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Why ‘The Fugitive’ is a great summer movie — and a love letter to Chicago

Harrison Ford in "The Fugitive."
Harrison Ford in “The Fugitive.”

(Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros.)

The #UltimateSummerMovie Showdown is under way, and voters have chosen “The Fugitive” (1993) as their winner for Week 14, dedicated to movies first released in theaters from July 31-Aug. 6 (between 1975 and 2019). Times film critic Justin Chang invited his “Fugitive”-obsessed friend Darla Lansu Campbell, a Chicago-born, Los Angeles-based TV writer (“Truth Be Told,” “Switched at Birth”), to discuss the enduring pleasures of her all-time favorite movie.

JUSTIN CHANG: “The Fugitive,” a tour de force of suspense and surprise, has given us one of the least suspenseful, least surprising weeks yet in the Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown. Andrew Davis’ beloved 1993 action-thriller simply ran away with the competition last week, as quickly and unstoppably as Dr. Richard Kimble himself. Then again, maybe the better comparison would be with (27-year-old spoiler alert!) the nefarious Fredrick Sykes, given how viciously the movie crushed the life out of two enchanting family films, “Babe” and “The Iron Giant,” in a three-way final match-up.

In any event, I’m grateful to you for joining me to discuss the results, Darla, partly because I’m curious to see if it will bring any challengers out of the woodwork: Is there anyone reading this who might be a bigger, more obsessive fan of “The Fugitive” than you? Anything is possible, but I doubt it. Over the 20-odd years we’ve known each other, I don’t think I’ve met anyone who advocates for any movie as passionately as you have for this one.

Like many, you have sung the praises of its immortal star, Harrison Ford. Also like many, you have delighted in the world-weary wit of Tommy Lee Jones as Kimble’s tireless nemesis, Sam Gerard — a role that won him an Oscar and a 1998 Ford-free “Fugitive” follow-up, “U.S. Marshals.” But there are deeper dimensions to your “Fugitive” worship. There’s the fact that so much of it takes place in your beloved Chicago and that it offers us a far less conventional, more off-the-beaten-path view of the city than the movies had really given us before.

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But I’ll stop making your case for you, Darla, and let you take it from here, as someone who enjoyed revisiting “The Fugitive” recently but hasn’t watched it nearly as often or as closely as you have. I think it’s a terrific piece of action filmmaking, though if I’m honest, I was maybe rooting a little harder this week for an underdog called “Death Becomes Her” — a very different movie pitting two equally tenacious enemies against each other in which a lot of grievous bodily harm ensues.

Harrison Ford in the 1993 movie version of "The Fugitive."
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

DARLA LANSU CAMPBELL: I could give the film-school analysis of why “The Fugitive” is such a great movie (including many of the reasons you cited above), but at the end of the day, a favorite film is often about something deeper or more intangible. You’re right, the innate Chicago-ness does play a huge part in my devotion to this movie. I’ve always loved films and shows that have a deep sense of place — it’s a way to explore both new and familiar locales from a filmmaker’s unique perspective. And “The Fugitive” exemplifies this because it is Chicago to its core. Starting with its Chicago-born director and star, the movie is filled with Chicago actors (you can tell by their pronunciation of “scahtch”), Chicago newscasters (John Drummond! Lester Holt!) and Chicago Bears (Otis Wilson). I mean, how many movies feature a sitting mayor?

The city isn’t just a backdrop; it acts as a character or foil to both our leads. Dr. Kimble uses the city to hide himself (eluding Gerard by fading into the iconic St. Patrick’s Day parade), while Gerard and his team in turn utilize the city to find him (recognizing the sound of the El train to home in on Kimble’s location). After the credits, there’s a random shot of fireworks over Chicago. Why? Are they celebrating the capture of a convicted felon? Honoring the exoneration of an innocent man? There’s no explanation other than the obvious one: The skyline is incredible, so here’s one last look at it.

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But it goes deeper than that. This is a movie about perseverance, which is a quintessential Chicago quality. Chicagoans take a certain pride in our ability to get through anything. Our city burns down; we’re going to rebuild it bigger and better. We have some of the worst weather in the country — but we assert that suffering builds character. We had not one but two baseball teams that didn’t win a World Series for almost a century. You see that persistence in Gerard, someone who will spare no cost or man-hour to pursue his version of justice — even when everyone thinks his quarry is dead. And then there’s Kimble, a man who believes so much in his innocence that he will literally leap off a dam for it. Characters frequently utter: “Does this guy ever quit?” And the answer is of course not, he’s a Chicagoan.

CHANG: I love your theory about those fireworks at the end and would only add that perhaps they are intended as a celebration of Kimble’s hard-won liberation, his own personal Independence Day. Or not. It’s also worth noting that Ford’s famous leap was shot at the Cheoah Dam, one of several North Carolina locations that Davis used to seamlessly supplement this otherwise extraordinarily Chicago-centric movie. That jaw-dropping train-bus collision — a real, actual collision that Davis and his crew managed to pull off in a miraculous but meticulously planned-out single take — was also filmed in North Carolina, alongside the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. The wreckage from that crash remains there to this day.

