I’d like to watch the original TV series of The Fugitive at some point, but I have seen the 1993 movie multiple times over the years. It easily ranks among my favorites, so I rewatched it with an eye toward why it’s so great. (Spoilers ahead for this 30-year-old movie.)
The premise is straightforward. Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) is convicted of murdering his wife (Sela Ward), but he didn’t do it. Kimble seizes an opportunity to escape custody, and while eluding relentless U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), the innocent doctor tries to solve the case of his wife’s murder.
That’s a strong concept. It’s one man against the world, with Deputy Gerard providing a focal point for that antagonistic world. And Kimble is a good man we can root for without reservation. The Fugitive plays out as a classic cat-and-mouse game. Kimble’s nightmarish predicament taps into legitimate fears: the brutal murder of a loved one … the whole world believing you are the monster who killed her … having to remain constantly alert because any stranger you walk past could effectively end your life with a phone call.
The raw ingredients include everything a thriller needs to succeed. But even the correct ingredients mean nothing without expert preparation. This movie, thankfully, is the product of master chefs.
The script by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy wastes no time. All dialogue serves a purpose. Even the chitchat among Gerard’s team humanizes them, throwing in just enough conversational lines to transform utilitarian side characters into distinct people. But the dialogue never gets indulgent.
We see Kimble, at great personal risk, going out of his way to help others—more than once, but not too many times. The movie shows us his goodness without trying to hammer sainthood into him. And these heroic moments aren’t side quests; they occur while the plot is moving forward and help advance it. Kimble pulls an injured guard away from an oncoming train during his initial escape. Later, after sneaking into the hospital to track down evidence, he corrects a child’s diagnosis and gets him to life-saving surgery. Both acts endanger Kimble and alert Gerard to the possibility that maybe this guy isn’t some brutal murderer after all.
Everyone is perfectly cast. Tommy Lee Jones deserved his Oscar, and this may be Harrison Ford’s best one-off role. Kimble comes to close to superhuman territory on occasion, but Ford grounds him throughout, presenting someone who’s exceptional but still thoroughly human and vulnerable.
All the cops, deputies, and doctors look like cops, deputies, and doctors. The cinematography adds an appropriately gritty feel. The score is effective without ever becoming intrusive.
The movie also doesn’t overshoot by attempting any profound themes. It’s not trying to be Citizen Kane. A solid thriller will suffice.
True, the premise allows for aiming a little higher. The movie could have developed a Valjean/Javert Les Miserables dynamic for Kimble and Gerard, perhaps portraying Gerard as obsessive while digging into the demons that are driving this obsession. Or perhaps portraying Kimble as less purely good and establishing some moral ambiguity as we wonder if there are any good guys in this scenario. Or perhaps his wife wasn’t as flawlessly innocent as she appears in his memory.
Just imagine the depths of the human psyche this movie could have plumbed:
But no, the movie doesn’t need any of that.
The closest the movie comes to any social commentary is portraying some of the Chicago cops as close-minded jerks who can’t fathom ever being in error. But it never feels like a statement about police in general. Rather, it’s an opportunity to impose yet another obstacle for the protagonist.
As for the U.S. Marshals, Gerard and his team are just doing their job, and that works for the film. It works because they care about their job. They pick up on the clues that Kimble might actually be innocent, and they dutifully pursue those leads because the truth matters to them. They remain intent on catching their man, but no one is getting away with murder on their watch.
Admire this wonderfully concise dialogue. Earlier in the movie:
Kimble: I didn’t kill my wife!
Gerard: I don’t care.
But then at the end, after the real killer has been apprehended:
Kimble: I thought you didn’t care.
Gerard: I don’t. [laughs] Don’t tell anyone, okay?
It’s not Shakespeare. It’s not Oscar Wilde. But it’s good.
A movie can excel simply by achieving laser focus on what matters to the story. Like Gerard, The Fugitive is just doing its job to the absolute best of its ability.
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I rewatched this recently and was blown away by how solid it was, even after all this time.