The cinematic version of the long-running (or maybe it just seemed that way) TV series The Fugitive has so little in common with its small-screen progenitor that truth in advertising laws would have seemed to mandate a name change.
On the small screen, phlegmatic sourpuss David Janssen played the indefatigable Richard Kimble, a doctor on the lam after being wrongly accused of murdering his wife. Kimble was the loneliest guy in the world, crisscrossing the U.S.A. in search of the one-armed man who really offed his spouse. For five years it went like that -- Kimble drifted into town, got tangled up in a romance or an adventure, stumbled onto a clue, and narrowly avoided capture. His quarry was always just out of reach and his pursuers forever gaining on him.
Regular viewing was a masochistic exercise. Right up until the final episode in 1967, Fugitive junkies could never even be certain that the one-armed man actually killed the woman. You had to have faith. Good Catholics (like my mother and me) related to that and appreciated the show on a number of levels. Kimble's dilemma was an existential purgatory. You watched, you waited, you got your hopes up, you sighed with frustration. It was a lot like life.
And through it all, there was jowly Janssen, with his melancholy eyes, his distended ears, and his voice like a flat shovel being dragged across gravel. Harrison Ford, who plays Kimble in the movie, is sleeker, a much better actor, and at least by today's standards, probably a lot sexier. But Janssen's appeal was like an old teddy bear's -- the more frayed and moth-eaten it gets, the more you like it.
If the original Fugitive was as slow as a transatlantic voyage aboard the Queen Elizabeth II, the new version is a ride on the Concorde. Dr. Kimble is wrongly accused and convicted of killing his wife. In one of the best action sequences ever, the bus transporting Kimble has a heart-stopping rendezvous with an oncoming train, and suddenly the doctor is a free man. (But not before he risks his own skin to rescue an injured prison guard. It's the first of two lives the surgeon will save in the course of his quest to clear his name. What a guy!) But this Kimble doesn't hoof it across the country; he merely cuts his hair and goes underground. That way he can surreptitiously visit the hospitals where he used to operate, stitch up his own wounds, unexpectedly drop in on former colleagues when he gets really desperate, and bone up (no pun intended) on the intricacies of prosthetic arms.
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There's nothing like a great adversary to kick an action movie into higher gear. In the Line of Fire, this summer's other top-notch thriller with a human protagonist, succeeded largely because of John Malkovich's devious turn as a rogue CIA assassin playing cat-and-mouse with Clint Eastwood's aging Secret Service agent. The Fugitive boasts Tommy Lee Jones as U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard, and the veteran actor very nearly steals the film out from under Indiana Jones (no relation). Malkovich was ruthless and cerebral; Jones is a tenacious SOB (he tells a visibly shaken young marshal, whom he has just extricated from a hostage situation by plugging the bad guy in the head, "I don't bargain") with a dry sense of humor and just enough self-awareness to avoid stoic action-figure cliche.
Gerard couldn't care less whether Kimble is guilty or innocent. His job is to bring the man in, and other than the epic bus-train collision that sets the plot in motion, the film's highlights occur when Gerard gets this close. At one point the fed has his prey cornered in a viaduct atop a towering dam; Kimble jumps and (of course) survives. As with the train wreck, sympathy for Kimble and the flawless execution of the stunt allow you to overlook the implausibility of it all.
For nearly 90 minutes this Fugitive is an intense thriller about a simple man in search of redemption. Then, for some bizarre reason, the filmmakers graft on a contrived plot twist involving nefarious deeds by representatives of a multinational pharmaceutical manufacturer. The convolution is as unnecessary as it is far-fetched and it diffuses much of the tension everything that preceded it worked so hard to build. In its wake there is confusion; not over who done it, but why the filmmakers had to clutter up a near-perfect action movie.
It's a measure of The Fugitive's early power that you're still pulling for Dr. Kimble right up to the climactic confrontation with the final bad guy. And as with the TV series, it still boils down to the compelling theme of a regular guy beating the odds and clearing his name. Never bet on one-armed bandits.