There’s something pleasing about that — this idea that “The Fugitive,” unlike the vast majority of Hollywood entertainments (especially those being shot in today’s green screen-heavy environs), has actually left behind some permanent physical reminder of its making. It touches on your point about sense of place and how important that sense of place is to some of the movies and shows that stay with us the longest. It’s a matter of location, for sure. It’s also a matter of action filmmaking that relies on practical rather than digital effects, and where you’re often seeing actors perform their own stunts — something the then-51-year-old Ford himself insisted on doing for “The Fugitive.” He even injured himself along the way, which only added to the unshakable conviction of his performance as a man on the run.

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If there’s a particular trend I’ve noticed among the extremely well-directed action movies that have triumphed so far in the Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Die Hard,” “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” and “The Fugitive” among them), it’s that so many of them share this extraordinary physicality, this profound commitment to realism even in the context of outlandish spectacle. These are pictures that don’t take your suspension of disbelief for granted. They also tend to combine astounding logistical complexity with a remarkable conceptual simplicity: Think of the relentless linearity of “Fury Road,” or the spatial clarity and unified geography of “Die Hard.”

Or think of “The Fugitive,” a Hitchcockian wrong-man thriller predicated on the beautifully simple ground rule that Kimble must always be just a few steps ahead — not 10 steps ahead, just a few, enough to maintain a steadily pulsing tension while also allowing you to delight in his every hairsbreadth escape, his on-the-fly resourcefulness. It’s an enormously durable conceit, of course, as evidenced by “The Fugitive’s” original roots in a 1960s TV show and its recent reincarnation as a Quibi series starring Kiefer Sutherland. Will you watch that show, Darla? The reviews aren’t great, and it’s set in Los Angeles, not Chicago. Even your obsession with all things “Fugitive” must surely have its limits.

Darla Lansu pays a visit to Harrison Ford's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Darla Lansu pays a visit to Harrison Ford’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1997.
(Marti Lansu Prorok)

LANSU CAMPBELL: Having lived through “U.S. Marshals” and the short-lived Tim Daly TV series in the early 2000s, experience tells me the Quibi series probably won’t have the same magic as the 1993 feature. But I also acknowledge that my beloved film isn’t the original and doesn’t have a monopoly on the idea — as you mentioned, it’s based on the 1960s TV show. And even that version has its roots in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” which happens to be my all-time favorite novel. Apparently, I do have a thing for obsessed-detective-pursuing-wrongly-(or-excessively?)-convicted-man stories, but maybe just those that heavily feature sewers? How many sewer scenes in the Quibi show?

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I resonate with what you said about movies leaving a physical mark on our landscape. The wreckage site is a bit of a tourist attraction in North Carolina — my mother-in-law has visited, before she even knew me or my “Fugitive” obsession. I would add that movies also leave a symbolic mark as well: Just as movies can derive their power from a location, they can also infuse a place with meaning. Chicago had such pride in “The Fugitive” that the Tribune published a map of the movie location — a guide I used for my “Fugitive”-themed birthday party. That’s right, while my peers had more age-appropriate celebrations involving sleepovers and ice cream, I was dragging my poor friends around Chicago going, “Oooh, that’s where he called his lawyer.” (Props also go to my mother, who not only chaperoned the trip but later sewed a yellow “Fugitive” jumpsuit for my brother’s Halloween costume … which shows you how the fandom evolved into a family affair.) Just the idea that a movie was shot at this random phone booth made it feel like hallowed ground.

I know I’m not alone in this veneration of movie locations. In one of his Netflix specials, John Mulaney (also from Chicago) tells this compelling story about meeting Bill Clinton in a hotel ballroom. But he literally interrupts himself to go off on a whole lengthy (but hilarious) tangent because they shot the climax of “The Fugitive” in that same ballroom and he feels the need to re-enact the scene. He gets lost in the filmic memories of the place. It’s something we often lose sight of in L.A., where pretty much everything has appeared in some TV show or Honda ad and film shoots are mostly viewed as annoyances that jack up the traffic and take away the parking.

I think as much as we want to view movies as an imaginary escape, we also want to feel them in a tangible way. It’s why people flock to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter or Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge — to experience these fictional worlds as physical, tactile environments. And it’s also why we resonate so much with films that have a distinct sense of place, because it makes it easier to see, hear, taste, smell, touch what the characters are experiencing. I love getting to immerse myself in the 18th-century Vienna of “Amadeus” or the future L.A. of “Blade Runner 2049.” Or, every so often, take a trip to the hometown I know and love in “The Fugitive.”

The L. A. Times Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown

Who: “The Fugitive” director Andrew Davis, in conversation with Times film critic Justin Chang

When: 6 p.m. Aug. 13

Where: Free virtual event will be livestreamed on the L.A. Times Classic Hollywood Facebook Page and YouTube, as well as Twitter

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