The most surprising aspect of The Fugitive, a supremely clever and exciting update of the old ’60s TV series, is that it isn’t just a high-powered summer blockbuster. It’s something cannier (and rarer): a suspense thriller rooted in character. The director, Andrew Davis, knows that today’s viewers crave a tireless kinetic onslaught. He made last year’s Steven Seagal hit, the derivative but remarkably proficient Under Siege, and he has packed The Fugitive with fights, chases, vehicular explosions, and ingeniously choreographed suspense scenes. Yet Davis, who once pulled off the considerable feat of getting a compelling performance out of Chuck Norris (in the 1985 police drama Code of Silence), also respects the audience’s intelligence. The Fugitive is proof, if any were needed, that a thriller is more thrilling when we can actually believe our eyes — something that barely happened once in, say, Cliffhanger.

Harrison Ford, taking on the role first played on television by David Janssen, is Dr. Richard Kimble, a Chicago vascular surgeon unjustly convicted of murdering his wife. On the way to prison, a bus carrying Kimble and several other felons gets into a freak accident, and Kimble is able to escape. He slips back into Chicago and attempts to find the real killer — a mysterious one-armed man — all the while eluding the efforts of Deputy U.S. Marshall Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), who is just as obsessed with bringing this fugitive to justice as Kimble is with clearing his own name.

The movie, in other words, is about two chases, two suspense plots running on parallel — and finally convergent — tracks. Kimble and Gerard spend the entire film on opposite sides of the law. Before long, though, we realize we’re rooting for both of them; they’re both protagonists, united in brains, dedication, superior gamesmanship. The film’s breathless momentum springs from their jaunty competitive urgency. Kimble, who rents a grungy basement apartment and goes undercover at Cook County Hospital to search through the prosthetics-lab records (he hopes he’ll discover the killer there), is as lithe as a cat burglar, always improvising, investigating, leaping into view and then back into the shadows. Gerard can’t quite nab him, yet with a crack surveillance team at his disposal he remains perilously close behind. The movie becomes an existential hide-and-seek contest, a paranoid comedy of missed connections.

Davis, in a shrewd move, gets most of the body-slamming heroics out of the way early on. Kimble, once free, is pursued through the woods, through drainage pipes, and finally to the edge of an enormous dam, at which point he has two choices: He can give himself up or take a daredevil leap that makes the one in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid look like hopscotch. Kimble, naturally, elects to jump, and Ford doesn’t make the choice look any easier than it would be for you or me.

Throughout the movie, we’re wired into Harrison Ford’s emotions. He doesn’t actually have that much dialogue, but the fear, calculation, and resolve that pass across his face are as eloquent as most actors’ spoken words. Ford may be the only movie star alive who’s as convincing playing a scholarly, compassionate physician as he is beating a subway goon into submission. We can believe it when Kimble, in the hospital, risks discovery in order to save a child’s life, because his furious desire to find his wife’s killer springs, in part, from the same impulse: a doctor’s instinctive revolt against death. Ford humanizes conventional heroics. And Tommy Lee Jones, who has always been one of our most eccentrically forceful actors (he had a kinky, debonair magnetism in JFK), finally has a role that could make him a major star. With his wormy, pock-marked face, dead eyes, and private smile, Jones can seem the soul of malevolence, yet here he relaxes his image by treating his own hard, obsessional nature as a running joke. As Gerard, Jones is all hyperactive mind, all will; he’s a man on permanent fast-forward. The lightning efficiency with which he orders his assistants around seems slightly mad, but it also makes you want to applaud, since it’s the only way he has of catching Kimble. As the movie goes on, Gerard begins to sense that Kimble is innocent, and this only heightens his fervor. He’s a law-enforcement robot, programmed for justice.

The two men pursue their ends with such vastly different styles that the film’s elemental cat-and-mouse design begins to seem witty. It helps that the script, by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy, reveals a generous tangle of surprises; unlike In the Line of Fire, this isn’t a movie that telegraphs its entire narrative design within 20 minutes. And Davis has an unusually intimate visual style for an action director. His dynamic, roving camera keeps leaning into the actors’ faces, and the more it gazes the more they reveal. The Fugitive is hardly Hitchcock — it never taps our emotions in a way that threatens to transcend the action — but it’s a mainstream thriller made with conviction, intelligence, and heat. In Hollywood, that used to be called professionalism. These days, it’s rare enough to look like artistry. A-

The Fugitive
  • Movie
  • 130 minutes