"The Fugitive" from 1993 is one of the best films Harrison Ford or Tommy Lee Jones ever made, and, more important, it is one of the best action-thrillers of the past few decades.
I admit I never cared much for the old David Janssen TV show on which it's based. Once the premise was established of an innocent man on the run for murder, there wasn't a lot left to do week after week except repeat small variations on the same theme. But the movie is something else. Even when we know full well what is basically going to happen, we are never quite sure just how it is going to happen or when, thanks to a smart script by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy and to some imaginative direction by Andrew Davis. Its new, 1080x1920 HD-DVD presentation does justice to what is surely a modern classic.
The plot is straightforward and by now pretty well known. A Chicago surgeon, Dr. Richard Kimble, played by Ford, is framed and convicted for the murder of his wife (Sela Ward). Through an inadvertent series of incidents on the way to prison, Kimble escapes. His job through the course of the film is to elude capture and prove his innocence. Of course, in order to prove his innocence, he has to find his wife's real murderer, the infamous one-armed man or whomever else is behind the crime. What should he do first, where should he go, and whom should he trust? Doggedly pursuing him is Deputy U.S. Marshall Sam Gerard, played by Jones, who grudgingly gains respect for his quarry and gradually comes to sympathize with him.
The movie succeeds on a number of levels. First, it's largely plausible and intelligent, something a lot of action dramas disregard in their attempt to shock or thrill an audience. Jumping from the top of a dam is a bit of a stretch, as is the saving of a young boy's life, but mostly the movie stays in the range of believability.
Second, the characters are three-dimensional, not the usual cardboard cutouts one finds in these sorts of things. Ford and Jones make admirable adversaries, Ford a resourceful but vulnerable hero and Jones a tough and relentless cop ("I don't bargain") with a touch of compassion he doesn't want many people to see. Jones won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the part and went on to reprise the role in "U.S. Marshals."
Third, the movie is outright suspenseful and exciting, thanks in part to its superb directing (Andrew Davis) and editing, and that's what most people want in an action film. It's hard to forget the spectacular train wreck (using a real train and bus, amazingly, no miniatures), the aforementioned dam and waterfall stunt, the St. Patrick's Day parade, and similar tension-filled scenes. Like Hitchcock's "North By Northwest," which involved Cary Grant in a similar situation, "The Fugitive" pits a blameless, everyday man against the forces of both good and evil, obliging him to survive by his wits alone.
It is a tribute to Ford, Jones, and the rest of the filmmakers that "The Fugitive" stands up so well to the best adventure movies in memory. In fact, it was recently voted the thirty-third best thriller of all time by the American Film Institute. Oh, yes, and a good musical background track by James Newton Howard helps, too. It's always there underlining the action, never calling attention to itself or annoying us with its bluster.
I did something a little different in viewing this HD-DVD than I've done in the past. Rather than first spending time comparing the standard-definition and high-definition versions side-by-side in selected scenes, I watched the HD disc straight through, with another fan of the movie, the Wife-O-Meter, at my side. Neither of us had seen the movie more than a year, but we both remarked how well the new HD transfer looked. Still, it didn't seem as clean or detailed to either of us as the HD-DVD of Mel Brooks's "Blazing Saddles" had looked when we watched it the day before. By the end of "The Fugitive" we had both become so caught up in the movie and so accustomed to its appearance, though, we had pretty much forgotten it was even in HD.
Then I did my comparisons with the standard-definition disc. Yes, there was a difference I hadn't expected. Not a big difference, but a definite and expected advantage for the HD-DVD. By comparison, the SD disc looked slightly flat and washed out. The texture, especially in faces, seemed to have been drained out of the SD picture.
This is not to say "The Fugitive" displays the best HD image I have seen, however. The movie's look is purposely gritty, dark, and rough, like the location shooting itself in and around Chicago. The picture is reasonably sharp and well delineated, although overall the color is still not as vividly brilliant as in many other movies, nor was it probably meant to be. And grain and age noise continue as issues, with the high-definition processing, if anything, only making them more noticeable, contributing further to the movie's intentionally gritty appearance. So, it's not the best video in HD, but it's better than the SD version.
The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack is fine, better than ever, in fact, when played back through the HD-DVD player's 5.1 analogue outputs. The sound exhibits good definition, clear transients, a fairly wide frequency range, and fairly good balance and localization in the surround channels. The movie emphasizes the use of music and special effects to enhance its varied moods rather than call attention to these things in and of themselves. The train wreck remains visually and sonically spectacular, helicopters flybys do their usual thing, subway cars rattle and roar in all directions, and dripping water falls convincingly around us, all it sounding a little more transparent in DD+ than in regular DD 5.1.
The first time Warner Bros. issued this movie on DVD, they provided little in the way of special features. Then they released it in an unmarked special edition (the one I used for comparison) and added a few more extras, most of which we also find on this HD-DVD (although still in standard-definition, 480). The major bonus item is an audio commentary with Tommy Lee Jones and director Andrew Davis, with Davis doing most of the talking. Jones is a quiet fellow it seems, but when he does contribute something, it's usually worthwhile. Another thing that works well is an eight-minute documentary featurette called "Derailed: Anatomy of a Train Wreck," which describes in detail how it was cheaper for the director to use a real train and bus rather than build miniatures. Today, the whole sequence could be done digitally on a computer, but it would probably still cost more than using the real McCoy. A second documentary, "On the Run With the Fugitive," lasting twenty-three minutes, is more routine, a behind-the-scenes affair made up of some 1993 interviews and a few more-recent ones, the participants mainly discussing the importance of the location shooting in Chicago. There is also an introduction to the film, with the director and star.
Finally, there are forty-two scene selections; a theatrical trailer (now mysteriously in fullscreen rather than widescreen as in the previous edition); English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The disc is packaged in WB's Elite Red HD case, but it comes with no chapter insert. As usual, you can pop up the disc menu during the film, where you will find not only the language choices, the extras, and scene selections, but a zoom-and-pan feature that allows you to zoom in by 2x, 4x, or 8x on any scene at any time and then maneuver around the frame. It's cute and clever, and it probably even has a purpose.
"The Fugitive" is still one of the best and most intelligent action movies to come out of Hollywood in a very long time, and it's one that especially benefits from the enjoyment of repeated viewing on disc. The new HD-DVD edition improves the picture as well as the sound enough to make it a further joy to watch. The film remains near the top of my list of all-time favorite adventure thrillers.