For dynamite suspense loaded with thrills and wicked fun, you can’t beat The Fugitive — the summer’s best action blaster. The tightly paced film is based on a drag-ass TV series that still shows up in reruns. From 1963 to 1967, dour David Janssen played Dr. Richard Kimble, who is wrongly convicted of killing his wife but escapes in order to try to catch the real culprit, a mysterious one-armed man, before the dogged Lieutenant Gerard (Barry Morse) catches him.
Now Harrison Ford steps into Jans-sen’s running shoes as the Chicago surgeon and delivers his zestiest performance since Indiana Jones. Ford’s Kimble is a guy smart enough to shake the cops, stitch his own wounds, shave his beard and dye his hair but then attract attention by forgetting to zip his fly. He’s wonderfully appealing. Tommy Lee Jones, scene stealer par excellence, plays Gerard. He’s a U.S. marshal and even more relentless about collaring Kimble than his TV counterpart. Jones is mesmerizing — comic, scary and unstoppable.
The plot puts the same minimal strain on the brain as the TV show, but writers Jeb Stuart (Die Hard) and David Twohy (Warlock) give it a fresh spin and an ending that packs a satisfying kick. The real hero of the film is director Andrew Davis, a former cinematographer whose talent for staging mayhem (The Package, Above the Law) hit new heights with last year’s Steven Seagal epic Under Siege. The Fugitive moves Davis to the front ranks of action directors, and he hasn’t gotten lofty and bloated like John McTiernan (Last Action Hero) and Walter Hill (Trespass). Davis zaps you with an escalating series of thrills that leave you breathless.
Take the film’s first major stunt: Kimble, along with three other chained convicts, is being transported to an Illinois prison by bus. The vehicle crashes and spins over, landing on railroad tracks with a speeding train visible in the distance. After trying to help a wounded guard, the bruised Kimble climbs out of the bus window only to find that the seven-car train has derailed and is hurtling toward him. The sight recalls the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Indy races to avoid a rolling boulder. Davis manages to be playful without compromising the thunderous intensity of the scene. It’s a classic movie stunt heightened by the use of a full-size train instead of a miniature.
Davis keeps the jolts coming; Kimble leaps from a viaduct into a raging dam to escape Gerard. Minutes before, Kimble got the drop on his pursuer. ”I didn’t kill my wife,” he tells Gerard, giving up the chance to shoot the cop, who’d waste him in a instant. ”I don’t care,” says Gerard with a smile of chilling sarcasm.
For all the visceral impact, it’s the nuances of characterization that raise The Fugitive above the herd. Ford invests Kimble with the passion of a man who genuinely loved his wife, Helen, played by the beautiful Sela Ward. The flashbacks of the murder, Kimble’s struggle with the one-armed man (Andreas Katsulas) and his attempts to revive his wife as she lies bleeding in their bedroom have a piercing urgency. It also helps that Jones adds wry shadings to a cop who could have been played as a robot. Gerard can tease a young cop affectionately about his ponytail and then be willing to risk the same rookie’s life in a hostage situation He has his own curt reasoning; ”I don’t bargain.”
As Gerard chases Kimble through tunnels and streets, evocatively shot by the great cinematographer Michael Chapman (Raging Bull), it’s not a stretch to think of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, in which Inspector Javert shadows the blameless Jean Valjean. The Fugitive is a genre movie that earns that kind of resonance without letting it spoil the game. It’s escapism of a high order.