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'The Fugitive': A Thriller With Smarts : The review: The jolting adventure film is packed with tension, energy and stunts that are well thought-out.

August 06, 1993|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Dr. Richard Kimble never quits, never rests, barely even stops to catch his breath, and neither does the film that capitalizes on his dilemma. "The Fugitive" (citywide) is a super-adrenalized stemwinder, a crisp and jolting melodrama that screws the tension so pitilessly tight it does everything but squeak.

Laced though it is with breakneck chases and eye-widening stunts, "The Fugitive" paradoxically succeeds because of qualities like intelligence and wit not always associated with thrillers. Director Andrew Davis (working from a sharp script by "Die Hard's" Jeb Stuart and David Twohy) has done more than pack pounding energy into every sequence. He has paid attention to the credibility of all the film's characters, lesser mortals included, involving us even more completely in the action in the process.

And Davis has been fortunate in having as his leads two actors who could not have been better cast. Even in a season that has already seen John Malkovich take on Clint Eastwood in "In the Line of Fire," the duel between Harrison Ford's agonizingly on-the-run Dr. Kimble and Tommy Lee Jones' fearsomely implacable Sam Gerard, a true Nemesis of mythological proportions, is a confrontation to remember.

Based on the 1960s TV series of the same name (created by the film's co-executive producer Roy Huggins), "The Fugitive" hews closely to its source's basic plot line, which in turn owed a lot to Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," a debt the movie repays by staging a chase in a storm drain that nicely echoes the novel's famous Paris sewers sequence.

In a move that is typical of its relentless pacing, "The Fugitive" (rated PG-13 for murder and other action sequences in an adventure setting) gets going while most movies are still pulling on their boots. Intricately intercutting edgy black-and-white footage of the doctor's wife, Helen (Sela Ward), getting brutally murdered in their Chicago apartment with color scenes that both precede and follow the crime, the film neatly reveals the way things stand before the credits have fully rolled.

After spending the early part of the evening with his wife at a charity fund-raiser, Dr. Kimble, a prominent surgeon with a hell of a good life, is called to assist at an emergency operation. When he returns home, it is to a dying wife and a fierce battle with the one-armed assailant who has murdered her. But the killer has left no traces of his presence, Mrs. Kimble's skin is under the doctor's fingernails, and a fat insurance policy is under his name. The vice of circumstantial evidence inexorably tightens, and though the doctor croaks to the police, "You find this man," no one in authority believes the one-armed killer even exists.

Tried, convicted and sentenced to death, an understandably distraught Dr. Kimble is on his way to prison when a fracas erupts on the bus transporting him behind the walls. Then, in a sequence (overseen by cracker-jack stunt coordinator Terry Leonard) guaranteed to leave audiences gasping, a massive seven-car freight train (yes, they used a real one) plows directly into the bus, creating more than enough chaos to allow Kimble to escape.

Smart, resourceful and determined to use his unexpected freedom to find his wife's killer, Kimble would appear to be a fair bet to make it all happen. But when the officer assigned to track him down turns out to be Deputy U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard, a lawman whose obsession with getting his man makes the Royal Canadian Mounted Police look like loafers, the whole situation changes.

Someone who last smiled when Grant took Richmond, Gerard is nerveless, ruthless, harder working then his bloodhounds and more coldblooded than any killer. Jones, who has made a career of playing variants of this type, nails the role shut here, bringing a thrilling urgency and focus to Gerard and his way of continually barking out complex orders that is key to giving the movie its compelling, unforgiving pace.

Similarly Ford, who has been rugged and upstanding innumerable times, calls on his most distinctive trait, his vulnerability, to animate Dr. Kimble. Rare among action heroes, Ford is believable both in control and in trouble, someone audiences can simultaneously look up to and worry about. And with Jones' Gerard on his tail, it is no wonder the poor doctor looks so overwrought it seems he's going to have a coronary before he can manage to clear his name.

Jones has been in two of Davis' previous movies, the underappreciated "The Package" and the Steven Seagal-starring "Under Siege," but "The Fugitive" is the best of the lot and marks Davis' coming of age as a crackling good action director. He knows how to make the implausible plausible, an especially valuable talent when this film's far-from-clear explanation of what actually happened in Dr. Kimble's apartment finally unfolds.

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