25 Years Later, 'The Fugitive' Features Harrison Ford's Last Truly Great Performance

Conventional wisdom suggests that Harrison Ford does not enjoy interviews. There's plenty of evidence of him getting less and less interested in the dog-and-pony-show style of public-relations journalism. Even though he's been more present in the public eye thanks to playing Han Solo once again in Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, Ford's no less terse in his responses, to the point where his most beloved films often inspire in him a dismissiveness bordering on nearly hilarious cruelty when confronted by fans, as in this clip from Conan O'Brien's NBC show.

But it's not just in interviews. Though two of his most iconic characters know their way around a raffish turn of phrase, Harrison Ford's last great performance came courtesy of a character who communicates with his eyes far more than he does with his mouth. As improbable as it was for a film based on a TV show in the mid-1990s to garner both critical praise and Oscar nominations, it's equally improbable that we haven't seen Ford get any better than when he played the wrongly accused Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, 25 years ago today.

The High Point of an Old Trend

In the same way that cinematic universes are an unstoppable trend in Hollywood now, so too did it seem like the film industry was just always going to be cannibalizing the TV industry for new feature-length ideas in the 1990s. This decade includes a large number of movies that were inspired by or adapted from TV shows; everything from The X-Files: Fight The Future to The Flintstones to Car 54, Where Are You? got the cinematic treatment. Rare was the case when a film seemed to improve upon its source material. Only a few of these films endure in one way or the other, mostly as punchlines in various actors' filmographies. On the flip side, we're just a week removed from the sixth entry in a franchise that began in 1996 with Brian de Palma's Mission: Impossible, and we're now a quarter-century from a film that had plenty of memorable quotes and moments that have seeped into popular culture.

But, for good or ill, most of the reasons why we remember and cherish The Fugitive aren't as immediately thanks to Harrison Ford's haunted lead performance. Just as in the 1960s TV show, the setup of the film is that the well-to-do Dr. Richard Kimble has been wrongly accused and convicted of killing his wife, who he says was murdered by a one-armed man. Though we know from flashbacks that Kimble is telling the truth – in the film, he was called to his hospital to perform surgery and only arrived at his house to tussle with the killer after his wife was left for dead – every cop, lawyer, and other figure of authority who hears his story thinks he's full of it, which is why they're all after him after an action-packed escape from a prison transport.

The chief doubter is, for a while, Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), who enters the fray after Kimble's escaped and the largely not-very-smart prison guards realize that he probably didn't die in the fiery crash with a moving train. That leads Gerard on a Javert-like dogged quest to bring Kimble back to prison. Gerard's relatively flamboyant personality was instantly memorable; yes, in his first scene, he lists out all sorts of houses where Kimble might be hiding, but listen to the disdain in his voice when he emphasizes the word "Doctor" in Kimble's name. And just watch the flood of emotions that wash across Jones' face when Ford blurts out, "I didn't kill my wife!" to him in a large sewer pipe through which he's trying to escape. Jones' performance is generally wonderful, but it's the mix of bemusement, bewilderment, and defiance on his face and in his voice as he retorts "I don't care!" that won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

The Value of Not Being a Scene-Stealer

Ford, on the other hand, was not so lucky at the Oscars that year. 25 years later, it's even more surprising that The Fugitive garnered seven Academy Award nominations against competition like The Piano, Philadelphia, and Schindler's List, including Best Picture. Harrison Ford doesn't really do flashy performances; he has been memorable as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, among other iconic characters, but outside of the original Star Wars, when he came out of essentially nowhere, he's never been a scene-stealer.

In his massive career, Ford's only gotten one Oscar nomination, as the lead of Peter Weir's thriller Witness. Granted, since The Fugitive, Ford has largely been in films that aren't remotely as good as those from his glory days in the 1980s and early 1990s. It's a shame that Ford's not gotten an Oscar in his later years, but considering titles like Firewall, Hollywood Homicide, The Devil's Own, and Extraordinary Measures (remember, he works around the clock), it's not hard to see why he comes up short.

It's especially a shame to think that Ford could've gotten so much more credit for his work as Richard Kimble. Here, much more than in other recent films, you simply get to watch the lead character think a lot. Kimble has to rely on the kindness of strangers for much of the mid-section of The Fugitive, both before and after he's shaved off his beard and colored his hair to alter his appearance as much as possible. He speaks softly and infrequently here, only using as many words as he has to. Whether he's speaking with the woman renting out a room to him, to a one-armed convict he hopes is the one he tussled with on the night of his wife's murder, to a friendly colleague of his (a young Jane Lynch), to a pushy young ER doctor (a young Julianne Moore) or to Gerard himself, Kimble's introverted. It suits Ford well, as we get to watch him slowly piece together what happened to Kimble, why it happened to him, and how he can try to right this series of wrongs.

