It’s been a long while since the network formerly known as American Movie Classics has been anywhere near worthy of its original name. And its current on-air lineup (series like Breaking Bad excepted) hasn’t quite helped matters. Something like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is not really a classic, it’s not exactly American, and I’m not entirely sure it’s even a movie.
But there are always exceptions, and even AMC can have a lucky shot, as in the last couple of weeks it’s been running one film that may actually deserve the Classic label.
By all measures, The Fugitive should be just another near-forgotten action flick of the 90s. It’s a remake of a TV series, directed by a guy whose best work to date had consisted of Steven Seagal’s two least embarrassing films. And yet it somehow managed to walk away with an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, a slew of awards for Tommy Lee Jones, and the reputation of a Great Film.
And more than any other movie, it’s the one that made me want to be a filmmaker.
Of course, I didn’t see any of this coming when I went to the Northwest to see the movie back in 1993. I’d been a fan of the original series since renting that famous last episode too many years before – it was the kind of smart, compelling action series that’s growing increasingly rare these days. So I’d approached this remake with not a little skepticism.
Then a few things happened along the way. Harrison Ford was cast. Then Andrew Davis signed on to direct. Then Davis’s prior film, Under Siege, turned out to not only not suck, but actually be really good. Then Tommy Lee Jones was cast. And little by little, I was beginning to wonder if maybe The Fugitive would be different.
The story screams Hitchcock – an innocent man (Ford’s Richard Kimble), falsely accused, runs for his life and his freedom, pursuing the truth behind his wife’s murder even as the law (represented by Jones’s Sam Gerard and his team of U.S. Marshals) pursues him. But Davis’s approach to the material owes as much to John Frankenheimer, if not more. His style, much like Frankenheimer’s in The Train and The Manchurian Candidate, is visceral and immediate, as exemplified by the film’s famous train wreck (achieved, in fact, by actually wrecking a train). And Michael Chapman’s cinematography and James Newton Howard’s finest hour of a score help put you in the middle of the chase, always knowing where you are, but never quite knowing where you’re headed.
The performances elevate the film even further. The supporting cast includes Sela Ward (who makes a lot of her limited screen time) and a host of fine character actors like Ron Dean, Jeroen Krabbe, Jane Lynch, Daniel Roebuck, L. Scott Caldwell, the late great Andreas Katsulas, and the one and only Joe Pantoliano. But of course it’s the leads who grab and hold your attention. Ford and Jones invest so much in their characters that you can see their minds at work, so much in their personalities that you find yourself rooting for them both. And when you want Gerard to catch up with Kimble almost as much as you want Kimble to get away from him, then you know you’re watching something really special.
That I loved the movie goes without saying. It’s a superior thriller on every level. But as I was watching it, I began to realize that something more was going on. I was catching nuances in the actors’ performances that I hadn’t noticed in other films before. I was noticing the editing, the cinematography, the music, all the pieces that go into making a film work. And it was making sense.
We live in an age where all the details of filmmaking are laid bare for all to see, whether we want to or not. (That was only slightly less true in the early 90s – the information was there, you just had to dig a little deeper for it). So we “know” how films are made, but we don’t always see why they’re made as they are. We don’t always recognize how the pieces fit together and make a film function as art and craft.
That’s what I was experiencing when I saw The Fugitive. I’d been a film junkie my whole life, but now I was seeing the pieces fit in ways I hadn’t recognized before. And even then, I knew that was one of those Defining Moments you’re not supposed to see until many years later when you look back and think, “Ohhh, so that’s where it all started.”
Now, here I am, just shy of two decades later. I’ve been involved with a few films, and seen one of them go farther than I thought anything I was involved in could go. It’s been a heck of a train ride… only without the derailing part.
And it all started with that one film.
On which note I’ll call a wrap on this post. Thanks as always for reading, and until the next, “be seeing you…”