A pretty good run for the money Ford, Jones help 'The Fugitive' to glory

August 06, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

He hasn't lost a step.

"The Fugitive," staple of '60s TV with a stone-faced David Janssen as the first existential hero ever sponsored by Alka-Seltzer, has been re-imagined in this ravishing and captivating thriller as a more dynamic and intelligent figure for our age. He's not a brooding, primal, near-mythical man on the run, he's . . . Indiana Jones.

Harrison Ford plays Richard Kimble, a prosperous Chicago heart surgeon who comes home late one night to find the universe ruptured and himself in a life-and-death struggle with a one-armed man who has just killed his wife. He awakens to find himself the prime suspect in her murder. Convicted and sentenced to death, a gift of God in the form of a train wreck sets him free, to pursue the true killer, while a dedicated authority figure makes it a crusade to capture him.

That much is the same, though the production values on the train wreck are off the charts. All else is different and better. Gone, and not lamented, are Janssen's chest hair peeping out of his collar, the cheesy Quinn Martin budget-TV look, and the road movie structure, the new-adventure-of-the-week thing. Instead, we're in a coherent, organic and largely convincing mystery story, set over a time span (after the escape) of a week or so. Great improvement. It's lean, it's tight, it's fast, it works.

Great improvement No. 2 is Tommy Lee Jones, not a detective but a deputy U.S. marshal who features himself "the big dog" when it comes to nailing bad boys on the run. This movie may finally make Jones the star he deserves to be, for it's his performance -- driven, sardonic, sly, theatrical and yet surprisingly humane -- that gives the movie its tang. Ford is just too busy dodging cops (and Jones' team) to develop a ruminative or meditative side. He doesn't know he's a generation's symbol of rootless alienation and he never has the space or time for reflection. He's like a shark who must swim forward or die.

With the two strong central performances, an inventive plot and at least three or four action set pieces that are the best of the summer, the movie is such a speed machine it blows by those little niggling doubts. You willingly forget that, in today's high-tech forensic environment, it would be literally impossible for a stranger to murder a woman and have an extended physical battle over two floors of a house with a man and leave behind no physical evidence of his presence. OK, so he's wearing rubber gloves. What about alien carpet fibers, DNA in sweat and blood traces, flecks of mud on his shoes? Nada? No way.

This bothers director Andrew Davis not a bit. He's having too much fun. Davis, who manages to usually site his films (like "The Package" and "Above the Law") in his home town of Chicago, is an action specialist who knows the dynamics of the set piece, but he manages here what he's managed nowhere else: to root the big showy numbers in a meaningful and well-constructed dramatic structure.

The first stroke of genius, from which all others derive, is to understand that the killing of Helen Kimble (Sela Ward, briefly seen dying in flashbacks) can't have been random (as it was on TV) but instead must be a flash point for a conspiracy. That being the case, it follows that there's a logical line into the mystery, if only Kimble can find it -- and find it he does. He knows that he damaged the one-armed man's prosthetic limb, and that the device must be readjusted, so his first task upon escaping is to penetrate Chicago's largest prosthetic ward and dig out information on such activities in the right time frame, which gives him a list of suspects that in turn leads to the center of the conspiracy.

The screenplay, by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy, is clever in the way it handles the investigation, and it makes the case for Kimble's high intelligence; he out-investigates the poor Chicago Police Department, which is made to look like its commissioner is Mack Sennett. (At the same time, it does for the previously unheralded U.S. Marshal's Service what "In the Line of Fire" did for the Secret Service and "Silence of the Lambs" for the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit.) This line leads quickly to a conspiracy involving the one institution in American culture where it is still permissible to slander without paying a penalty, a giant pharmaceutical company. One tiny flaw: the extra-textual clue of the name actor in the apparently small part that pretty much gives up the whodunit much earlier than necessary.

I almost wish the ending hadn't been quite so commonly violent. Up until its last few minutes, Ford's Kimble has been so intelligent that one regrets to see the movie end in a conventional slugfest. And, possibly, Deputy U.S. Marshal Gerard should have been more actively involved in the denouement. But still, "The Fugitive" runs hard and true the whole way through.

"The Fugitive"

Starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones

Directed by Andrew Davis

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13

***

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