There are a lot of movies out there that take an old television series and adapt their characters and basic premise into a feature film. There aren’t a lot of good ones, however. But 1993’s The Fugitive, directed by Andrew Davis and starring Harrison Ford, is one of the exceptions to the rule.
Part of this is due to the quality performances of the actors, and the director and his crew. But part of it is probably also due to the nature of the story. The Fugitive, as a TV series, had a certain need to pad out its basic plot with a lot of incidental events. As a movie, the central plot can become the sole plot, allowing for a tighter focus and a story that moves at a fast clip. Though the movie is just a little over two hours long, it feels like a much shorter film due to its pace.
Due to the large amount of running in the script, a team of cardiologists was on hand at all times during filming.
Chances are you’re at least somewhat familiar with the plot, even if you’ve never seen the show or movie. The “search for the one-armed man” is a pop-culture icon, and it was the TV series that created that icon. Dr. Richard Kimble (Ford) comes home one night to find his wife (Sela Ward, played in flashback) murdered; he finds the killer still in the house, but despite a struggle, the killer gets away. The killer (Andreas Katsulas) has only one arm; the other has been replaced with a prosthesis. The murder is investigated, Kimble is questioned, but the one-armed man cannot be found. The police believe he is making it up… he is accused, convicted, sentenced to death. Then circumstances and a break-out attempt by other convicts lead him to escape. He becomes a fugitive, seeking to find the one-armed man, the reason for his wife’s murder, and exoneration for himself.
Plus the chance to stop looking like a better-groomed Jim Henson.
Of course, any flight from the law has to involve some lawmen to fly from. In The Fugitive, this is U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard, played wonderfully by Tommy Lee Jones, and his team of deputies. Gerard has a pretty large team, but the most noteworthy members are Newman (Tom Wood) and Cosmo (Joe Pantoliano). Cosmo is sharp and sarcastic, providing a nice contrast to Gerard’s oddly jovial cynicism. Newman, perhaps appropriately, seems like a bit of a rookie in some scenes, but is nevertheless a valuable part of the team, coordinating efforts as they try to close in on Kimble. But Kimble isn’t without resources either; he’s highly intelligent, resourceful, and gets occasional help from his doctor friends, most of whom believe in his innocence. Jeroen Krabbé plays Kimble’s most-relied-on friend, Dr. Nichols, and in his halting accented voice comes across as a highly intelligent man who believes in his friend but is unsure how to help him. Also of note is Julianne Moore in a small role as a doctor whose patient Kimble helps, but who is one of the people who doesn’t take him at face value.
There are a lot of strong performances in minor and major roles, but for the most part, this is the Ford & Jones Show. By having two genuinely good men as antagonists, the movie puts the audience in the odd position of wanting to root for both sides of the chase, even if we hope that Marshal Gerard comes upon the truth before he comes upon Kimble. Both Ford and Jones were already established veteran actors by this point, and it shows. Ford manages to convey grief, anger, fear, and determination mostly with his facial expressions and a minimum of words, important for a character who can’t always stop to talk. Jones, on the other hand, stops just short of hamming it up, as Marshal Gerard takes command of every scene — both physical locations and movie scenes — he is in. He’s so charismatic it’s no wonder they created a sequel just for his character.
It takes serious effort to make the audience like the guy who’s about to shoot the protagonist.
The plot, while it could have been just a little bit twistier for my tastes, is by no means deficient. The mystery behind the murder is revealed at a natural pace, with Kimble figuring things out in a logical manner. The reason for the crime makes a reasonable amount of sense, and although the genre savvy will be able to pick out the ultimate bad guy in advance, it’s still satisfying. And coupled with the great performances from the two leads, it makes for a very entertaining film.