What more could you possibly want from an action movie? One of the greatest action stars of all time, in a cat-and-mouse game of wits against an equally great actor, a film of nonstop action and suspense and thrilling moments, even a cameo appearance from a young Julianne Moore! The Fugitive is masterful.

There’s a fantastic moment, just over an hour into the film, in which titular fugitive Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford, the ne plus ultra of middle-aged action stardom) has his leg trapped in bulletproof glass. The federal marshal chasing him, (a still young Tommy Lee Jones, the equal ne plus ultra of film law enforcement) has fired bullets at Kimble but they’ve all gotten stuck in the glass. We see him mouth the words “Son of a bitch” with muted audio. This film is so smart, so well-crafted, that we don’t need to hear the words. We don’t even really need to see him mouth them. The two actors are so good here that the single glance between the two of them tells the whole story of this cat-and-mouse game.

Actors of this caliber are also convenient as shorthand for character. There’s stuff we see on screen that tells us lots about these characters, to be sure, but Harrison Ford can convey the sincerity, the kind-heartedness, the intelligence, the desperation of Dr. Richard Kimble without anything written down to the script here. Tommy Lee Jones can show us the wiliness, experience, and craftiness of US Marshal Samuel Gerard in mere glances and small moments.

It’s easy to see why this film has become such a familiar stalwart of basic cable. This is the rare kind of movie where you can pick up watching it at any moment, without any knowledge of what’s happened, and pretty much get the gist of what’s happening, in order to watch all the way to the end. It’s episodic and measured in a way that almost seems perfect for strategically placed commercial breaks. Though this is obviously not something that is necessarily a consideration in filmmaking, there is something to be said for a film that allows for that kind of pacing, that allows you to pause for a bathroom break.

Based on a 1960s TV series (though, to be clear – there’s nothing here that requires knowledge of that show), The Fugitive, as directed by Andrew Davis, clearly understands exactly what type of film it’s meant to be at every moment. The supporting characters, played by actors like Joe Pantoliano, fill out the cast memorably, but without distracting from the core story. The action of the film is directed in a muscular style that is as equally appropriate to the action as the graceful style of the dramatic moments.

Also worth mentioning here is the score by James Newton Howard, an efficient one that appropriately heightens the melodrama of the film. It’s a classical Hitchcockian score, deploying high screens at moments of great tension and big brass punches during action sequences. It’s not the most subtle or surprising score, but for a film like this it fits perfectly.

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