It's also to Ford's credit that he does his best to sell the finer details of how Richard Kimble lost his wife and found himself accused of the crime. The medical conspiracy concocted by writers Jeb Stuart and David Twohy barely hangs together – director Andrew Davis and his team of six (!) editors jump back and forth so much in the opening act that it only becomes clear on a re-watch that the clues to that conspiracy are embedded there. In short, Kimble's old pal Dr. Charles Nichols (Jeroen Krabbe) falsified medical research so that a major pharmaceutical company, Devlin MacGregor, could push forward a powerful new medicine; when Kimble realized that one of Nichols' associates was faking his research, he tried to expose it and became a liability to Nichols. The one-armed man was meant to just kill Kimble, but when his wife Helen got in the way, the plan changed.

The details are largely nonsense, but it's still oddly and mighty satisfying to watch Kimble confront Nichols in the third act, and spit out the word "Provasic" like it's the cruelest epithet he could hurl at his colleague.

The Quintessential Harrison Ford Performance

In a lot of ways, this feels the quintessential serious performance from Harrison Ford. It's got a number of the hallmarks that you come to expect from a Ford role in the second half of his career: the finger-pointing, the fierce glares, and even a terse one-liner or two like the one at the end of the train fight. Perhaps the best, and most inexplicable, laugh line in the film comes when Kimble covertly visits an old medical-supply colleague who, at the end of their conversation, asks, "Hey, whatever happened to that thing with your wife?" Kimble's response is "It's not over yet," which is the kindest way to reply to a colleague referring to your wife's murder and the subsequent false accusation of murder as "that thing".

The train fight is a good example of Ford's powerful performance in microcosm. In that three-minute clip, he starts out in an unfortunate situation, as the man sitting opposite him on an El train in Chicago is holding a newspaper with Kimble's mugshot on the cover. Though Kimble tries to communicate something aside from "I am an escaped convict" on his face, the other man realizes who he's looking at, after which Kimble is shocked to learn that the one-armed man has followed him in the hopes of finishing his murderous job. The tremulous mix of fury and fear on Kimble's face here is only matched by the intensity with which he's able to put the one-armed man out of commission. (It should be noted, and this doesn't seem unintentional, that Kimble doesn't kill either the one-armed man or Nichols, though Nichols is likely a lot closer to death after their protracted third-act fight scene.)

After Kimble wins the fight, it's only through his wounded look that we know the one-armed man killed a Chicago police officer who tried to arrest Kimble before the fight commenced. All in all, Ford has two lines of dialogue in the scene, reflective of his sparse dialogue throughout.

In the last 25 years, Ford has been in fewer successes – his most successful films have been those where he revived Han Solo and Indiana Jones – even though he has played variations on harried middle-aged men pushed into action. Before Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ford's best film since The Fugitive was Air Force One, which included the ever-cheesy and ever-delightful kiss-off line "Get off my plane!" That 1997 action film, which is essentially "What if Die Hard but on the President's plane?", is nonsense but at least affords Ford the opportunity to be a terse action hero again with a decent amount of suspense. Even then, the sense of diminishing returns was becoming unavoidable; so many of the films Ford's starred in since 1993 feel overly familiar, no matter how compelling he is to watch.

The Fugitive, at the time, felt different and surprisingly fresh considering that it was an adaptation. The inherent cat-and-mouse chase between Kimble and Gerard felt distinct, in ways that couldn't be repeated with the 1998 sequel U.S. Marshals, which capitalized on the fact that Tommy Lee Jones' performance in the original was so memorable. (Even now, it's the little things like Gerard grumpily asking one of his deputies to "think me up some coffee and one of those doughnuts with the sprinkles on top" that make him so much fun.) The way that Ford imbued Kimble with darkness and life felt new and distinct, even if recent films like Presumed Innocent had him playing characters with similar notes.

The last 25 years haven't exactly been rough for Harrison Ford – he still gets plenty of work when he wants to, and the very fact that audiences responded positively to the idea of new movies with Han Solo or Indiana Jones suggests that his weaker efforts haven't made audiences turn away. But Ford's most notable films in the last decade have all featured the same element: playing the same characters as old men. From Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to The Force Awakens to Blade Runner 2049, Harrison Ford's found the most success lately in playing the same characters again. That, too, may be another reason why his performance as The Fugitive feels so special 25 years later: it's a one-time magic trick that he pulled off wonderfully.