Monday, January 11, 2016

Guest Review: The Fugitive (1993) vs. Chain Reaction (1996) vs. U.S. Marshals (1998)

by ScottDS

Let’s ring in the new year with Commentarama’s first three-way! (Uh, yeah.) Anyway, I’ll be looking at a favorite film of mine, Andrew Davis’ 1993 classic The Fugitive and comparing and contrasting it to his 1996 follow-up, the wrong man thriller Chain Reaction, along with Stuart Baird’s 1998 Fugitive pseudo-sequel/spinoff U.S. Marshals.
Based on the TV series created by Roy Huggins, The Fugitive features Harrison Ford as Richard Kimble, a Chicago vascular surgeon who is found guilty for the murder of his wife. He claims it was a one-armed man and manages to escape after his prison bus careens off the road and is destroyed by a train. With Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard and his team on the trail, Kimble finds his way back to civilization and attempts to find out the truth. It turns out that the murder was orchestrated by Kimble’s associate, Dr. Charles Nichols. Nichols had been developing a new drug that Kimble had found caused liver damage. Nichols hired a one-armed former police officer named Sykes to get Kimble out of the way, but Sykes ended up killing Kimble’s wife. Gerard slowly reaches the same conclusion and Kimble manages to subdue Nichols in a climactic fight.

I remember watching this on HBO when I was 11 or 12 and being totally transfixed. It has a perfect first act and it was the idea of one of the editors to feature non-chronological flashbacks of Helen Kimble’s murder in slow motion with a desaturated palette. Andrew Davis directs and at the time he was best known for the films that put Steven Seagal on the map: 1988’s Above the Law and 1992’s Under Siege, along with the Chuck Norris actioner Code of Silence and the dated yet entertaining political thriller The Package. The pacing is just about perfect and it’s a miracle the filmmakers manage to stage so many close calls without anything feeling contrived or coincidental. (One possible exception would be when Kimble is hiding behind the door in the elderly hospital patient’s bathroom – it’s the only part where I’m like, “Really?”) It’s a testament to Davis and his team that the film holds together considering they were revising the script as they went along and a few set pieces (the chase through the St. Patrick’s Day parade for instance) were only developed after shooting had already started.
The acting is excellent. Ford proves why he was The Man in the 80s and 90s, playing both action and intellect with equal aplomb. Tommy Lee Jones is Gerard and he actually won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (beating out Ralph Fiennes for Schindler’s List!). He commands the screen and would pretty much go on to play Gerard-type authority figures for the next decade. His fellow marshals are played by Joe Pantoliano, Daniel Roebuck, Tom Wood, and L. Scott Caldwell. They have a natural camaraderie and you feel like they’ve all worked together for years. There’s no forced exposition or cheesy moments where we “learn” something about them. They each have at least one great line or moment, with Wood’s character nearly getting killed in a standoff. Pantoliano is entertaining as always and Roebuck gets one of my favorite lines: “If they can dye the river green today, why can't they dye it blue the other 364 days of the year?”

The film was shot on location in Chicago with the train crash and iconic dam jump shot in North Carolina. Davis came up in an age when action films were shot with coherent camerawork: no shaky-cam or rapid-fire editing here. Everything is logically laid out and we always know where everyone is. James Newton Howard’s score is one of the best action scores of the 90s and could be heard in many subsequent action movie trailers. Davis also had a great stock company: actors that he worked with on multiple films. I can’t name them all here but it seems like every other supporting actor from The Package and Code of Silence is in this movie, notably Ron Dean and the late Joe Kosala (a real former Chicago cop) as Detectives Kelly and Rosetti. We’ll see them again later.
And here they are. After the financial and critical success of The Fugitive, Davis squandered it all with 1994’s Steal Big Steal Little. After that, he returned to familiar territory with Chain Reaction, which features Keanu Reeves as Eddie Kasalivich, a student machinist on the run from the law after a scientific project he’s involved with is destroyed and the lead scientist is killed. The project is a technology that can obtain clean energy from water by separating the hydrogen molecules via a process known as sonoluminescence. The entire project is bankrolled by Paul Shannon (Morgan Freeman), an enigmatic (to say the last) figure with ties to various government entities. Kasalivich and physicist Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz) are framed for the accident and spend much of the film fleeing from the FBI and the goons employed by Shannon’s associate, Collier (Brian Cox), who operates a mysterious organization known as C-Systems.

