Once upon a time, Hollywood tended to produce stories that didn’t strip-mine old TV shows or reboot former film titles that either ran their course, or never really succeeded. Today, we greet such creative retreading with a collective sigh, as the half-life of something before it gets re-made or re-booted seems to dwindle with each passing year. The irony, of course, is that things only got this way on the back of a few truly standout reboots that brought new life to something at once both beloved and ripe for re-interpretation. And of these, few stand out more than The Fugitive, a 1993 big-screen adaptation of the classic 1960s TV show so the same name.
Dr. Richard Kimble is one of Chicago’s top vascular surgeons until he is wrongfully convicted of his wife’s brutal murder. On the way to prison, his bus is hit by a train and a few of the inmates, including Kimble, vanish into the night. A state-wide manhunt swiftly ensues, with Deputy U.S. Marshall Sam Gerard and his team of ace investigators leading the way. After a nail-biting chase in which Kimble and Gerard momentarily come face to face, Kimble narrowly escapes, and both he and Gerard have time to re-evaluate things as their pursuit starts afresh. Kimble must live in the shadows while trying to prove that a mysterious one-armed man is the real killer. Gerard must predict where Kimble will appear next. The longer the chase goes on, the higher the stakes, and the more all sides understand that sometimes, the law and justice aren’t exactly working toward the same end.
It took a lot of guts to green light this movie, considering that the finale of the original TV show was watched by nearly three quarters of the American public the night it aired, and remained the most highly watched episode of television for some 13 years afterward. Being such a universal cultural touchstone made its revisitation a fair bit trickier that simply trading on the old adage of what is old is new once again. And yet, one of the most solid talent lineups the early 90s could muster not only made it happen, but made it pay off, too. Ford’s everyman weariness captured the dire straits of a guy pushed to survive in circumstances way outside his comfort zone. Tommy Lee Jones sells us on a concept of law enforcement that combines skill, intellect and dedication in ways that doesn’t lead to abuse of power or the exchange of accuracy for expediency.
Near the close of the movie’s first act, the first exhilarating chase sequence between Kimble and Gerard concludes, Kimble gets the drop on Gerard in a storm drain tunnel. In an especially memorable exchange, Kimble spares a moment to plead his innocence and tells Kimble he didn’t kill his wife. Gerard tells him that he doesn’t care; his job is to bring in fugitives, not re-try their cases. Kimble realizes he can’t convince Gerard, and Gerard realizes what it feels like for a hunter to suddenly become prey. There is a terrific tension between an immovable object and an unstoppable force until Kimble makes the extraordinary decision to leap from the drain in a life-or-death plunge into the river below. It’s the movie’s most effective action set piece, but it also sets the stakes for the audience: We now know just how far Gerard is willing to go to bring Kimble in, and we know how far Kimble is willing to go to prove his innocence. Rarely are we set up to root equally for either side of a conflict, but the audience comes out of that tunnel somehow hoping both fugitive and lawman get what they want, and that’s a rare treat.
Once Kimble and Gerard shift from tactics to strategy, we see a deeper reveal of their intelligence, perception and moral compass. As Kimble closes in on who killed his wife and framed him for murder, Gerard better understands that he’s been chasing the wrong guy. With that, a new tension arises: Gerard still has to keep after Kimble, but he knows Kimble isn’t really his man. What happens when his skills of pursuit outstrip his skills of investigation? It’s a moral quandary Gerard knows he’s setting himself up for, and hopes he won’t have to confront.
Meanwhile, all Kimble has to do, to stay one step ahead of Gerard, is to lay low. For a doctor, Kimble proves surprisingly adept at the arts of escape and evasion, though we do wonder how differently he might have fared in an age of ubiquitous internet, wireless communication and facial recognition. Be that as it may, he manages to successfully hide from the world while still getting what he needs from it. And it all leads to the movie’s moment of truth, when he must visit a hospital to purloin some medical records.
There, Kimble spots a gunshot wound victim who, in the chaos of the moment, receives inaccurate care that will cost him his life. Kimble knows he risks capture if he steps in and helps this patient, but he is a doctor first and a fugitive second. And so, he intervenes and saves the man. A nurse notices his involvement and nearly captures him, but after the fact, grudgingly praises him for saving a life. It’s the kind of Samaritan’s deed that helps convince Gerard that he might be after an innocent man after all. But it’s a more important moment than that, underscoring how we must first be true to our own best selves before we acknowledge whatever cruel circumstance the world imposes upon us. It’s easy to do the right thing when it requires so little of us. The point is building a life for ourselves so that when the right thing becomes the hardest thing possible, making the right choice still is no choice at all.