Thrill of the Chase: The Dueling Protagonists in The Fugitive
The Fugitive should be held up as the gold standard for adapting a television show into a movie. It takes its source material seriously and doesn't try to coast on nostalgia and recognition. The original The Fugitive show was about a man on the run for being wrongfully accused of murdering his wife. Dr. Richard Kimble claims a one-armed man did the crime he's been accused of and travels across America trying to find this man while being pursued by the relentless Lieutenant Gerard. Along the way, he gets into adventures, saves lives, and tries to stay one step ahead of the law. The Fugitive movie takes this synopsis and turns it into a tight, thrilling two hours.
The movie had the third biggest box office of 1993 (behind Jurassic Park and Mrs. Doubtfire), was nominated for Best Picture, won Tommy Lee Jones an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and made $368 million at the box office (off of a $44 million budget). It has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes if you’re into that sort of thing, and more importantly, has aged like fine wine. With the recent spate of TV to movie adaptations and their varied levels of quality, I thought I would look at what makes The Fugitive such a fantastic film.
The X factor for The Fugitive's success is Tommy Lee Jones' U.S. Deputy Marshal Gerard and his team. David Twohy and Jeb Stuart's script, with a healthy amount of improvisation, gives us some of the most interesting hunters in film. They are likable, competent, and funny. They banter like real co-workers and all five or six actors in the group have such great chemistry from the moment they appear, you could mistakenly think they had actually been working together for a few years. Another thing The Fugitive does well with this group is to make them very competent at their jobs. They're not screw-ups or idiots, so they represent a genuine threat to our hero, and, because they represent this real, competent threat, when Kimble escapes them it gives us more of an appreciation for his skills and shows us how capable he is.
What's also different with The Fugitive is that the hunters aren't positioned as villains within the story. They are a threat, yes, but they also provide a majority of the comic relief and at no point do any of them attempt to do anything that isn't by the book. It would be very easy for the movie to reveal that one member of the team is crooked and in the pay of the villains, which would be a huge cop out and spoil one of the most interesting ideas in the movie, which is that it is a film with two protagonists in opposition to each other.
This is, at its core, Ford's movie. He's the guy on the posters, he is The Fugitive of the title, and the forward momentum of the action and plot is driven by first his escape and then his hunt for the one-armed man. However, Jones' character could very easily have been the hero of this movie with only a handful of script rewrites. Whenever Ford isn't on screen, Jones is and he drives the plot forward with his team as they try and close the net around Dr. Kimble. It's very unusual to have a movie in which you have two legitimate heroes at the center, with the villain being a character who is talked about as almost mythological and another villain who isn't revealed until the final twenty minutes of the movie. There is a tightrope a filmmaker walks, as each protagonist needs to stay appealing. If Kimble does something even slightly villainous or doesn't come across as likable then your whole movie is about an asshole running through Chicago. Much in the same way that a filmmaker can't make Gerard too likable or the audience might end up wanting to see him catch the hero.
The key to how this works so well in The Fugitive is casting. Some actors represent shorthand when it comes to casting choices. If you're making a movie about Captain Chesley Sullenberger being investigated for possibly acting dangerously when he landed a plane on the Hudson but you want your audience to side with Sullenberger from minute one, then you cast Tom Hanks as Sully and most of the battle is won. In the same vein, if you want to present some wild Kennedy assassination conspiracy without any ambiguity that the teller is telling the truth, you cast Kevin Costner as the man who discovers who really killed JFK. With Harrison Ford in the lead role, you know straightaway he's innocent. The movie's fantastic opening twenty minutes plays with ambiguity a bit in the flashbacks but when Ford says that he didn't kill his wife you believe him because he's Harrison Ford.
With Samuel Gerard, the filmmakers brought in Tommy Lee Jones, who represents that perfect mix of gruff anger and a certain goofy likability. Jones is sometimes all smiles but mostly he wears his hangdog, exhausted expression that is both endearing and intimidating. Jones manages to make the character likable but also just sprinkles enough asshole on his performance to make you want to see him get close to, but not catch, Kimble until the end.
Overall, this is an incredible movie. It is fun, wild, tense, and crafted like a swiss watch. Director Andrew Davis and his six editors created a two-hour movie with not a drop of fat on it. It is incredibly economic storytelling that gets us into the action with very little messing around. It's actually refreshing to have a movie in which, by the twenty-minute mark, we're deep into the action and the pace never lets up until the final credits roll. If you know someone who has never seen this movie I implore you to get them to check it out as it is a masterclass in adaptation, casting, and making a group of people running after a guy look amazing.