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.

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