'The Fugitive' at 25: Why Hollywood doesn't make movies like the Harrison Ford blockbuster anymore

The falsely accused Harrison Ford is relentlessly chased by Tommy Lee Jones in 1993’s <em>The Fugitive</em>. (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures, courtesy of Everett Collection)
The falsely accused Harrison Ford is relentlessly chased by Tommy Lee Jones in 1993’s The Fugitive. (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures, courtesy of Everett Collection)

We now live in an age of incessant cinematic CGI, when most every studio tentpole (save, notably, for this month’s Mission: Impossible — Fallout) is awash in delirious digitized spectacle. The technological tools at filmmakers’ disposal are hardly something to lament — like most devices, they can be used for positive or negative ends, depending on who wields them. Yet as we come into the home stretch of yet another extravaganza-heavy summer, it’s worth remembering that, for all their benefits, computerized effects aren’t necessary to craft a slam-bang action saga of enormous set pieces and propulsive thrills. And for proof of that fact, one need look no further than the genre gem celebrating its 25th anniversary today: The Fugitive.

To watch The Fugitive now is to be transported back to an era when clever practical and rear-projection effects were all a skilled craftsman needed to produce unforgettable heart-in-your-throat moments. A quarter of a century after its theatrical debut, on Aug. 6, 1993, Andrew Davis’s Harrison Ford vehicle is still a well-oiled machine that generates suspense through shrewd plotting and precise staging. Its tension rooted in the overarching plight of its protagonist, and thus in the performance of its marquee lead, it recognizes that character comes before pageantry — because, in the end, one cares most about the latter when they’re deeply invested in the former. Throw in a stellar supporting turn from Tommy Lee Jones (which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and you have a relic that doesn’t play like a relic at all; on the contrary, it remains one of modern Hollywood’s all-time best action films.

The Fugitive lets moviegoers know that it knows what it’s doing from the get-go. Cutting back and forth between police officers arriving at the home of Dr. Richard Kimble (Ford) and the earlier assault and murder of Kimble’s wife, Helen (Sela Ward) — the latter shown in jagged black-and-white snippets punctuated by white photo-flash edits — Davis handles his plot’s instigating incident in minutes while simultaneously moving on to the post-tragedy events at hand, all without indulging in murderous titillation. So swiftly and efficiently does the director move his material forward, in fact, that he temporarily pauses the opening credits to finish setting his narrative table, only to resume them once Kimble has been questioned, tried in court, convicted, sentenced, and sent onto a transport bus heading to his new penitentiary residence.

From there, Davis puts the proverbial pedal to the metal, beginning with a bus crash that turns into a train crash that frees Kimble from incarceration, a scene assembled with a mixture of on-location work and rear-projection trickery that’s about as seamless as it gets. Not to mention as concussive — The Fugitive’s first centerpiece has an explosive screeching-metal intensity that more than holds up. Better yet, it reveals both Kimble’s physical dexterity (and luck), as well as his goodness. Throughout, Davis fixates on Ford’s (and Jones’s) face, often via close-ups in which the star (first bearded, then clean-shaven) moves toward the camera — a formal signature that accentuates the harried emotional condition of his wrong-man hero.

That concentration on Ford’s countenance reaches its pinnacle during The Fugitive’s finest sequence, in which Kimble — trapped in a tunnel with no way out — takes to the sewers and, pursued by Jones’s no-nonsense U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard, discovers that the only means of escaping capture is to leap to his possible death off a monumental dam. Thanks to Davis’s expert direction, that scene is most memorable for Ford’s look of terrified resignation (mixed with courage), which is highlighted in the foreground while Jones is visible holding him at gunpoint in the background. Kimble’s jump is an act that still manages to produce gasps, and as befitting the film’s style, it is then immediately followed by a tight shot of Jones’s bug-eyed stunned-beyond-belief mug, as he suddenly becomes the audience’s shocked proxy.

Proficiently scripted by David Twohy (who’d later go on to make another lean genre effort, Pitch Black), The Fugitive never flags, maintaining fever-pitch momentum as it details Kimble’s flight from apprehension — and quest to uncover the identity of the one-armed man who killed his wife — and Gerard’s concurrent pursuit of Kimble with the aid of his marshals team, including Joe Pantoliano, Daniel Roebuck, and L. Scott Caldwell. Brief but crucial appearances by Julianne Moore (as a doctor at a hospital where Kimble does some saintly good) and Jane Lynch (as a friendly Kimble colleague) further round out a cast that’s stellar from top to bottom. Nonetheless, even as it segues into its later Big Pharma-conspiracy passages, The Fugitive rests firmly on the shoulders of Ford and Jones, which makes it something like an exemplar of old-school star power — for all its pinpoint execution of a simple, compelling chase story, the film’s success is attributable, first and foremost, to the magnetic charisma of its leads.

If there’s one way The Fugitive does resemble today’s blockbusters, it’s in the fact that it’s an adaptation of a popular property — the 1963-67 TV series starring David Janssen — with a name brand that made it an easy sell to mass audiences. Of course, Davis’s cat-and-mouse saga is a closed-end affair without any franchise potential, so one can imagine that current studio bigwigs might find it a less-than-ideal project in which to direct their time, energy, and financial resources. Over the past 25 years, studios have increasingly run away from films such as this, preferring instead the flashy, sequel-ready CGI-fests that now inundate the summer multiplex on a weekly basis. That’s their and, in the end, our loss, since few contemporaries have been able to provide the same enduring mix of thrills, mystery, and megawatt character drama that’s delivered by the Ford, Jones, and Davis pre-digital classic.

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