Gazillions of drecky yet beloved TV shows from the ’60s have crossed to the big screen lately. Most of them have stunk up the room. It takes only one to make the idea look like genius, though, and that one was The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble and Tommy Lee Jones as his indefatigable pursuer, U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard. The film’s seven Oscar nominations are, in fact, the ultimate acknowledgment of its legitimacy. The lone action film among rigorous dramas and thorny imports, The Fugitive stands as a triumph of Hollywood reengineering.
Watching it on video, then, is like trying to squeeze the genie back into the bottle. It goes against the reason the movie was made in the first place: Take a marketable quantity and retrofit it with big-screen ”quality.” Why bother renting the tape when more than 40 episodes of the TV series The Fugitive are available?
Okay, that’s a dumb question, and the answers are: Ford, Jones, and a really expensive train crash. Still, it’s worth pointing out that the TV show looks pretty good after all these years, and the movie, while well above the action-flick norm, has problems that video only heightens. Seen together, they’re on a more equal footing than you might think.
If you’ve never watched the old Fugitive before, dig up 1963’s ”The Girl From Little Egypt,” on Volume 1 of the Nu Ventures series and 1967’s ”The Judgment,” on the Worldvision label. The first flashes back to the murder of Kimble’s wife and its aftermath in a way that is neatly paralleled in the movie’s opening scenes. Except that the Kimbles’ marriage was a lot weirder in the series. In the film, Sela Ward’s Helen Kimble is a poised, kind, loving spouse: the Perfect Wife. In the series, Helen (Diane Brewster) is an alcoholic virago racked by her inability to have a child: the Imperfect Wife. Both women die through seemingly random violence, but only the series implies that Kimble might on some subconscious level have welcomed her death.
Such psychological wrinkles were dropped when The Fugitive turned into an ABC Tuesday-night juggernaut for four years of literal running. As Kimble, David Janssen brooded magnificently, scooting from town to town and searching for the one-armed man (Bill Raisch) while Lieut. Philip Gerard (Barry Morse) grimly nipped at his heels. About the only constants were Janssen’s charismatic gloom, the drink in his hand, and the women in every episode who fell for Kimble and hid him from Gerard.
The series ended with the two-episode wrap-up, ”Judgment,” the last part of which bagged the largest audience in TV history until more people tuned in to Dallas 13 years later to find out who shot J.R. Here’s where Gerard gets Kimble, Kimble gets the one-armed man, and the audience finds out what the one-armed man was doing in the doctor’s house in the first place. There’s one final love interest (Diane Baker) for Kimble to walk into the sunset with, but the more important relationship is with Gerard. The show’s true resolution comes midway, when the two guys at last join forces in the name of greater justice.
That moment never comes in the 1993 Fugitive. In fact, the themes that rankled sourly beneath four years of the TV show — the injustice of the system, the hypocrisy of those who sit in judgment — never surface in Andrew Davis’ propulsive entertainment. He just wants to give us a thrill. Fair enough. But that means Harrison Ford’s Kimble has no time to woo the ladies — he’s too busy going undercover in Cook County Hospital, tracking down the one-armed man (Andreas Katsulas), and leading Gerard’s federal unit on a merry chase. Ford is too focused to be much fun — the way the story’s structured, he has to be — so Tommy Lee Jones ends up the de facto star of the movie: expansive, in charge, coolly riding the wave of events like a champion rodeo star. If Kimble keeps us involved through what he represents — wronged decency — Gerard pulls us in through what he does.
After a brilliantly edited first half, though, The Fugitive slowly sinks into formula. The final episode of the TV show let viewers down by not giving the one-armed man much of a reason; the movie gives him too much of a reason. Lone movie villains are hard to find these days; there has to be a conspiracy, and a mastermind, and if you’ve seen enough movies in the last few years, you’ll know who the mastermind is by one glance at the credits. In the theater, you were too dazzled by the pell-mell pacing to catch the secondhand plotting. On the tube, it’s hard not to notice that the series and the movie — both reasonably intelligent overall — climax with two guys beating the bejesus out of each other on a roof. I guess some things can’t be improved on. The movie: B ”The Girl From Little Egypt”: B- ”The Judgment”: B