Richard Kimble’s story was relatively straightforward: A hires B to kill C who is chased by D as C tries to find B who leads back to A. Eddie’s story is more like this: A and B are on the run from C and D while occasionally being assisted by E who works with F. This movie has twice the plot and characters as The Fugitive but is only half as entertaining. The actors are all fine, including Keanu – he gets a lot of crap but from everything I’ve read, he seems like a nice guy and I’m glad John Wick has developed something of a cult following. Morgan Freeman is excellent as always and manages to walk the line between ally and threat. He gets the speech at the end about how releasing the clean energy project to the world would end up making things worse, but lest you think otherwise, this is not a polemic. (One reviewer sadly pointed out that things seem to have gotten worse without the benefit of this technology!) The film ends with Eddie destroying Collier’s iteration of the project and putting all the plans for it online, along with evidence to clear him and Lily of any wrongdoing. Shannon kills Collier and… something something.
Instead of Tommy Lee Jones and Joey Pants, we have Fred Ward and Kevin Dunn as two FBI agents. Both actors are talented but their banter is often forced (and unfunny) and I’m not quite sure who’s on their team. The first act of this film introduces character after character and it’s like, “Is that a cop? Is that an FBI agent? Is that an assassin? Is that a scientist?” It’s hard to tell and, unlike The Fugitive, no one really makes much of an impression. We also get half a dozen other actors from that film, including the two aforementioned detectives (playing two different detectives, though it would’ve been cool if they played the same ones!). Tech stuff is all fine, I guess, with the main set pieces consisting of Eddie outriding a CGI shockwave, an exciting foot/drawbridge chase down Michigan Avenue, and a snowmobile chase shot on location in the winter. As with the previous film, Davis proves you can shoot an action film while maintaining visual sanity.

The film is entertaining in a “boring Sunday afternoon” kind of way. But all the mystery is much ado about nothing. We have conversation scenes in offices where we learn Freeman’s character has ties to the State Department. We have FBI agents looking through files that reveal a connection to DARPA. On one hand, these are all background details that add gravity to the situation and a sense of history. On the other hand, NONE of it matters. Someone at one point asks, “Jesus, who the hell is this guy?” By the end, we’re still not sure! This film also features plenty of characters frantically typing which is rarely exciting, but here it’s not too bad. This was back when the idea of “uploading” something to the Internet was still a novelty for many people. Oh, and this is a pet peeve of mine, but the credits list the characters using their full names, so it’s like: a.) I didn’t know the name of the actor, b.) I didn’t know the name of their character, and c.) I didn’t know they had a last name!
And finally, U.S. Marshals, a kinda sorta Fugitive sequel-slash-spinoff. Same producers, some of the same actors, different writer and director. Tommy Lee Jones returns as Gerard, who has to track down a fugitive named Mark Sheridan… or Mark Roberts… or Mark Warren. (I’m just gonna call him Mark.) Wesley Snipes plays Mark and while Kimble was more or less an everyman, Mark is a former CIA/Special Ops commando. Mark is accused of killing a DSS agent. He’s on the same prison transport plane as Gerard (who’s on board for an unrelated case). A Chinese prisoner attempts to kill Mark with a concealed zip gun. He shoots out the window, which causes the pilot to attempt an emergency landing on a too-short backwater road. Mark escapes and the Marshals are called in. There’s a mole in the State Department and Mark has to figure out who framed him before Gerard and the DSS get to him.

Stuart Baird also directed Executive Decision and I’m pretty sure he was hired to direct this movie only because he knows how to stage an exciting cabin depressurization. (He would do it a third time in Star Trek: Nemesis!) The script was written by a first-timer and it kinda shows. The banter is forced and unfunny this time and while I have no problem with Gerard and Mark on the same plane, I do have a problem with how Gerard gets involved in the case. In The Fugitive, he has government authority and the local sheriff (played by Nick Searcy, aka Bev’s nemesis!) is happy to turn over the crime scene. In this film, however, the local cop on the scene is portrayed as a buffoon. I’ve said it before but you don’t have to make your hero look good by making the other guy look stupid. And while Snipes is game, his character isn’t entirely sympathetic. Kimble saves a boy’s life while Mark threatens a trucker and his wife at knifepoint. Some of the performances come off as artificial and perfunctory, especially French actress Irene Jacob who gets saddled with the clichéd “girlfriend” role. Kate Nelligan, on the other hand, acquits herself nicely as Gerard’s boss.
Oh, and I didn’t even mention Robert Downey Jr.! He’s in this movie as the DSS agent assigned to Gerard’s team. He’s also game but he falls into what Roger Ebert once referred to as the Alan Alda Rule: “Any character in a murder mystery who is excessively helpful to the main character invariably turns out to be the killer.” I’m still not entirely sure what his role is in all this. Is he the mole? Is he one of several moles? Is he just trying to protect someone else? How far does this all go? I guess there’s a reason why The Fugitive was nominated for Best Picture while this one languishes in cable rerun world. (Where, ironically, it usually follows airings of The Fugitive!) The plane crash sequence is exciting though it’s obviously model work. By contrast, the train crash in The Fugitive was real and only the shot of Ford leaping off was a composite. Some of the other major set pieces involve a shootout in a cemetery and Mark swinging from a roof to a moving train. Jerry Goldsmith scored this film and he introduces a heroic action motif that he would use again in Star Trek: Insurrection later in the year (and yes, I noticed!).

