eastman who, in the original treatment became Richard’s new love interest and a valiant ally in his exculpatory search for the truth. As shooting progressed, improvisation became an integral part of the film-maker’s acumen. The scene where Richard is relentless pursued by Gerard down the stairs at county lock up was given an added kick by Harrison Ford who suggested Gerard fire his service revolver into the plate glass only to discover that it is bullet proof. This scene is, of course, a flub, as U.S. Marshals do not have the authority to fire on an unarmed man who does not present an immediate threat to them.
Director Andrew Davis has conceded that a lot of the momentum of The Fugitive was resolved in the editing room; his team working round the clock to reshape the raw footage into an exhilarating caper. As example; the sequence where Gerard, after having slipped down a shaft inside a drainage tunnel suddenly discovers he is at Richard’s mercy, initially contained some fairly extensive exposition; both men making their own stake pointedly clear. Davis decided to simply ‘cut to the chase’ as it were; the dialogue sparsely pared to exactly two lines – possibly, the most famous in the whole movie.
Richard: “I didn’t kill my wife.”
Gerard: “I don’t care!”
For the train wreck Davis used a real locomotive and cars dragged on cables with Harrison Ford performing most of his own stunt work while nervous insurance agents looked on. The derailment, spectacular and untainted by all but a fleeting glimpse of CGI in post-production remains one of the most harrowing examples of full-scale action ever put on film. The Fugitive’s set pieces; the aforementioned wreck, Kimble’s dive off the dam, his narrow escape through the streets of Chicago during its annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, the showdown between the one-armed man and Kimble aboard an elevated train; these are expertly staged and memorably played out. But it’s the introspective moments in between that set The Fugitive apart from virtually any and all contemporary thrillers. Too often in American-made action/adventure movies such moments of exposition are used merely to string together the action sequences without any real thought for heightening their emotional impact.
But The Fugitive does exactly the opposite. We are invested in Richard Kimble’s plight, partly out of Davis’ careful planning during these causal links in the story, but also because Harrison Ford is our star. Ford’s presence is an easily identifiable trademark that grounds the story in a more permanent investment of our time and interest. That is the power of genuine star quality. It cannot be manufactured or created out of thin air. It just has to exist on its own and Ford has it in spades. Ditto for Tommy Lee Jones. Thus, the story never seems to lack or lag, primarily because both men pull their weight and backs into their performances that engage the audience, despite the fact each spends much of the movie’s run time apart from the other, their purposes on a parallel course destined to eventually collide.
The Fugitive opens with Helen’s murder. Richard is suspected of the crime almost immediately by Detective Kelly (Ron Dean); his story of struggling with a one-armed man, Sykes (Andreas Katsulas) seems implausible and far-fetched. We fast track through the trial; flashbacks illustrating what really happened the night Helen died. We see the couple attending a charity fashion show where Richard is introduced to Dr. Lentz (David Darlow) by fellow colleague, Dr. Charles Nichols (Jeroen Krabbe). Richard is called away for an emergency assist and Helen returns to their fashionable townhouse alone with thoughts of creating a romantic evening upon her husband’s return. Regrettably, Sykes is already in the house. He brutally assaults Helen, crushing her skull with a piece of art deco sculpture moments before Richard’s arrival; the 911 call Helen makes before succumbing to the blow on her head inadvertently used as proof during Richard’s trial of his complicity in the crime.
Sentenced to die by lethal injection, Richard is loaded onto a bus with other inmates bound for a maximum security federal penitentiary. A staged confrontation between the inmates and the jail officers (Frank Ray Perilla and Otis Wilson) causes the bus to run off the road, flip over and roll onto the open tracks where it is T-boned by an oncoming freight train. Kimble narrowly escapes being crushed by the locomotive and is assisted by fellow inmate, Copeland (Eddie Bo Smith Jr.) who has found the keys to their leg iron restraints. Copeland takes off in one direction, Kimble the other with U.S. Marshall Samuel Gerard arriving on the scene to question and pick apart the guard’s statement that all of the inmates perished in the fiery crash. Gerard takes command of the investigation away from a rather cocky Sheriff Rawlins (Nick Searcy), the dragnet spreading far and wide. Richard manages to elude Gerard for a time, stealing coveralls from an automotive garage and then sneaking into a nearby hospital where he treats his own wounds sustained during the crash before making off with an elderly patient’s lunch, clothes and money.
Unfortunately, the surviving guard from the wreck is being treated at this hospital and identifies Richard who is on his way out. Richard steals an ambulance and Gerard and his men make chase by helicopter, converging on a dam. Richard abandons the ambulance inside a tunnel, then narrowly escapes being taken into custody by jumping from the top of the dam, seemingly to his own death amidst the swirling waters far below. While Gerard has the local authorities dredge the spillway for a body, Richard manages his escape further downstream, eventually renting a room from a Polish landlady (Monika Chabrowski) whose son (Lonnie Sima), unbeknownst to Richard, is a drug dealer. In the meantime, Gerard gets a lead, so we are led to believe, on Richard. Instead, Gerard and his men bust in on Copeland who has shacked up with his ex-girlfriend (Lillie Richardson). In the resulting chaos one of Gerard’s agents, Newman (Tom Wood) is temporarily taken hostage. But Gerard saves the day by shooting Copeland dead in a split second act of heroism.
