The Most Watchable Movie Ever Made

And now, for something completely meaningless…

In May 2015, news came out that Warner Bros. had greenlit a new version of the 1993 action-thriller The Fugitive. There was scant detail provided – whether the project would be a sequel or reboot or remake, if Harrison Ford or Tommy Lee Jones would be involved, and so forth – and that remains the case to this day. The only piece of information I could find concerns the involvement of screenwriter Christina Hodson, credited with 2016’s Shut In (owner of a sparkling 3% on Rotten Tomatoes).

There are no original ideas in Hollywood, of course. Books, television shows, video games, board games, toys, and even phone apps have made the leap to the silver screen in recent years. Everything that has been proven to sell once, in any medium, has been recycled to sell again, time and time again. By one count, there will be 43 sequels, reboots, and remakes in 2017. This includes Universal trying to refranchise The Mummy into their monsterverse, and Kenneth Branagh revisiting the 1974 classic Murder on the Orient Express (based on the Agatha Christie novel), for starters.

However, there is something about the idea of touching The Fugitive I find especially egregious. As I glance at entertainment news almost two years later, I find myself even now dreading the inevitable update that lists the director or actors involved in the project. I realize that The Fugitive itself originated on television in the 1960s, and inspired another short-lived television reboot in the early 2000s – the property is hardly an “original.” But my problem with a movie redo is simple. The Fugitive is perfect. It is immensely watchable and rewatchable. It holds up in every aspect.

For starters, the script of The Fugitive is expertly crafted. The prologue establishes its premise in mere minutes. The wife of Dr. Richard Kimble (Ford) is murdered, he accused and found guilty of the crime. Flashbacks trace the couple’s last night together, spent at a fundraising event. The scenes are casual, seemingly nonchalant, but, unbeknownst to us at this point, hints. For now though, we simply follow Kimble – to the emergency surgery he is called in to perform, then back home where he finds his dead wife, and her killer, the one-armed man. We know Kimble is innocent. But we also know how it looks.

Kimble escapes, of course, in a sensational bus-train crash sequence as memorable an action setpiece as any in cinematic history. That’s when the movie truly begins. We have Kimble on the run, desperate to buy time both to clear his name and to uncover the truth behind his wife’s murder. And we have Deputy Samuel Gerard (Jones) and his team of US Marshals, tasked with finding an escaped murderer and bringing him to justice. “I’m not trying to solve a puzzle here,” Gerard says. “Well, I am,” Kimble responds.

It is precisely the puzzle that separates The Fugitive from any number of chase thrillers, providing the narrative much depth. While the entire first act is about Kimble wrestling to stay free in the immediate aftermath of his escape (including a highway chase scene), the movie evolves deftly and begins to ebb and flow with the puzzle rather than the chase. It’s an effective shift, one necessary to maintaining the integrity of Kimble’s character. Yes, Kimble is a smart man – probably smarter than his pursuers – but it is because of his mission that he puts himself at risk of capture.

The refocus on the murder also frees the movie from any sort of monotony with the extended cat-and-mouse between Gerard and Kimble. Indeed, the script feels well-balanced throughout. Following the iconic encounter at the dam that ends the first act (“I didn’t kill my wife!” “I don’t care.”), we have a break in the chase, as Kimble returns to Chicago and formulates his plan, while the marshals move to capture the other fugitive from the escape. These scenes work to remind us of the characters’ underlying motivations, in the process contributing to their development.

Even without the physical presence of the marshals, Kimble’s predicament lends urgency to every scene. The drug sting and arrest of his landlady’s son is a heartpounding sequence that captures the walls seemingly caving in on Kimble – in the aftermath, Ford conveys this perfect mixture of relief and exhaustion and downright terror. The hospital sequence is no less tense, as we are reminded of the threat he faces even from a suspicious lab technician or a doctor. That he is making progress in his search for the one-armed man only underlines the stakes for our protagonist.

By the time we reach the end of the second act then, it seems almost an inevitability that the two sides will circle back on one another again. That the scene takes place in the wolf’s den – as Kimble visits a jail to see if an armed robber now behind bars is his one-armed man – only ratchets up the tension tenfold (there is a fantastic visual of Kimble shrinking in the back of an elevator filled with cops). This is a purposeful encounter for the narrative. Even if they cross paths purely by accident – with Gerard looking into the one-armed man himself – we are reminded of the precariousness of Kimble’s situation, the relentlessness of the man on his tail.

It is with the subsequent fall of the first big chess piece – when Kimble identifies Fredrick Sykes (Andreas Katsulas) as the one-armed man – that the movie shifts once more. The strands hinted at in the prologue, and pursued in the second act, start to come together as the movie barrels towards its conclusion. The separate worlds inhabited by the main characters merge almost fully now as Kimble clues the marshals in on his investigation (while necessarily keeping them at arm’s length). They’re not quite on the same side, but at least now they’re asking the same questions.

As Kimble and Gerard work individually to unravel the puzzle, Sykes comes to the forefront – dragging with him from the shadows the individuals who orchestrated the murder. The movie does this naturally, effectively: we have moved from the question of who killed Kimble’s wife to why Kimble’s wife was killed. And as Kimble finally pieces everything together, we do too, culminating in a series of onscreen showdowns. Kimble with the one-armed man, then with the mastermind, then with Gerard. It is an immensely satisfying finale.

There is not a wasted scene or line to be found in The Fugitive. Every thread comes back around, big and small. For instance, the push-and-pull over jurisdiction is a recurring theme, with the marshals clashing with local authorities from the outset (leading to Jones’ famous “warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse” line). Thus, late in the movie, when Sykes’ murder of a cop is blamed on Kimble, there are consequences for the marshals too. “Chicago PD will eat him alive!” They’re chomping at the bit to kill a man that the marshals want captured. It adds another realistic dimension to the final confrontation.

Indeed, the film oozes of authenticity. Some of it is almost forgettable: the throwaway line that references prank calls from people pretending to be Kimble on the hotline, the internal monologue of a nurse as she attends to an elderly patient. There are small human moments: the old guard who saves himself from the bus-train crash and then tells a white lie about the circumstances of Kimble’s escape. Then there are the constants: the easy banter among the marshals that reveal their camaraderie, the doctor who cannot turn his back on the hippocratic oath even on the lam. All of it works in service of more fully-realized characters, of a more fully-realized world.

There are too many reasons why The Fugitive works as well as it does. The movie takes a situation already imbued with urgency and adds a mystery on top. It sets up the highest of stakes, with the truth encompassing not only vindication in the face of execution but vengeance as well. It paces itself, balancing its disparate elements and worlds, with three crescendos that find the main characters at very different places in their respective missions. It is rich in dialogue, and propelled further by the power of the performances. The Fugitive is as smart, thrilling, and fun a movie as you will ever see.

And it is utterly timeless.

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