An Ode to Running in the Movies

What makes Harrison Ford such a great cinematic sprinter, and why does Tom Cruise always pump his arms like that?

illustration of person hurdling over film clapperboard
Pavel Popov

Dash into the flames. Come windmilling, widemouthed, out of the collapsing ice palace. Fling yourself at the spiky green shins of the monster. Outpace the avalanche. Running in movies is always toward danger or away from it. No one in movies is ever just running.

And like ballet dancers, the great runners in movies express character through movement, through the whirling and thumping of their limbs. Matt Damon, as Jason Bourne, is a brain-wiped super-soldier having an identity crisis, so he runs like a frightened washing machine. Carrie-Anne Moss, as Trinity in The Matrix, runs like an equation from the future—which is what she is. Harrison Ford in his prime had a distinctive bowled-over running style: Look at him in The Fugitive, blundering and floundering and grimacing and reeling, an everyman dislodged—as if by an explosion—from the everyday, knocked out of his life, and frowningly, head-buttingly determined to get back in there.

(Tom Cruise is different. Whatever part he’s playing, Jerry Maguire or Jack Reacher, he runs like Tom Cruise, with piston knees and piston elbows and the face of an angry Christ. And that’s okay.)

Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, pounding around the burbs with a garbage bag sort of medievally layered over his hoodie, is jogging. People do jog in movies, for fitness—but interiorly, as they jog along, they’re still firmly located on that into-trouble/​out-of-trouble axis. They’re still going one way or the other. Cooper is running—so he hopes—away from madness.

We are especially close to the joggers in movies, perhaps because jogging is something we can do. We can each of us—knees and hearts allowing—dramatize our personal character arc with jogging. And right now, jogging is about all we’ve got. Up the hill, round the pond, down the quiet street … We’re keeping fit. Boosting our immunity. Regulating our brain waves, flattening the curve—the other one, the one that bellies downward into dissolution and despair.

But there’s a creeping pointlessness to it, and a creeping smallness: the privately pulsing heart, the tiny agenda of betterment. It’s so pre-pandemic. What to do, then? You can’t run at a virus, and you can’t run away from one. You can neither storm to victory nor find an entirely safe place. So give yourself a break—let the couch exhale, like a prizefighter taking one to the kidneys, as you land on it—and enjoy a session watching your favorite runner-in-movies. It could be Franka Potente in Run Lola Run; it could be Sylvester Stallone, heaving piously up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For me, it’s got to be Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans.

If you’ve seen the movie, he’s in your head right now—a swooping, swerving, low-shouldered, soft-footed runner, moving through the woods, moving through his element. He is fluid; he is fierce; sometimes he has a loaded musket in each hand. An enemy rears up, he drops him without pausing, and he doesn’t look back.