This movie was not supposed to be good. Here’s the plot: A middle-aged cardiovascular surgeon’s wife is killed by a one-armed man, and said surgeon is sent to death row. But his bus crashes on the way to prison, then a train crashes into the bus crash, then Dr. Richard Kimble escapes to go on the run with five U.S. marshals on his heels. This is literally the opening 20 minutes of The Fugitive.
Not even the actors themselves were convinced The Fugitive was going to be good. Harrison Ford thought it would be his Hudson Hawk, Bruce Willis’s $51 million flop from 1991. Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the lead marshal, thought The Fugitive marked the end of his career. But then this action thriller, the one that was written off as quickly by its stars as its hero is by the law, became the third-highest-grossing film of 1993. And then it was nominated for seven (seven!) Oscars—including Best Picture. And then it actually won one of those Oscars (well, Jones did). Perhaps even more surprising is that this piece of $70 million popcorn amusement from the ’90s is still a cultural touchstone 25 years later, largely because action movies like it are so rare now.
A year before The Fugitive arrived, its director, Andrew Davis, didn’t think much of the genre. “The basic underpinnings don’t have any soul or value,” he told The New York Times. “They’re totally incredible so you don’t believe them. They’re dumb stories.” He himself had worked with Steven Seagal twice and Chuck Norris once, two icons of black-belted brawn that sparred with Hollywood for a spell, until they were knocked out by the metastasizing blockbuster industry. As Ty Burr wrote in his 2013 book on fame, Gods Like Us, “To protect that opening weekend and the larger investment, the [movie] business needed stars to be inclusive rather than divisive.” This, he notes, was “one reason why there was a gradual move away from the bulging ’80s cartoons like Stallone and Schwarzenegger toward more believable Everyman action heroes like Bruce Willis in the Die Hard films.” And, though Burr does not name him as an example, like Ford in The Fugitive.
The writer points to Ford as the first modern-star brand: “the action figure with attitude.” Whether as the rumpled and roguish Han Solo or the hunky scholar Indiana Jones, Ford had imbued the genre with sardonic sexiness. And by the early ’90s, he had appeared in no fewer than two thrillers—Presumed Innocent (1990) and Frantic (1988, as another Dr. Richard)—about men mixed up in crimes they were racing to solve. It was this man who eventually handpicked Davis to adapt the ’60s TV series The Fugitive after seeing his work in Under Siege, a film that prompted the Times to identify Davis as the “Director Who Blends Action With a Bit of Art.”
“Does this guy ever quit?” one of the marshals asks toward the end of The Fugitive, and the answer is no—both for Dr. Richard Kimble and for Davis. For two hours and 10 minutes, this film does not relent. Not even for a cup of coffee (that scene was cut), not even for some shopping (cut), not even for romance (also cut). There is no hanging out here. Everything rushes. If it isn’t the actors, then it’s the camera with a Where’s Waldo? view of Chicago, the hometown of both Kimble and Davis; if it isn’t the camera, then it’s the swelling orchestral music. And the urgency is a good thing because every pause introduces a new threat—a passing cop, a skeptical doctor, a nosy guard. Even the exposition speeds by. The instigating murder itself, presented in slo-mo monochrome over the opening credits, unravels in concert with Kimble’s interrogation and his conviction, a simultaneous chronology that compresses time. As Matt Zoller Seitz wrote of The Fugitive on rogerebert.com last year, “The multilayered, at times prismatic way that it delivers information feels like an evolutionary leap forward for thrillers.”
The Fugitive’s success relies as much on plausibility as it does on velocity. Despite the soaring set pieces, the film somehow manages to remain grounded in a kind of palpable reality. “It is just so nice to watch a movie about normal smart people instead of insane super geniuses,” The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg tweeted in 2016. And though the characters’ antics could scarcely qualify as “normal,” significant portions of the film’s budget were spent on bypassing CGI in favor of creating real sets—like for the train crash ($1.5 million) and the dam jump ($2 million). Ford also insisted on performing his own stunts despite having a double and being 51. That is him flying through the air as if to jump from a train (on ropes, but still), that is him standing on the edge of North Carolina’s Cheoah Dam (a rope attached to his leg, but still), that is him limping through much of the film because he tore a ligament and refused to treat it. And that is him acting the hell out of everything in between.
