U.S. Marshals Ending Explained: Silly Twists Within Silly Twists

It's probably fair to say that when "The Fugitive" came out in 1993, people weren't exactly demanding a big screen version of the '60s show; even the director and star said they'd never seen it. Even so, the gripping, intelligent thriller for grown-ups became a box office smash and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, the first TV adaptation to compete for the big prize.

The movie was a satisfyingly old-school nail-biter with its fair share of spectacular set pieces, but the highlight was the battle of wits between two very human opponents. Harrison Ford, just a few years after riding into the sunset as Indiana Jones, played a far more down-to-earth protagonist as a grieving doctor framed for his wife's murder, while Tommy Lee Jones won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as the dogged lawman on his trail.

Despite the film's resounding success, it felt very much a standalone movie and I never got the sense that anyone was clamoring for a sequel. That may be why "U.S. Marshals," released five years later, was met with something of a shrug. Tommy Lee Jones and his team returned for a routine conspiracy thriller — this time they're hunting Wesley Snipes — and the whole thing coasts along nicely without ever coming close to emulating the heights of its predecessor. It's one of those movie equivalents to a bowl of chicken noodle soup: Undemanding and comforting fare for a duvet day, or an evening when you can't find anything better to watch. 

Now, 24 years later and in keeping with the generally unasked-for nature of "The Fugitive" movies, I'm here with the "U.S. Marshals" explainer article you never knew you needed.

So what happens in U.S. Marshals again?

"U.S. Marshals" opens with some shady spy antics involving a briefcase in a parking garage beneath the U.N. building in New York. The handover goes badly and two agents are killed.

Six months later, we're in Chicago where we meet tow truck driver Mark Warren (Wesley Snipes). After a traffic accident where he is found carrying a concealed weapon, a fingerprint match identifies him as the fugitive on the run for the murders. He cries frame-up, but nobody's listening.

We also renew acquaintances with U.S. Marshal Chief Deputy Sam Gerard (Jones) and his team: Outspoken Cosmo Renfro (Joe Pantoliano), dependable Bobby Briggs (Daniel Roebuck), fresh-faced Noah Newman (Tom Wood), plus shrewd newcomer Savannah Cooper (LaTanya Richardson). After a successful drug bust, Gerard accompanies his suspect on a midnight con air flight from Memphis to New York.

Warren is also on the plane, and narrowly avoids an assassination attempt by another prisoner with a James Bond-style pen gun. The guy misses his shot and blows a hole in the fuselage instead, causing the pilot to make an emergency landing in the backwoods. Warren makes his escape and Gerard is quickly on the case, but a team of suits from the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) insists that he takes Special Agent John Royce (Robert Downey Jr.) along on the manhunt too.

The trail leads to New York, where Warren, aka Roberts, aka Sheridan, is revealed as a former Black Ops Marine and is trying to figure out who framed him for killing the two men. Gerard has also arrived at the conclusion that an international conspiracy is in play and heads for the Big Apple as well. Can he reach Sheridan before his enemies finish the job?

What exactly is the conspiracy in U.S. Marshals?

The central conspiracy in "U.S. Marshals" is pretty vague. Someone in the U.S. Government is selling secrets to the Chinese regarding how the Americans might react if China invades Taiwan, and the middle man for these shadowy deals is Xian Chen (Michael Paul Chan), an agent for the other side. It's as if the screenwriters thought, "Well, the Cold War's over, and 'True Lies' and 'Executive Decision' just did Islamic terrorists, so... how about something involving China instead?"

Sheridan, working as a freelancer for the government, was hired as a bagman without any knowledge of what was in the briefcase. The DSS boss found out about the deal and sent two agents to intercept the handover, resulting in Sheridan killing them in self-defense. The masterminds behind the treachery are DSS men Frank Burrows (Rick Snyder) and Gerard's new pal, John Royce, who planted Sheridan's fingerprints to make him the fall guy. Once Sheridan went on the run, they ensured Royce was assigned to the manhunt in order to kill him.

Burrows is the first conspirator unmasked after another failed handoff with Chen in a cemetery, where he is killed during a chaotic shootout. Obviously, there is more to it because Burrows is played by a generic character actor (sorry, Rick) and there are still about 30 minutes of the movie to go. Even so, I was wrong-footed when Royce was revealed as the real bad guy, probably because I'm so used to Downey Jr. as the self-sacrificing hero of Marvel nowadays.

The twist comes when Royce chases down Sheridan in a nursing home. Newman catches up and interrupts Royce just as he's about to kill the fugitive, execution-style. Royce turns and cold-bloodedly guns down Newman instead, and Sheridan escapes once again.

What is the deal with Royce's gun?

My pleasant surprise at the Royce reveal was quickly shattered by how stupid the next part is. I find it completely bizarre that the film's whole ending hinges on the make of gun that the various characters are waving around, but that's what it boils down to. Luckily, the Internet Movie Firearms Database is on hand to help those of us who can't tell their Glocks from their Colts out on this point.

When Gerard and Royce first meet, the Marshal asks the Special Agent if he's armed. Royce hands over a nickel-plated Taurus PT945, which Gerard mocks and tells him to get a Glock instead. We next see Royce's Taurus when he confronts Sheridan in a swamp, and this plot point is blink-and-you'll-miss-it: Sheridan snatches Royce's gun and shoots Gerard in the bulletproof vest with it. Royce then recovers the gun before Sheridan gets away.

Later, when Royce kills Newman, he's still using the Taurus. In the build-up to the scene, Sheridan is carrying a similar-looking pistol, which is a Colt. We never see or hear about that weapon again. After Royce shoots Newman with the Taurus, he later hands it over as evidence, claiming it was Sheridan's gun.

Gerard is now hellbent on avenging his teammate, and he and Royce track Sheridan to a container ship. Gerard and Sheridan battle it out before Royce shoots Sheridan, this time with a Glock.

Next, we see Sheridan in a hospital bed while Royce is outside in the hall, bagging the Taurus as evidence. Gerard arrives and examines the gun, noticing that the serial number has been filed off. Flashback to the earlier scene when he took the piss out of Royce's choice of gun... a nickel-plated Taurus, just like this one.

So let's get this straight...

As one of the men behind the conspiracy to sell state secrets to China, Royce gets himself assigned to the manhunt so he can silence Sheridan before he spills the beans, but is interrupted by Newman just as he's about to whack the witness. He uses his own gun (the Taurus) to shoot Newman before handing it in as evidence, rather than saying Sheridan disarmed him again and shot the marshal with it. Maybe he didn't think that excuse would fly twice? And at which point did he get a chance to file off the serial number?

It's not made entirely clear as the movie scrambles through the remaining plot twists towards the end. Whatever Royce is thinking at this late stage, trying to pass off his own gun (which the experienced and observant Gerard has not only seen but also commented on) as Sheridan's is a pretty risky ploy.

After Gerard has his flashback, which the film presents as some grand Keyser Sozer-ish moment, he asks to see Royce's Glock. Royce hands it over and Gerard performs a really obvious switcheroo, exchanging Royce's full clip for an empty one before leaving on the pretext of getting them both coffee. This gives Royce the chance to finish off Sheridan, but wouldn't you just know it? Gerard wasn't going for coffee at all, and shoots Royce dead in the final showdown. The good guys win, Sheridan is exonerated, and America's diplomatic relations with China remain intact. Hooray for the U.S. Marshals!