“The Fugitive” Proves Great Action Movies Need More Recognition

The Fugitive (1993)

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 PianoIn The Name Of The FatherThe 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.

“The Breakfast Club:” Still A Breathtakingly Honest Teen Movie

Image via Universal

There’s a part of me that’s wowed by how contemporary The Breakfast Club still feels, more than 30 years after it first hit the big screen in 1985. It’s not only the best movie that John Hughes, arguably the most authentic chronicler of teenage angst in the history of cinema, but it’s by far and away his most honest. The script, whose barely-contained contempt for adult figures who condescend to the kids depicted in the film, gets the feelings and attitudes just right and, although I missed its initial theatrical run by nearly 15 years, there’s no doubt that watching it again made more than a few memories of those awkward, pimple-covered years flood back into my mind.

The characters almost blended together for me, in the sense that they represented a different manifestation of the same basic human instinct. Whether it’s the prom queen, the brain, the jock, the weirdo or the criminal, all five of the main characters retreat inside of these comfortable facades, each unwilling to shed those shells of armor and be vulnerable not just with other people, but with themselves as well. If it doesn’t fit a particular image, then it doesn’t belong as part of their own personal brand, one that with social media now exists outside of the confines of a high school’s hallways. What the screenplay does so brilliantly here is that, in situations and with believable dialogue, helps strip away those personas, piece by piece, until you’re left with five warm bodies who are basically the same person:  scared, alone and, above all else, craving a real connection and love from someone in their lives.

There are several instances where certain lines could’ve bordered on cheap or hackneyed, with really broad setups giving way to breathtakingly cutting responses, which in turn give the viewers a moment of real emotional honesty. For example, when Claire kisses Bender on the neck in the library and he turns to her with a face of utter disbelief on his face, we’re right there with him. “Why’d you do that?” Bender asks; “‘Cause I knew you wouldn’t,” she responds, which is a really simple yet really effective way to verbalize what Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald did so well in communicating to the audience via body language. Despite his testosterone-fueled arrogance that is almost shoved down the audience’s throat for the better part of the film’s running time, it turns out he doesn’t know how to react when a pretty girl actually shows affection for him. Her angle is even more interesting: is she really that into the bad boy facade of Bender, or is she just finding a way of expressing her budding womanhood that she knows will draw negative attention from her parents, who see her more as a pawn in their own game of psychological warfare than a daughter with thoughts and feelings and ambitions?

It really is a complex relationship to dissect, perhaps even more so upon a fresh viewing of the film. There’s a sense that, for both Bender and Claire, the physical attraction that they share for one another isn’t the only thing that’s at play here. In the first third of the picture, she uses terms like “nauseating” to describe him, yet is totally and utterly drawn to him as well, perhaps more for what he stands for than what he actually could mean to her. A way to get back at her mother and father; a way to shed the prissy “good girl” image once and for all; a way to, in her own way, experience something she considers dangerous, if for no other reason than it’s incredibly exciting for a girl who doesn’t seem to have much to get excited about in life. All of these through lines, all of this incredibly dense character development, that is communicated by a few simple lines – that is the genius of Hughes as a writer.

Another illuminating moment comes during the infamous “makeover” portion of the film, when Claire decides to make Allison more presentable and, in a certain way, more conformist to traditional beauty standards of the period. The character of Allison predates any real goth-era popularity in terms of high school fashion statements, never mind the thick eyeliner and unabashed all-black trappings that were a common sight next to lockers at my former high school, therefore it’s not necessarily surprising when she opts to shed her look for something entirely different. The following is the exchange that the two young women have before the recluse’s big reveal to the others in the library:

Claire: You know, you look a lot better without all that black shit under your eyes.
Allison Reynolds: Hey, I like all that black shit… Why are you being so nice to me?
Claire: Because you’re letting me.

Once again, it’s an unflinchingly honest moment that I think I appreciate more every time I see the movie. There are some who claim that this is the point where Allison “sells out,” but I disagree entirely. When Claire is dismissive of her eyeliner technique, the first thing out of her mouth in response is that, no, I like it that way. The follow-up question, which is one Allison probably never thought she’d have the opportunity to ask, is a query that cuts to the heart of the teenage condition, one that is distrustful of those who show kindness without an accompanying ulterior motive. The answer, which points to Allison’s willingness to let her guard down and accept love and affection from another stranger, works almost as a life hack for any teen who might be watching. I mean, isn’t that yearning to belong, to feel integrated with everyone else, one of the universal truths of being a teenager? Therefore, I don’t see the makeover as a betrayal of Allison’s character; instead, I see it as a triumph of growth and maturation, leading to an absolutely beautiful moment and contributes to the poignancy of the film’s finale.

In general, the movie is an absolute roller coaster of emotion. From the absurdist hilarity of the weed smoking and dancing scenes to the horror of Allison’s apparent rape confession to the abject horror of Paul Gleason’s Principal Vernon taunting a terrified Bender inside a claustrophobic storage room, there’s never a dull moment, nor is there a note that really rings false here. Those of us who graduated a long time ago may only remember our high school years in a sort of hazy, angst-riddled highlight reel, but we all remember exactly what it felt like, even if it takes  a little bit of prodding to get there. Hughes speaks to our inner teenager and, for at least a moment, rekindles that kind of shared emotional experience that is easily buried by the burdens of adulthood. In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions, The Breakfast Club is still the most honest high school movie ever committed to celluloid.