“It’s the moments between actions that I think are really important,” Ford says on The Fugitive’s 20th-anniversary disc. With so little dialogue, the actor essentially resorts to silent-film acting, which is only buoyed by his hangdog handsomeness. “Rare among action heroes, Ford is believable both in control and in trouble, someone audiences can simultaneously look up to and worry about,” Kenneth Turan wrote in his 1993 Los Angeles Times review. Watch as Kimble, about a quarter of the way into the movie, painfully deliberates on the lip of that dam as U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (Jones) points his gun at him, waiting for Kimble to surrender because, Gerard posits, there’s no way this guy would do “a Peter Pan.” Right before that, their positions are reversed when Kimble grabs Gerard’s gun in the confusion of the dam’s water-logged tunnels. Face to face with the marshal for the first time, the doctor points the pistol at his pursuer and proclaims, “I did not kill my wife!” Gerard, his hands up, half-kneeling in water, a look of bafflement on his face, responds: “I don’t care!” To this, Kimble issues a faint smile: Game on.
While Kimble speaks through his actions, the man chasing him has all the best lines. Gerard was supposed to be a solo Javert-esque force, but Davis gave him an entourage to accentuate his leadership, and the result is some of the best banter in any contemporary action film. Jones, a Texan who graduated from Harvard with an English degree, had worked twice before with Davis, who knew Jones did a lot of rewriting and improvising. The cast—which was ethnically diverse because the director wanted to reflect the demographics of his birthplace—established their characters alongside Jones, coming up with dialogue on the fly. The four marshals include Jones’s right-hand man Cosmo, played by Joe Pantoliano, whom Davis told he cast because he needed “somebody who’s gonna have the stones to banter with Tommy Lee Jones.” Cosmo and the others highlight Gerard’s humanity and tenacity while also gift wrapping the film’s exposition in wit. One of the movie’s more frequently quoted lines, which Jones conjured the morning of the shoot, has him telling a marshal who claims he is “thinking”: “Well, think me up a cup of coffee and a chocolate donut with some of those little sprinkles on top, while you’re thinking.”
Gerard and Kimble’s symmetrical relationship is enunciated by the film’s six editors (all of whom were nominated for Oscars). Each chase scene cuts back and forth between the two characters. Even when the pursuit lets up and Kimble is contacting old friends and crisscrossing Chicago to find out why his wife was killed, Gerard’s investigation parallels his. As the film progresses, Gerard’s affinity for Kimble grows, too. “What makes their relationship fresh is that it is constantly evolving,” Gene Siskel observed in his Chicago Tribune review. Twenty minutes before the end of the movie, a neat flip occurs in which Kimble goes from being followed to being the leader. He directs Gerard to one of the men responsible for his wife’s death—Dr. Charles Nichols, Kimble’s colleague who actually wanted him dead in order to cover up a failed drug trial. Another flip takes place in the climactic showdown where Kimble confronts Nichols: Kimble saves Gerard’s life, despite believing that Gerard is intent on taking his. In the end, the marshal escorts Kimble out of the building as his protector.
Though The Fugitive established Chicago as the place to shoot, it’s perhaps more notable for being the best of a genre that no longer really exists: the character-driven Hollywood action movie for adults. As Davis told Mandatory in 2013, the industry has gotten to a point such that if a film “doesn’t have tons of eye candy where a 22-year-old in some other country can just enjoy watching it, then [it] hardly get[s] made.” This is the world of tentpoles and franchises and event cinema, a world in which everything must bow to the demands of accessibility.
While “old-man action” movies like Taken and The Equalizer could be considered descendants of The Fugitive, they lack its character development. Those thrillers that are character driven—say, No Country for Old Men or Hell or High Water—are less popcorn, more art. The Fugitive acts as a placeholder for a time when adults could be entertained by action heroes without being condescended to (see Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, The Firm, Patriot Games), which is why many viewers who saw the movie as kids in the ’90s, and who are adults now, wield it as a nostalgic marker of taste.
In 2015, the same year a Fugitive sequel was announced, the comedian John Mulaney released a special called The Comeback Kid in which he digressed mid-joke into an explanation of the original film’s plot. “Why does Kimble confront Nichols?” he asks. “Well, I know we all know this, but … ” And then he goes on to rehash it anyway because The Fugitive is the kind of movie that can be rehashed voraciously over and over and over again. Siskel watched it twice before reviewing it in 1993 and already wanted to see it again; Seitz saw it 10 times in the theater upon its release; and I have replayed it upwards of 30 times over the years. What I once believed to be a guilt-ridden affinity for a mindless puff of Hollywood excess, I now understand as an appreciation for a kind of modern-day moveable feast. As Gerard’s relationship with Kimble transformed, so too has mine. I thought I didn’t care, but I do.