Warner Bros. // 1993 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // March 26th, 2007
A murdered wife. A one-armed man. An obsessed detective. The chase begins.
During the summer of 1993, The Fugitive stormed into theaters like a runaway freight train, delivering high tension and tight pacing to the tune of $200 million in box office receipts and a stunning tally of seven Oscar nominations. An original latter-day prototype of the action thriller, the film captivated moviegoers' attentions and became one of the "films you must see" during its theatrical run. Now, a decade after its release, can the film still thrill, especially in the new Blu-ray high-definition format?
Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford, Hollywood Homicide) has found his life is turning inside out. Returning home from a swanky party, he discovers his wife (Sela Ward, The Day After Tomorrow) has been shot and is dying on the bedroom floor while an unknown one-armed assailant is trying to flee the scene. But Kimble's despondency over the loss of his spouse is only the beginning of his grief -- he's tried and wrongly convicted of her murder. En route to incarceration, the bus carrying Kimble is hijacked by other convicts, and crashes and tumbles into the path of an oncoming train. Kimble escapes, and soon learns a relentless U.S. Marshal, Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones, Volcano), is hot on his trail. Kimble must now use his wits and wiles to evade Gerard while also determining who was behind his wife's murder.
As gripping as The Fugitive plays (and it does), it's interesting to understand that its script underwent a dozen revisions and was still incomplete when principal shooting began. David Twohy (Pitch Black) and Jeb Stuart (Die Hard) were credited with the screenplay, yet it has been clearly stated that much of the particulars were being developed just prior to filming or were improvised on the set. Harrison Ford showed early interest in the film and exhibited faith in director Andrew Davis (Under Siege) and the writers, who granted the star full license to interject his wants and needs throughout the production. (The accompanying documentary, On the Run with the Fugitive, reveals this aspect of Ford's level of input quite clearly.) Tommy Lee Jones was cast with Ford's consent, having exhibited a similar level of near-crazed determination as the manic ex-SEAL in Under Siege. The film, then, centers on Ford and Jones, two men in pursuit of their respective truths, each egged on by the endurance and ingenuity of the other. Both actors insisted upon providing impromptu responses and reactions to much of the scripted events and dialog, each capable of losing himself in his character and delivering an honest characterization that transcended mere performance.
But, as free flowing as the production was, it was also very tightly plotted with several action set pieces on the docket, most notably the massive train derailment. Despite the fact that current day process shot techniques and CGI sleight of hand were not available in 1992, the film surpasses many modern productions through the absolute realism of its practical effects. The train wreck was a full-scale affair that was allowed only a single take (for obvious reasons) captured by numerous cameras, and it still packs a punch today. But the true "star element" of the film is its frantic pacing and claustrophobic execution, with Gerard and his men always just a half-step behind the fleeing Kimble. While the plot does take some liberties in plot advancement and convenient happenstance, the majority of the pursuit is very closely co-located, a most thrilling scene occurring while Kimble is evading Gerard within the county jail facility with mere feet separating the two. Overall, the chase maintains the uneasy feel of a clutching hand just barely missing the film's protagonist victim.
As a film, The Fugitive is reasonably faithful to the 1963 television series upon which it is based. On the small screen, David Janssen (Harry O) portrayed Dr. Kimble, a pediatrician, an intelligent and thoughtful man. He leaves his home following an argument with his wife and, upon returning, accidentally strikes a one-armed man with his car. The man runs off as Kimble makes his way through the already-open door to his home, discovering his murdered spouse. Wrongfully convicted for the murder and sentenced to death, Kimble, escorted by Police Lieutenant Phillip Gerard (Barry Morse, Space: 1999), is placed on a train en route to the prison where he will be executed. The train derails and Kimble escapes. On the lam, Kimble struggles to stay out of the clutches of Lt. Gerard while attempting to find the evidence -- and the one-armed man -- that will clear him of the wrongful conviction. During each weekly episode, Kimble weaved in and out of society, taking on odd jobs and providing assistance to others, careful not to reveal his identity until he can solve the mystery of his wife's death. In a compressed fashion, this, too, is the path the film version takes, and does so with appropriate success. (The sequel, U.S. Marshals brings back Jones as Gerard, but replaces Kimball's character with another fugitive, played by Wesley Snipes.)
The Fugitive gained Warner Brothers' promise of release in both high-definition variants, here in Sony's proprietary Blu-ray technology. While the HD DVD disc featured a VC-1 encoded transfer, this early Blu-ray release utilized an MPEG-2 encode. The results, however, look virtually identical. The film does show its age, both in terms of film stock and production design. The overall look is drab and diffused. The production design likely adopted this look to underscore Kimball's dire situation. Therefore, don't expect this one to pop and sparkle like many newer films do when given the high-definition treatment. The image is detailed, though, and many of the cityscape scenes look impressive. Textures are evident yet not to the dimensional level as some other high definition transfers (skin textures don't reveal all the pores we often expect to see, not even on Tommy Lee Jones's mug). Nonetheless, the film looks better than the standard definition release, and maintains a natural film look from beginning to end.
The audio is less impressive than some more recent Blu-ray releases, offering a slightly improved Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix encoded at 640kbps. The track makes decent use of the surround channels and presents a soundstage that's suitable, but not as expansive as we've come to enjoy from the format. Action sequences benefit from discrete sounds and the well-managed low end, yet other scenes fall a bit flat. The dialog remains clear for the duration, even through the more active moments.
For extras, this Blu-ray release includes all the elements previously included in the 2001 special edition DVD. These begin with the running commentary by Davis with Tommy Lee Jones joining him via a phone and video link. Davis dominates the track and provides plenty of information. Jones offers up a rare comment or two, more satisfied to listen to Davis and watch the film. Incidentally, a minor extra, Director & Star Introduction, shows video of Davis linking Jones up for the beginning of the commentary track. Featurettes follow, beginning with the 23-minute On the Run with the Fugitive, an enjoyable and reasonably informative look at the production. The 9-minute Anatomy of a Train Wreck provides an on set look at the massive action piece; it's short but satisfying. The film's theatrical trailer wraps up the bonus material.
Despite all the precise acting and careful plotting, this version of The Fugitive contains a severe gaffe at the 18:57 mark. After the train has wrecked, a crewmember is plainly visible in the right-hand section of the frame amid the flame and twisted axles. In the print utilized for the 2001 special edition DVD, the crewman's head was digitally removed; in this high-definition transfer, the unaltered 1997 master was apparently utilized. If you're a completist, this goof may satisfy you, but if you're a purist for the use of best possible elements in the mastering of high-definition discs, you might be less than thrilled.
Despite its age in the often contentious and always advancing action genre, The Fugitive still entertains, smartly and solidly. Although it might not dazzle from the high-definition perspective, it nonetheless succeeds in delivering an improved viewing and listening experience.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio Commentary by Tommy Lee Jones and Director Andrew Davis
* Featurette: Derailed: Anatomy of a Train Wreck
* Featurette: On the Run with the Fugitive
* Theatrical trailer