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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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!”)