Summer's movies made big money with real stories

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

The summer movie season comes to an end today and for once it bears more good news than bad.

I'm not talking money, though the money was wonderful. Four films broke $100 million, Hollywood's own arbitrary definition of the break-out hit, and a fifth will almost certainly break it shortly.

For the record, here are the five top finishers, as derived from the latest Variety: "Jurassic Park," $300 million; "The Firm," $145 million; "The Fugitive," $100 million (in 22 days -- it will almost certainly finish second to "Jurassic Park"); "Sleepless in Seattle," $107 million; "In the Line of Fire" has earned $91 million and is still bringing in nearly $5 million a week.

This summer's take will probably surpass by 10 percent the previous record summer, 1989, when "Batman" led the way to a $2 billion-plus take.

The domestic box office has earned $1.97 billion, a 25 percent increase over the $1.57 billion collected in the same period last year. Even with the Labor Day weekend's receipts yet to be counted, this summer's gross is way past last summer's $1.65 billion.

But if you look beyond the inevitable triumph of "Jurassic Park" and its computer-morphed velociraptors tripping the light fantastic on the sidewalks of your children's imaginations, you see something amazing and even a bit inspiring: the return to prominence (and financial respectability) of realistic narrative.

And perhaps equally cheering is the corollary: the failure of the bloated, banter-and-effects-laden "concept movie," as represented chiefly in "The Last Action Hero," the heir apparent to all the "Die Hards" and "Lethal Weapons" of summers past: It qualifies as the summer's top flop, having cost around $70 million and having earned only $49 million two months into release.

Of the five top summer films, "The Firm" with Tom Cruise, "The Fugitive" with Harrison Ford and "In the Line of Fire" with Clint Eastwood were most determinedly "old-fashioned," though "Sleepless in Seattle" was old-fashioned in a different way, as it labored to rekindle the conventions of chaste and symbolic '50s romance.

But the three "guy movies" took place in a recognizeable universe where the laws of physics still held sway; all three starred men who, far from being super or even perfect (two of them are even old!), were deeply flawed; all three took a solid story premise and moved it through convincing permutations to a convincing and emotionally satisfying climax.

In none of the three films was the "point" some special-effects extravaganza; in fact, in retrospect it's hard to remember any particular sequence so much as the overall story of each movie.

Even the awesome train wreck that began "The Fugitive" had a story function beyond arbitrary spectacle: It was to seduce you, with its utter conviction, into forgetting the improbability of a train hitting a bus full of convicts including a wrongly convicted murderer.

(Question for a future generation of movie pedants: Has a train EVER hit a bus with convicts headed up to the big house?)

Of the three films, moreover, two of them depended for most of their allure on relationships, that magical chemistry between screen personalities.

It so happened the chemistry was between hunter and hunted in both cases: the Eastwood-John Malkovich duellos expertly presented two curiously simpatico men, one a highly competent and embittered CIA professional and the other a weary and guilt-haunted Secret Service agent. Equally, in "The Fugitive" it wasn't merely plot mechanics that compelled attention, but engagement in a provocative relationship: Harrison Ford's driven, brilliant doctor on the run, and Tommy Lee Jones' practical, down-homey yet ultimately compassionate U.S. marshal.

It's been many a summer since relationships of such provocative intimacy have been at the center of huge movie successes.

As for "The Firm," it played with some themes generally beyond the reach of Hollywood popular movie making, as inherited from the John Grisham novel -- that is, the power of money to corrupt and the struggle of a young man who has yielded to that temptation to do something no Hollywood player would even consider: to get out.

There's yet another similarity between the three: They presume a certain literacy among the audience in their appeal.

"In the Line of Fire" drew considerable poignancy from its backward glance at the terrible events of Nov. 22, 1963, surely a moment of bonding for many baby boomers. It acknowledges -- egad! -- history, surely a first for a big summer movie, and appears even to have been made by people who knew who won World War II and why it was important. Its theme is secret balm to baby boomer hearts and minds, particularly as they face a challenge from an upstart and hungry Generation X that wants their jobs, houses and lifestyles -- the primacy of the old pro.

The other two films are rooted in literary forms.

"The Firm" springs from a best-selling novel, whose millions of readers validate the power of a story that, for all its dense convolutions, might

not otherwise be told on screen.

"The Fugitive," of course, derives some of its power from the legendary Quinn Martin series that ran on television in the late '60s and early '70s. However much the film may be able to stand alone, the echoes of stone-faced David Janseen and his quest for the one-armed man make it more ineffably poignant for millions and millions of its viewers.

In all, one might look at the summer movie race as a generational battleground: There were movies for kids ("Jurassic Park") who dragged their parents, and there were movies for grown-ups who escaped from their kids -- but there was very little for anybody in between.

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