Featuring the Brave Smart Sad Man and
the Poet Laureate of Law Enforcement
It’s the 30th anniversary of The Fugitive y’all, and this is one of my favorite action films of all time. Let's talk about what makes it work so well, shall we? For a film from the early 90s based on a television series from the 1960s, the tension of the story and our investment in its characters holds up very well over time, largely due to the stellar performances by Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones that carry the film.
Harrison Ford had made a name for himself as an actor in the 70s and 80s playing swashbuckling wise-cracking action heroes in the first three Star Wars films and the Indiana Jones franchise. However, in 1985, he took on a more serious role as a tormented detective in the crime thriller Witness, revealing a darker, more somber screen persona (that by all accounts seems to be closer to his real-life introverted nature). The Fugitive is a near-perfect melding of his strengths as an action film star and the more complicated turmoil that he showed in his role in Witness. In The Fugitive, his portrayal as Dr. Richard Kimble, wrongly accused of murdering his wife and on the run from the law, is a tour de force of heroic bravado with a deep, lingering undercurrent of sadness.
Tommy Lee Jones gives a sublime performance as Kimble’s foil, Deputy US Marshall Sam Gerard, basically providing the genesis for every Jones role as a law enforcement official going forward (especially Agent K in the Men in Black franchise). The moment where he instructs his team to leave no stone unturned in the manhunt for Kimble rattled off in a no-nonsense-rapid-fire play on the word “house,” delivered in his honeyed Texan drawl, is pure poetry in the very best way:
"All right, listen up, ladies and gentlemen, our fugitive has been on the run for ninety minutes. Average foot speed over uneven ground, barring injuries, is 4 miles per hour. That gives us a radius of six miles. What I want from each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, and doghouse in that area. Checkpoints go up at fifteen miles. Your fugitive's name is Dr. Richard Kimble. Go get him."
Action movies rarely get nominated for acting Oscars, let alone win them, but Jones won Best Supporting Actor for playing Sam Gerard, and even if you know nothing of this film except for the “warehouse farmhouse henhouse outhouse doghouse” speech you’ll understand why. Go find that scene on YouTube and bask in the wonder of Jones’ charismatic brilliance.
Several years ago I hit upon a theory about the formula for the platonic ideal of a crowd-pleasing summer action film when I was being bombarded nonstop with commercials advertising the Dwayne Johnson inane good time of a movie Skyscraper. As I put it then:
There is a skyscraper on fire.
There is a man who must save his family from the skyscraper on fire.
Will he succeed???!!!
This beautiful 3 sentence plot simplicity is the very foundation of The Fugitive, which is without question a more serious film than Skyscraper but is just as much of a bang-bang shoot 'em-up action movie:
There is an innocent man convicted of murdering his wife.
This innocent man must escape law enforcement and find the real killer.
Will he succeed???!!!
I suppose, ultimately, what I’m saying with all this is that at first glance, The Fugitive isn’t a terribly deep film. The good guy survives, the bad guy gets caught, and the cops acknowledge they had it wrong and fix things. That said, for all of The Fugitive’s rigid adherence to the platonic ideal of the summer action movie, it’s a heavier film than it seems. Jones’s portrayal of Gerard as he evolves from being single-mindedly focused on capturing Kimble to slowly coming to believe in his innocence and changing the direction of the investigation is completely believable - not an about-face contrivance, plot for plot’s sake, but a real journey of a man realizing he needs to question his initial instincts about the crime he’s been tasked with solving. But it’s Ford’s portrayal of Kimble that gets under my skin every time, and it’s because even as he is vindicated in the end, it’s hard to be happy for him as we see, in his exhausted, chiseled, hollow face and his clipped, morose tone of voice, how he will be living with complicated grief for the rest of his life due to the trauma of how he lost his wife and how he nearly lost his freedom as a result of the loss of his wife.
I think it’s this mode - the brave, smart, sad man who fights against all odds to save the day (you can also see this in his portrayal as President James Marshall in Air Force One*) - that is far more of Ford’s sweet spot as a performer than the rollicking-good-time bad boy with a secret heart of gold who saves the day (like Han Solo or Indiana Jones). Indeed, you can see hints of the Harrison Ford Brave Smart Sad Man in his recent portrayal as the soulful therapist Paul on Apple TV’s Shrinking, even though his heroics on that show are on a much smaller scale (protecting his protegee Jimmy from his self-destructive tendencies, playing therapist/uncle to Jimmy’s daughter Alice, trying to repair his relationship with his estranged daughter Meg). Ford has such a commanding screen presence no matter what he is doing, and as much as I enjoy him being the good-time bad boy playing Han or Indy, it’s the quieter, more somber version of Ford who really can deliver an emotional gut punch in the best way, even in the middle of a bang-bang shoot ’em up summer action flick.
If you need a dose of good, vintage 90s action fun, check out (or revisit) The Fugitive, but keep in mind that you may finish the film feeling more melancholy than triumphant. With Ford and Jones taking you on this crazy ride, I promise you it’s well worth it.
*also known as MY FAVORITE HARRISON FORD MOVIE OF ALL TIME but that’s a whole other article…
Reeya is a musician and writer based in New York's Capital District. Her debut album, “The Way Up,” was released on January 27, 2022. She can frequently be seen in her car on the NYS Thruway cursing traffic on her way to the Hudson Valley for band rehearsals or to Brooklyn for recording sessions. In her other life, she works as a staff accountant for a management company that oversees veterinary practices nationwide, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU returns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.