Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘The Fugitive’: Running From the Law, Following the Truth

January 22, 2021 Updated: January 22, 2021

PG-13 | | Action, Crime, Drama | 6 August 1993 (USA)

In “The Fugitive,” Harrison Ford plays convicted murderer Dr. Richard Kimble. The movie was inspired by a hit 1960s TV series of the same name and theme. The series was leaden; Ford’s version is anything but. And though he’d been working for years, this is the movie that put Tommy Lee Jones on the map.

three men and water fall in "The Fugitive"
(L–R) Joe Pantoliano, Tommy Lee Jones, and Daniel Roebuck as U.S. marshals in “The Fugitive.” (Warner Bros.)

“The Fugitive” (1993) has much in common with 2000’s “Erin Brockovich,” 2007’s “Michael Clayton,” and 2019’s “Dark Waters.” They all tell tales of major American corporations trying to cover up their underhanded foisting of cancer-causing chemicals on the unsuspecting American public. More on that later.

Not a Murderer

Wrongly convicted Dr. Kimble is determined to free himself from the charge of murdering his beloved wife, Helen (Sela Ward), by finding the mysterious one-armed man who killed her.

Ford plays Kimble as a man whose doctor-level intelligence also translates to a resourcefulness on par with a special operations soldier in SERE mode (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape).

This is an action buff’s action movie, with high tension in every scene, including the spectacular bus-train collision that offers Kimble an opportunity to escape and evade his pending death sentence.

man jumps from train in "The Fugitive"
Doctor Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) jumping from a moving train to escape execution, in “The Fugitive.” (Warner Bros.)

Like the proverbial hellhound on his trail, along comes the scathingly sarcastic, terminator-like (you can’t shake him) U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard, played by Tommy Lee Jones, with the immense deliciousness that occurs when an actor finally sinks his teeth into the role he was born to play.

Sam Gerard is the Grim Reaper, but he’s finally met his match. It’s like the (also proverbial) immovable object meeting the unstoppable force. Kimble’s too smart, can’t be caught. Gerard puts the dog in doggedness. Make that pit bull. Who will win? Cinematic tension at its finest.

two men in a crowd in the "The Fugitive"
Tommy Lee Jones (L) and Joe Pantoliano as U.S. marshals in “The Fugitive.” (Warner Bros.)

Close but No Cigar

Cops know to watch for criminals returning to the scene of the crime. Kimble, of course, knows this too, but he has to return to Chicago where his wife was murdered, regardless, in order to solve the mystery. So he’s always right under Gerard’s nose.

And Gerard (“don’t ever argue with the big dog; big dog is always right”) can smell Kimble’s trail. But the salty marshal, not even with the help of the Chicago PD, FBI, choppers overhead, cars whizzing around, computer whizzes on computer info networks, brainstorming meetings—not even with all that can Gerard manage to nail Kimble.

Then Kimble, borrowing money from a former med school classmate (Jeroen Krabbé), rents an apartment, doctors himself up a fake ID card, and sneaks into a hospital to inspect the prosthetic limbs department for clues of that one-armed man.

man looks at prosthetic limb in “The Fugitive”
Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) examines a prosthetic limb for clues, in “The Fugitive.” (Warner Bros.)

There, he has a close call with a hypervigilant staff doctor played by Julianne Moore in what was arguably the role that also put her career on the map.

doctor wiith patient in "The Fugitive"
Dr. Anne Eastman (Julianne Moore) is on to Dr. Kimble sneaking around her hospital, in “The Fugitive.” (Warner Bros.)

Almost like a dramatic version of the comedic symbiotic relationship between the characters that Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin play in “Midnight Run,” Kimble and Gerard were destined to meet and test each other’s wits. And in the same way that the hilariously rabidly antagonistic relationship in “Midnight Run” dissolved into a realization by both men, that in another lifetime they might have been friends, Kimble and Gerard bond in a great mutual respect.

From the famous standoff on the edge of a roaring dam, where Kimble shouts “I didn’t kill my wife!” and Gerard replies sarcastically “I don’t care!” they evolve to the amusing, heartwarming scene where Gerard applies an ice pack to Kimble’s injuries, and Kimble says “I thought you didn’t care.” And Gerard, with a twinkle in his eye, says “I don’t.” They share a laugh, and Gerard adds “Don’t tell anyone, will you?”

man stands in drain pipe in "The Fugitive"
Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) about to jump off a high dam to escape a U.S. marshal, in “The Fugitive.” (Warner Bros.)

The Real Crux of the Matter

But the real high point of “The Fugitive” is when Kimble goes after the above-mentioned med school classmate giving a talk at a large function for investors. Kimble crashes the assembly and declares: “He falsified his research so RDU-90 could be approved and Devlin MacGregor could give you … Provasic!”

bearded man in t-shirt points finger in "The Fugitive"
Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) blows the whistle on a former friend’s unethical lab reports, in “The Fugitive.” (Warner Bros.)

In “Erin Brockovich” (about the Pacific Gas and Electric Company), the crux is, as lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney) says:

“On December 7, 1987, the discharger notified the regional board and the San Bernardino County Environmental Health Services of the discovery of 0.58 ppm of hexavalent chromium in an on-site ground water monitoring well. Everything the Irvings have had is proven reaction to exposure to hexavalent chromium.”

And Ed’s whistle-blowing assistant Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) adds:

“They’ve had breast cysts, uterine cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, immune deficiencies, asthma, chronic nosebleeds.”

In “Michael Clayton” (about U-North, an agricultural corporation), whistle-blowing lawyer Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) says:

“Twelve percent of my life has been spent protecting the reputation of a deadly weedkiller! They killed these people, Michael. Little farms. Family farms. This girl, Anna, did you see her? You need to see her. Talk to her. She’s a miracle. She’s is God’s perfect creature. And for fifty million dollars in fees I have spent twelve percent of my life destroying perfect Anna and her dead parents and her dying brother.”

In “Dark Waters” (about DuPont corporation’s Teflon), reporter Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) asks while looking in a creek:

“What am I looking for?”

Farmer Wilber Tennant (Bill Camp) replies:

“You blind, boy? Stones as white as the hairs on my head. Bleached! That’s chemicals, I’m telling ya. My animals drink this water. Cool off in ‘er. Get them bloody welts, them dead eyes. Charge at me, crazy-like. Animals that used to eat out of my own hand.”

Say what you will about Hollywood making money telling stories about big companies making money exploiting people’s health. Stories about whistle-blowing and truth-telling need telling, and the world needs to listen.

‘The Fugitive’
Director: Andrew Davis
Starring: Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Sela Ward, Julianne Moore, Joe Pantoliano, Jeroen Krabbé
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Release Date: Aug. 6, 1993
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch