This movie was not supposed to be good. Here’s the plot: A middle-aged cardiovascular surgeon’s wife is killed by a one-armed man, and said surgeon is sent to death row. But his bus crashes on the way to prison, then a train crashes into the bus crash, then Dr. Richard Kimble escapes to go on the run with five U.S. marshals on his heels. This is literally the opening 20 minutes of The Fugitive.
Not even the actors themselves were convinced The Fugitive was going to be good. Harrison Ford thought it would be his Hudson Hawk, Bruce Willis’s $51 million flop from 1991. Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the lead marshal, thought The Fugitive marked the end of his career. But then this action thriller, the one that was written off as quickly by its stars as its hero is by the law, became the third-highest-grossing film of 1993. And then it was nominated for seven (seven!) Oscars—including Best Picture. And then it actually won one of those Oscars (well, Jones did). Perhaps even more surprising is that this piece of $70 million popcorn amusement from the ’90s is still a cultural touchstone 25 years later, largely because action movies like it are so rare now.
A year before The Fugitive arrived, its director, Andrew Davis, didn’t think much of the genre. “The basic underpinnings don’t have any soul or value,” he told The New York Times. “They’re totally incredible so you don’t believe them. They’re dumb stories.” He himself had worked with Steven Seagal twice and Chuck Norris once, two icons of black-belted brawn that sparred with Hollywood for a spell, until they were knocked out by the metastasizing blockbuster industry. As Ty Burr wrote in his 2013 book on fame, Gods Like Us, “To protect that opening weekend and the larger investment, the [movie] business needed stars to be inclusive rather than divisive.” This, he notes, was “one reason why there was a gradual move away from the bulging ’80s cartoons like Stallone and Schwarzenegger toward more believable Everyman action heroes like Bruce Willis in the Die Hard films.” And, though Burr does not name him as an example, like Ford in The Fugitive.