Time has a funny effect on great movies. Watching The Fugitive last night as the opening film for Champaign, Illinois’ 20th Annual Ebertfest was chance not only to catch up on a movie I hadn’t seen in at least a decade, but also to recapture the magic in a theater with an excited audience.
The effect, to be honest, is bittersweet. While my wife and I were thrilled to see this film again, I came to realize that such a movie was made for a theater and that the small screen just doesn’t do it justice. Andy Davis took what could have been just a simple-minded action throw-away and made it into something bigger, something smarter, something special and dare I say, something timeless.
The movie’s tension level is to be studied. Some directors get 10 minutes, 20 minutes tops. Davis winds up the tension in the first three minutes and it doesn’t let up for the next two hours, when the movie decompresses by Tommy Lee Jones: “Richard, I know you’re innocent!” How many directors can claim to have maintain tension that long?
The opening is a rapid-fire editing job that makes JFK look subtle by comparison. But it’s not a jumble of disconnected images, it is a master craft of cinematic shorthand that establishes a problem quickly – a murder, an arrest and a piece of misinformation that leads to a man falsely convicted of murdering his wife. Perhaps if that man were played by anyone else, it might have seemed easy to dismiss, but it’s Harrison Ford, a national treasure and the close-ups during the interrogation set us on an emotional trek that we will follow for the rest of the film.
And then . . . that train wreck.
Rare is it that one scene has the power to thrill an audience who has seen the film over and over again. Rare is it that a movie builds tension based on characters, motivations and not simply a collusion of edited images. It’s exciting, and one of the great action scenes in film history. The Fugitive turns 25 this year and rare has there been an action film that is this exciting. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Bullet, Die Hard, Enter the Dragon, Jurassic Park or The Wild Bunch, this is a movie of pure filmmaking skill but also an eye on character, motivation and pure thrill.