Directed by: Andrew Davis. This is another one of those blind spots where the movie is way too close to me, where I have absolutely no grounding to process this objectively. It’s one of my favourite all-time movies; I’ve seen it probably 5 times over the course of 5 key points in my life, and each time it reminds me of seeing it when it was new, a movie (in my temporary fantasy world) that everyone can agree on, in so many ways a blueprint for what a mainstream, accessible, agreeable yet compelling, exciting yet intelligent, sophisticated yet approachable Hollywood suspense thriller can be. And maybe when I’m complaining about so many other movies, it’s because I’m holding this one in the back of my mind as an example—it can be done! It’s a straightforward action movie with a lot of suspense, amazing cinematic stunts, a straightforward story that everyone can get behind—a guy is framed for murdering his wife and escapes the law in order to prove it. Pretty straightforward. It has a great triangulation of characters: Harrison Ford of course, and the bad guy (Jeroen Krabbé) whose importance can’t really be revealed until most of the movie is over, so the film is ingenious enough to put in that great third man, Tommy Lee Jones, the good cop trying to catch him. It’s this strong, nonromantic relationship, in this movie where no relationships are possible, that forms the core of the movie, the heart and soul of the movie, that compels us to keep watching because we have two good guys to root for, but we know that their goals are mutually incompatible. And though I still get enjoyment seeing the narrative unfold now that I know what happens, I’m sure that the audiences of the day weren’t really sure how it would end, because either ending—he’s exonerated but dies, or exonerated to Deputy Gerard but with not enough hard evidence to clear him in the system, or the happily ever after ending that we do get—would mean that Hollywood rules are being followed, that one of the good guys is going to win. But then again, to be fair, it’s obvious who this film’s actual protagonist is, if nothing else, because Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t show up until 20 or 30 minutes in.
And what an entrance it is! To me, even though the setup is obviously really important and really well done, the film doesn’t really get going until the bus crashes, Richard Kimble gets out, becomes a “fugitive”, and the next morning, the local cops fuddle around the crime scene, getting everything wrong, when along comes this ragtag group of Federal Marshals led by Deputy Gerard, just in time to tell everyone how wrong they got everything, and exert their higher jurisdiction and take over the case. I never got around to checking out the spinoff film U.S. Marshals, which I think has Wesley Snipes in it, but I don’t know why—they had me locked in by the time he finished that great “dog house, hen house, outhouse” speech. And I know most people who are familiar with this movie aren’t really into it, and if they are, it’s in an ironic parody kind of way, because it’s a funny kind of speech to have in a movie. But to me, the movie is never terribly laughable because it keeps itself rooted in reality—Tommy Lee Jones plays that character in such a believable way that I never question why he juggles that assertive macho-cop stuff along with quirky, older-brother/stern uncle sense of humour. It just feels right—the right amount of levity to breathe life into this intense drama, but still grounded in the context of this fiction, so that the drama is never overshadowed or compromised.
And really, that offbeat, comical, unconventional side to this cop, to that whole gang of cops, speaks volumes to the film’s success in my opinion. It’s clear from that point on that the film is making a distinction between cops and cops. The bad cops are usually slovenly, fat, old white dudes, narrow-minded and provincial, with thick Chicago accents, fixated on Richard’s guilt because they’re lazy, incompetent, or both—it’s not hashed out explicitly, but we get everything we need to know: they’re inferior characters personally, they’re not the good guys. Tommy Lee Jones and his crew (including Joe Pantaliano in a little supporting role, how great is that??) are a really interesting bunch. They’re the superior force—they have federal jurisdiction so they get to tell all the local guys what to do, and they get access to all the helicopters, manpower, local cops, all of the resources they could ever want is magically there for them. They are a picture of a perfectly functioning, smoothly running criminal justice machine. They are ALSO a really ramshackle, quirky, heterogeneous bunch, more racially diverse than the regular cops (including a black man and a black woman), a younger guy with long hair, and a couple of dorky guys with moustaches (including Pantaliano and the young goofball from Matlock), all of them cracking jokes with each other, talking in a really informal, hip (actually dorky, but to cops, hip) dialogue and weird expressions. They’re trying to drum up anti-cop sentiment, the part that we all hate about cops, and align all of those qualities with the dumb local PD, and at the same time, they’re making a contrast with these “good” cops—good because they’re great at their job, a textbook display of excellent police work, coordination of resources, the spectacle of action, running, subterfuge, technology, and it’s underpinned by the heterogeneity—they’re presented as quirky individuals, and we’re more likely to like them.
There’s a lot that I love about this movie, and one of them is the fact that Julianne Moore pops up for a tiny role, super over-qualified, and goes away again. It’s a little bit icing on top of a great film. And yes, I suppose this is still my template for what an action movie should be. I haven’t even touched on the amazing score from James Newton Howard who, along with his excellent opening theme for ER (also set in Chicago), is single-handedly responsible for conjuring a vivid and believable Chicago in the 90’s. That chase scene with the St Patrick’s Day parade, my god that’s great stuff. Does it get any better than this?