I say it in every other review: it’s a miracle any movie gets made and released, let alone a good one. The Fugitive is Hollywood doing what it does best: cast and crew firing on all cylinders, taking a good story and telling it in an engaging way. Chain Reaction, on the other hand, is more of a potboiler, and proves how difficult it is for a director to make lightning strike twice. And U.S. Marshals shows what can happen when you take a simple story and needlessly complicate it.

“I didn’t kill my wife!”
“I don’t care!” (The original line was “That isn’t my problem!”)

13 comments:

tryanmax said...

The original line was “That isn’t my problem!”

Glad they changed it. One of the trailers finished with that exchange, and that just sells the whole film. It tells you everything you need to know about Jones's character. Gerard's job is just to stop Kimball, and the open simplicity of their relationship is far more compelling than any secret-twin plot twist.

I think there was another trailer where they use another Gerard line, something like "I'm not trying to solve a puzzle here." Not as pointed, but it reveals the same thing.

Speaking of lines used in the trailer, no one rattles off a list like Tommy Lee Jones. "I want...a search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, and doghouse."

ScottDS said...

tryanmax -

I've only seen the main trailer for the film. E! used to air a show called Coming Attractions (pre-Internet) and I vaguely recall seeing the trailer for the first time during that broadcast. I must've only been 10 years old but as I said above about the film, I was just transfixed by it. I don't recall the last trailer for a film of this type that elicited that type of reaction.

Of course, it helps that I was only 10! And it doesn't help that Hollywood doesn't make a lot of these mid-budget thrillers anymore. (One reason why director Andrew Davis doesn't do much nowadays.)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks for the article! These were an interesting three films. They were similar in many ways, but The Fugitive was by far the superior of the three ultimately. It just came together better.

BTW, I agree completely with tryanmax about Tommy Lee Jones.

Voz said...

I've seen and enjoyed most of Andrew Davis' films...even The Final Terror which I just happened to see recently...Under Siege (arguably Seagal's best film), The Fugitive, The Package, The Guardian are my favorites of his. I have yet to see Code of Silence but it's on my list. I recently watched The Fugitive and was just as impressed by it now as I was when I saw it back around 1995 (my parents didn't let me watch it right away). Chain Reaction was eh...as to using the same cast...it's mentioned on his IMDB page about how I think 9 actors from Under Siege were in the Fugitive and he worked with Jones, Pantoliano, and 5 or 6 others on a regular basis.
And don't ever argue with the big dog...the big dog is always right!

ScottDS said...

Voz -

I never saw The Final Terror. He also directed A Perfect Murder which has actually been airing on TV recently and the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Collateral Damage which I've also never seen but a friend of mine (a big Arnold fan) hated it.

Some people get tired of seeing the same actors appear in a director's films (David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence being a current example) but I like it. From Preston Sturges and John Ford back in the day to Wes Anderson and Kevin Smith today, I always thought it was a cool thing, like inviting your friends over for a big party every two years.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

You're welcome! That The Fugitive came together at all is a minor miracle considering all the changes they were making on the spot.

Voz said...

I think the thing that worked for Davis and his cadre of friends acting in his movies is that they are background characters that fill essential roles but aren't in the spotlight...the exception is Tommy Lee Jones who was the main character in 3 of his films, the other actors had bit parts but they were effective and gave realism to those parts...like the one guy being a former cop playing a cop...it lends authenticity...same with Dennis Farina playing a cop...he'd been a cop and so it wasn't a stretch of the imagination to see him actually saying and doing the things he said and did.

ScottDS said...

Voz -

Good point re: background roles.

Kosala, the aforementioned real cop, passed away just last year. Interesting life he had.

Kit said...

re The Fugitive, you are right.

The characters feel real. We find ourselves rooting for both Ford and Gerard. Gerard's team is likable because of great dialogue and acting.

The plot, though a tad complex, is simple enough to grasp the basics.

It's been a few years since I saw Marshals but I remember it being nowhere near as good as The Fugitive. Marshals was Fugitive without any of the stuff that made Fugitive a fun and enjoyable ride (besides Jones & crew). We didn't care about Snipes. We didn't care about the government mystery. We didn't care about anything or anyone except maybe Jones & crew.

And good point about the side characters, especially those who are law enforcement:
In The Fugitive the always cops look professional, even the cops who arrested Kimble aren't necessarily crooked or idiotic, they are just wrong and maybe a tad too proud to admit it. Apparently, Marshals needs the local cops to be morons.

ScottDS said...

Kit -

Yeah, in a movie like this there's a difference between antagonists who are simply doing their job (like the cops in The Fugitive) and antagonists who go out of their way to be "evil."

Tennessee Jed said...

I have to be hones. The Fugitive ranks among my very favorite films of all time. The train wreck scene, the leap into the reservoir, and the acting was damned good. It is one of those film that just sucks me in, whenever I surf into it. U.S Marshals was a very credible "sequel".

ScottDS said...

Jed -

It's one of my favorite films as well. Definitely in my top 20 (to the extent that I have a "top" anything). :-)

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