When man looks into the abyss, the abyss looks back into him.
And what does it say?
What else but–
“I DON’T CARE.” (Texas accent optional)
I have seen The Fugitive approximately 5,000 times. And of those 5,000 times, only once did I not enjoy it. I was at a low point. Marooned in a strange city, sleeping on a friend’s couch. Broke, jobless, drinking too much, wasting my days staring at a TV screen.
One night, The Fugitive popped up on HBO. It should have inspired joy, but the sensation was closer to that of encountering a healthy, prosperous old friend when you have been reduced to begging on the street. They look great, you look terrible. Memory becomes an alien landscape, the days of wine and roses long expired. They expected more of you, really.
Nevertheless, I watched it all the way through.
Of course I did. This is a great movie, one of my absolute favorites. And I’m proud to report that after this most recent viewing, the first in several years–call it viewing 5,001–we are BFF’s again. Back on equal footing. So great to see you again, old friend. Have you lost weight?
It’s hard for me not to think of certain movies this way, ones like The Fugitive, that connect me to a certain time in my youth, a connection deep and unseen–a drainage tunnel, say–joining there to here, then to now.
I would go spend summers in Georgia with my grandparents, my only companions a pair of septuagenarian southerners and my own developing obsessions. I’d find my way to a movie theater. A cool, dark place beyond the reach of the Georgia humidity. And these pictures would imprint themselves on my brain. These tiny notions would begin to form. About what life was and more importantly, life could be. The Fugitive, Forrest Gump, In The Line Of Fire, for God’s sake Pulp Fiction! (not technically a summer movie but its import cannot be overstated–or can it?)
I’d head back up north, to school, the real world, but with the secret satisfaction that I had been given access to something strange and magical. How wonderful, I would think, that someone made this.
Sometimes my only like-minded associate was an Entertainment Weekly magazine, or, it often seemed, Roger Ebert himself. School, friends, tests, teachers? Okay. But life, boiled down, might very well be a chase, from that which dogs us, or after that which must be apprehended. A leap from a dam. Only one person in a million could survive that fall. Some of us believe, to the edge of doom, the edge of reason, that we are that one.
How could we not with this as our text?
Re-watching The Fugitive this time around, I was struck, as always, by how real, how tactile it is. Andrew Davis’ direction is kinetic without being like, kinetic. It is a movie that seems to live fully within the physical limitations of reality, but is so much more thrilling than the countless movies that pervert those limits in order to make something out of nothing. This is a movie that climaxes with two middle-aged doctors duking it out. They move like what they are, reasonably athletic men of a certain age who are not very good at fighting. These guys have no particular set of skills. Except that one of them has been to hell and back and the other is secretly evil.
With the exception of the train crash scene, the action sequences are terribly simple in their conception. A couple car chases, a lot of foot chases, a few fights and a masterful incorporation of location, in this case a Chicago that is grey and small-scale but never noirish or stilted. One shudders to think of all the ways a movie like this would go wrong today: outlandish stunts and CGI excess; cornball camera gymnastics and hyper-choreographed, Gymakata-like fight sequences. A video game in which the player need not even participate. Background noise for scrolling.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is…they don’t make ’em like this anymore. Because they also don’t make ’em like this anymore:
I believe it’s safe to say this is Harrison Ford’s last great performance. And furthermore, I believe myself qualified to make that judgement. Ford was roughly 50 when The Fugitive was shot and brings a realistic maturity to a role that relies almost entirely on physical acting (but also does some of his best work in the scenes that require real emotion–vide the police station interrogation scene. There’s a reason those lines have become so deeply re-quotable). In the dam tunnel, he holds Gerard’s gun like a doctor unaccustomed to wielding instruments of harm. His hands shake in fear as he stands on the edge of the dam. When was the last time you saw the protagonist’s hands shake in an action movie?
One of the things that leapt out to me as a 14 year-old solo movie-watching weirdo was how much levity this film contains, most of it, of course, provided by Tommy Lee Jones in his Oscar winning performance. But re-watching it this time, I noticed even more small, quirky moments–the way the camera pans in confusion for a split-second when Jones’ team of Marshals gets lost trying to exit the tunnels; Jones’ blustery frustration at the dam not being turned off and the bulletproof-glass door not being opened; Jones perusing Dr. Nicholls’ med school class photo and asking, offhandedly, “Did you know Morton Feinberg? Nice guy.”
There is no one named Morton Feinberg in this movie. This line has no reason to exist. Other than the fact that it provides something called “charm,” which those raised on Taken and The Fast and The Furious might not realize an action movie can have.
Happily, I may have also (after 5,001 viewings) finally fully apprehended the conspiracy behind Helen Kimble’s murder. To a young man in 1993, the idea of a pharmaceutical company (or at least a psychopath acting on its behalf) murdering a doctor in order to protect profits seemed a forgivable stretching of the limits of plausibility. In 2022, it seems plausible to the point of mundanity. Times change.
Over the past couple years, I have been largely apathetic to the changing model of movie consumption. I didn’t mind theaters closing. Like Dr. Kimble, I had been running hard. Staying home wasn’t so bad. But I think this summer I will make it a point to take a few solo trips to the movies. To somewhere cool and dark and comfortable. Who knows what could happen?