We return to Richard’s boarding house; police descending on it in a sting operation but not to apprehend Richard, rather to arrest the landlady’s drug-dealing son. Richard re-enters his old life, stealing a janitorial I.D. that allows him access to the prosthetics department where he begins to investigate and learn the identity of the one-armed man who murdered Helen. Richard is spotted, though not identified as such, by Dr. Anne Eastman (Julianne Moore) who suspects him of being more than he is after she asks him to take a wounded boy (Joel Robinson) up to radiology. Instead, Richard reads the X-ray and realizes the boy will die without immediate surgical intervention. He changes the boy’s charts to indicate such and wheels him into surgery, thereby saving his life. Richard also contacts Dr. Nichols and confides his findings about Sykes after breaking into Syke’s apartment and finding photographs taken of him and Lentz on a fishing trip. When Nichols informs Richard that Lentz is dead from an apparent auto accident, Richard is baffled – his exoneration at a standstill. Richard then alerts Gerard to Sykes’ whereabouts. As such, Gerard begins to suspect that perhaps Richard is innocent after all.
In the meantime, Richard has deduced that Nichols helped falsify research on a new vascular drug, Provasic because the drug company involved in funding the research could not afford its failure, despite the fact that the new compound is proven to cause cancer in patients. Realizing that Nichols was behind Helen’s murder all along, and most likely behind Lentz’ accident too, Richard makes plans to confront Nichols at a drug conference. In the meantime, Nichols has instructed Sykes to kill Richard. Sykes makes his attempt aboard a moving El-train, shooting a transit cop (Neil Flynn) in the process before Richard manages to subdue and handcuff Sykes to one of the overhead metal poles.
Richard hurries to the hotel conference where Nichols is the keynote speaker and confronts him with his findings before a packed audience. Nichols makes light of the incident in a feeble attempt to save face; then assaults Richard in another part of the hotel. Gerard bursts into the suite pursuing Richard and Nichols to the rooftops. Richard and Nichols plummet through a glass roof onto the top of an elevator that stops inside the hotel’s laundry area. Gerard makes it known for the first time that he believes Richard’s story. In the meantime, Nichols attempts to murder Gerard with a gun taken from fellow agent Cosmo Renfro (Joe Pantoliano) whom he has already knocked unconscious. In the original draft, Cosmo was supposed to be killed by Nichols. But Pantoliano pleaded with director Davis to let his character live – a fortuitous decision indeed when Davis decided to do a sequel to The Fugitive – U.S. Marshals (1998) in which Pantoliano reprises his role. The Fugitive ends with Richard thwarting Nichols attempted murder of Gerard, but then being escorted in handcuffs by Gerard to the relative safety of a waiting car – Gerard unfastening the cuffs once inside, suggesting that Richard’s ordeal is at an end.
The Fugitive’s climax is something of a letdown; the penultimate confrontation between Nichols and Richard over too quickly. Movie endings are perhaps the toughest nut to crack. Too few of our collective cherished celluloid memories end the way we might have hoped or expected. The Fugitive’s ending is not awful, but it is rather swiftly resolved and in an extremely perfunctory way at best. One wishes for more of a resolution between Richard and Gerard, or perhaps an epilogue showing Richard beginning his life anew after his ordeal has ended. So too does the overall arch of the chase scenario occasionally veer towards the episodic; the lay of the land basically thus: Richard runs away, Gerard catches up, Richard runs away again, Gerard catches up again. Still, the story moves along with considerable ease, the characters expertly fleshed out and sustained throughout the story. It all works – more than serviceably and with considerable visual flare besides; the stark earthy textures continuing to hold up some twenty years after the movie’s debut. When The Fugitive had its world premiere it was an immediate sensation with audiences, becoming one of the most profitable hits of the season. In the twenty years since gone by The Fugitive remains a fairly engaging and deftly exciting action/thriller. Does it represent the very best of its ilk? Debatable. But it definitely deserves to be revisited again; its style going a long way to mask the occasionally faltering and uneven aspects of its substance.
This is Warner Home Video’s second bite at the hi-def apple for The Fugitive. The initial Blu-ray was, frankly, a disappointment. Not only had the image not been stabilized, color fidelity was lacking and fine details seemed less that fully realized. There were also age-related artifacts aplenty and a smattering of edge enhancement that left one wondering why The Fugitive had made the leap to 1080p in the first place. All of the aforementioned shortcomings have been resolved for Warner’s new 20th Anniversary edition. We get a pluperfect remastering effort with solid, vibrant colors, perfectly balanced contrast and grain reproduced as very film-like and thoroughly satisfying. This is a brand new transfer and the way this movie ought to be seen. Great stuff!
The newly remastered DTS 5.1 audio is robust; James Newton Howard’s score accelerates the nail-biting tension with an aggressive spread that will really give your speakers a work out. Warner has also gone to the well for some new solid extras including an almost half hour long ‘making of’ with new interviews from cast and crew. We also get the pilot episode from The Fugitive 2008 television series short-lived resurrection, plus all of the extras that were included on the old Blu-ray release (imported audio commentary, trailers and 2 featurettes from the original DVD release back in 1997). Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)