Historically, action movies don’t get a ton of respect when it comes time to give out honors to cinema’s best around this time every year. In particular, the Academy Awards ceremony has never been kind to the genre broadly dubbed “action-adventure” in terms of Best Picture wins. In the past tow or three decades, films like Dances With Wolves and Titanic may have some action elements to them, but are more universally known for their historical drama or romance aspects. So, why the lack of recognition? Why can’t expertly crafted genre movies like The Fugitive ever seem to get the respect they deserve?
I ask this after screening this barnburner of an action flick, which stars screen legends Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, again last night. You have sleek visuals, sharp editing (which was completed by no less than six individuals), pulsating soundtrack, strong performances and a script that, while still asking you to suspend your disbelief at times, is as air-tight as you can hope for. All those elements contribute to the film’s ability to wow the audience. It’s exciting, intense and, even if you are privy to the plot’s secrets, rarely without a dull moment. It’s the kind of movie that is without lofty moralistic goals or some pressing social issue to address. Instead, it’s just pure, unadulterated fun – a breed of action picture that have sadly fallen out of favor to make more room for gaudy, CGI-drenched monstrosities.
You can definitely trace The Fugitive and its box office success back to the granddaddy of all modern action movies, Die Hard. Quick cuts, snappy dialogue, well-adjusted villains who scare you with charm, a score that helps make the action on screen feel more urgent – all were built to surround a leading man that, in a departure from the over-muscled, robotically-acted days of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, had inescapable everyman qualities. It was a somewhat novel idea in 1988: an actual human being who needed to rely on quick thinking rather than brute strength in order to save the day. Ford’s Dr. Richard Kimble, on a mission to clear his name, came along five years later and was the focal point for a film that took an existing model that was already very popular and made it more efficient, gave it more momentum and, as a result, helped infuse each scene with even more tension.
There’s a wonderful opening sequence in The Fugitive that is deliriously fast-paced, dropping you off in the middle of a plot that’s already going 100 miles per hour. Mixing ominous overhead shots of a nighttime Chicago skyline with washed-out footage of a murder being committed, this is a movie that grabs you and never lets go. After that, the script never gives Kimble a moment to breath, ducking cops and anyone who might recognize him at almost every turn. He’s being pursued by a United States Marshal who is an absolute bloodhound of an investigator, having fever dreams about his dead wife that seem like they belong in a David Lynch film and, oh yeah, don’t forget about this twisted murder plot that he’s trying to solve by himself at the same time. At one point, a key supporting character puts forth the notion that Kimble is the smartest man in the movie and, as a viewer, you never doubt that for a second.
The Fugitive was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but only came away with one win: Best Supporting Actor for Tommy Lee Jones. Of the six categories that it lost in, one was for Best Picture, where it went up against The Piano, In The Name Of The Father, The Remains of the Day and the eventual winner, Schindler’s List. All are respected films and I agree that, out of that group, Spielberg’s World War II tale ought to have come away with the distinction. However, every title in that group except The Fugitive would probably be looked at as more “prestigious,” setting up this beautifully made piece of action fare as the token “fan favorite” and likely didn’t get taken very seriously by Academy voters.
This discrepancy in how certain genres are treated come awards season reminds me of what happened to The Dark Knight nearly ten years ago. It too was a box office phenomenon that balanced action-adventure pyrotechnics with compelling characters that played off a Batman who has never felt more vulnerable as a hero. I even remember a newspaper headline from that time period that read: “Is ‘The Dark Knight Really The Best Film Ever Made?” – an article that was published shortly after it shot up to the top of IMDB’s overall rankings. It too got several Oscar nods, but missed out on one for Best Picture, a
mistake turn of events which led to the decision to double the amount of nominees possible in that category. However, despite that move, it still feels like expertly-made action-adventure films continue to be on the outside looking in when it comes to the movie industry’s inner circle. The names and places have changed but, sadly, the story remains the same.
Perhaps it’s a fool’s errand to imagine a world in which “popcorn” fare gets recognized a something more than just a pleasant diversion at the cinema, no matter how much awe-inspiring technical skill goes into making something as good as The Fugitive. Despite the lack of overt prestige factor when compared across genres, it’s fascinating how well this film in particular has held up so well over time, mostly because there’s nothing extra to the plot. No love interest for Kimble (although, how attractive would that have been for audiences to see Ford’s character shacking up with another woman in such a short time after his wife was murdered?), no unnecessary backstories given to any of the supporting characters either. Jones’ U.S. Marshal character is sort of an enigma the entire way through the film – we don’t know where he comes from or what he’s seen. All we know is that he’s got an insatiable thirst for tracking the good doctor down and bringing a supposedly dangerous fugitive to justice.
To that end, Kimble is also a man shrouded in mystery. There’s no sappy justification for his good-guy demeanor, something that nearly gets him caught at least five or six times throughout the picture. Nor is there any real fleshing out of his character beyond the fact that he’s out to avenge the death of his wife and, you know what, sometimes that’s all you need. Just a man on a mission, with just enough physical strength and an ability to think quickly that helps get him through many plot turns that seem to lead him into the jaws of certain peril. If this kind of excitement and breathless storytelling is seen as inferior to other more self-important dramas, then good riddance. The Fugitive can not only teach aspiring writers, directors and editors so much about what constitutes great filmmaking, but also retains the power to enthrall a legion of new fans who continue to enjoy its electrifying pleasures, which is more than I can say for many a Best Picture winner.