I’ve always managed to find an excuse not to watch The Fugitive. Mostly it just felt like I’d seen it before. I’m familiar with the one-armed man. I know that Harrison Ford jumps from the dam and miraculously survives. I’ve seen Wrongfully Accused. Is there really any value in watching a movie that I can summarize so easily? Plus, at 130 minutes, pressing play always seemed hard to justify.
Buuuuut this weekend, in the interest of clearing up my shame list, I gave The Fugitive a go. I’m happy I did.
This first thing I noticed is that the screenplay is co-written by a personal favorite, David Twohy, who has a track record of writing and/or directing movies I find to be commendably solid. There are no masterpieces in his filmography, but there are gems like Pitch Black, A Perfect Getaway, The Arrival, and Below. It registered in my head as “of COURSE David Twohy wrote this movie!” Something about it just makes sense. The second thing I noticed was that Sela Ward, who used to have the monopoly on “that’s MY WIFE!” roles, plays the quintessential “that’s MY WIFE!” role. This also registered as “of COURSE she’s in this movie!”
I’m not familiar with the source material outside of its cultural footprints, and I am unable to comment on whether or not the film respectfully pays proper homage or accurately captures the plot outside of “man is accused of killing wife, blames a one-armed man, escapes, is chased by no-nonsense U.S. Marshal.” That said, the second they introduced the character who turned out being the big baddie behind it all, I knew it was him. He’s a rich doctor with a thick German accent. Of COURSE he’s the bad guy (spoiler!). Regardless, this didn’t take away from the film because it’s less about the who than the why. We do eventually find out the why, but it’s handled using a montage of flashbacks to events that we never get to see in the first place. This is a bit weak. We should be able to revisit previous scenes with new context, but instead are just given new information that was initially withheld. It’s cheap but hardly a huge issue. It’s also pretty typical Twohy construction. What we find is that Dr. Fugitive apparently had information about the dangerous side effects of a new drug that Dr. Bad Guy has a financial stake in, and Dr. Bad Guy sent a one-armed thug to kill Dr. Fugitive, accidentally killing his “MY WIFE!” in the process.
It’s never explained why anyone would hire a person with such a prominent physical disability to enact a covert act of violence. I mean, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that a one-armed man will be operating at a handicap, and will be easily identified to boot.
The Fugitive also marks the first and last time in film history that Joe Pantoliano wasn’t revealed to be a secret villain. I may be hyperbolizing, but whenever he shows up in anything I’ve come to expect that he’s up to something. In this movie he actually reminds me a bit of Charlie in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Reboot anyone???
No, no reboot.
I’ve often wondered why it is that the world, myself included, loves Harrison Ford so much. He really isn’t the most tremendous or versatile actor. He’s absolutely engaging and fun to watch, but he’s not going to drop a King Lear on us. So what is it that makes him so enduring? The Fugitive showed me that he is the perfect Everyman. Perhaps the best there ever was. He’s exactly as handsome as the average man, he’s in exactly the same state of fitness, and like most of us, he absolutely cannot throw a punch. Whether he’s Han Solo, Indiana Jones, or Dr. Fugitive, he always throws a wildly telegraphed, comically slow punch that is universally followed by a “did I really just hit someone” look of incredulity. This is why Ford has also become the master of the midsection tackle. It’s a cinematically dynamic way to choreograph a fight limited to the use of one punch.
The real hero of The Fugitive is Tommy Lee Jones as Officer Serious. He’s not only the perfect foil for Dr. Fugitive, but he’s the only character in the film with an arc (excluding Sela Ward’s transition from MY WIFE to I DIDN’T KILL MY WIFE!). When the film begins, Officer Serious is a man who follows orders and does his job. It’s not up to him to determine the guilt or innocence of Dr. Fugitive. His task is to bring in his target and let the system do the rest. This is explicitly stated in the film’s most iconic exchange:
“I didn’t kill MY WIFE!”
“I don’t care.”
According to IMDb, the original line was “that isn’t my problem,” but it was changed at the urging of Tommy Lee Jones. This makes sense in terms of Officer Serious’ character. He’s very cold in his interaction with other characters, often to the point of some premium curmudgeon-humor (of which Jones is the all-time master). This makes his arc that much more potent as he slowly goes from knowing that Dr. Fugitive is guilty, to doubting it but not caring, to believing his innocence and working to help prove it. It even culminates in a final “next time, I’M driving” moment that is among the best.
It’s easy to see why this pretty basic thriller has become so iconic. As television remakes go, it’s excellent, perhaps the best outside of Mission: Impossible (which spawned a much more successful franchise — U.S. Marshals didn’t quite take off). It’s also a perfect vehicle for a star like Harrison Ford. There’s enough new iconography littered throughout for it to blaze its own trail apart from the source material, but I’d imagine it also pleased the fans of the original series as well. In fact, I think the only real piece of fan-service was the inclusion of a one-armed man which, as I said before, is the last type of person you’d want to hire as a hitman. Then again, his absence would nullify any connection between the film and the TV series short of character names.
Overall, The Fugitive is a blast and I’m proud to have crossed it off of my shame list. I could certainly see myself watching it again. Now should I rewatch Wrongfully Accused as well?
No. No I should not.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.