Tommy Lee Jones races through U.S. Marshals (Warner Bros.) like a man trying to win a marathon against himself. As Samuel Gerard, a relentless federal law officer who'll do whatever it takes to apprehend a wily fugitive, he runs across fields and dashes through corridors, smashing open doors, bursting into rooms. He cocks a rifle at someone's head and barks out a terse ''Okay, regular or extra crispy?'' That blithe, fun-and-games detachment, the sound of a cop almost too happy in his work, is a product of sheer speed: For Gerard, a jackrabbit of justice, no gesture exists independently -- it's all linked to the next action, all part of the eternal big chase. ''Is this guy crazy?'' someone inquires. ''No,'' comes the reply, ''but he's a carrier.'' That's about as good a description of Tommy Lee Jones as you're likely to get. The ferocious energy of his mind is forever slicing through that frozen, leathery wince.
Jones' hyper-drive acting is, of course, a continuation of his performance in The Fugitive, where he first played Sam Gerard. An efficient, uninspired sequel, U.S. Marshals duplicates the earlier film's breathless moves with dutiful finesse, yet with one crucial difference: The man Gerard was chasing before was an authentic hero, played, in slow-burn ordinary-superman mode, by Harrison Ford, perhaps our last true bridge to the mythic Hollywood tradition of stone-jawed, brave-heart-of-America leading men. In U.S. Marshals, Gerard, once again, pursues an outlaw who himself has been wronged, a former government operative named Sheridan (Wesley Snipes), who has been made the fall guy for the murders of two diplomatic-security agents. This time around, though, our dramatic sympathies aren't divided in the same way. Gerard, the indomitable enforcer, is the front-and-center protagonist, and the fugitive and his alleged crime seem almost like afterthoughts.
Lean, tense, and satisfyingly tricky, The Fugitive was the apotheosis of the ''friendly foe'' genre, in which a criminal and his pursuer stand on seemingly opposite sides of the moral divide yet remain linked, through intellect, daring, and communicative resources, like psychic twins. Ever since this brand of thriller was launched into the contemporary era with Die Hard, the outlaws have grown more complex (In the Line of Fire) and, ultimately, sympathetic (The Fugitive), and U.S. Marshals takes that trend all the way: The fugitive is now so blandly justified he's a bit boring. Snipes, whose handsome shaved head is used as a visual touchstone, works up a convincingly desperate sweat, but his character's actions aren't ingenious enough to make us cleave to him in more than a formal way. Jones' jittery convolutions are about all that keeps the picture going.
Leaping from Chicago to backwoods Tennessee to the existential chessboard of midtown Manhattan, director Stuart Baird (Executive Decision) stages the chases, stakeouts, and inevitable video-surveillance intrigue with solid, workmanlike ease. The fiery plane crash that frees Sheridan is, if anything, an even more spectacular crunched-metal mishap than The Fugitive's train accident. Baird also comes up with an expert- ly choreographed pursuit through a swamp outside Memphis, where Sheridan comes face-to-face with Gerard and proceeds to shoot him in the shoulder. Gerard begins to divine a pattern of events -- that this allegedly ruthless assassin is actually going out of his way not to kill anyone.
This time out, Gerard has on his team a junior-hotshot federal agent (Robert Downey Jr.) who, working from mysterious private motives, dares to question the older veteran's methods. Downey, with his inscrutable surface, makes a nifty fit inside this formula thriller context. He's softly ambiguous, a quiet smoothie with loyalty to no one but himself. Where U.S. Marshals errs is in making Jones, by contrast, almost saintly in his obsessiveness. His Gerard is supposed to be a cop who takes the business of catching criminals personally -- too personally. Late in the game, the movie flirts with turning him into a kind of Dirty Sammy figure whose moral fibers become entangled with the will to vengeance. But the idea is introduced only to be instantly discarded. Imagine a Sam Gerard who raced forward with such mad abandon that he risked tripping his way to the finish line. That would be the stuff of a real sequel, and not just a machine-tooled replay. B-