Remember the good old days when Harrison Ford movies didn't suck? Now you can relive those magical glory years on Blu-ray with this new release of 'The Fugitive,' which is not only up there with Ford's best films but one of the best thrillers of the '90s. It is also that rare Hollywood "reimagining" that not only doesn't blow, but actually improves upon the source material from which it is based.
Originally a wildly popular network television series that ran from 1963 to '67, 1993's 'The Fugitive' sees Ford take over the role of Dr. Richard Kimble (originally made famous by David Jansen). Suddenly thrust into a Kafta-esque nightmare after he comes home one night to find his wife has been murdered, Kimble has been framed. After being wrongly accused and incarcerated, Kimble is able to escape imprisonment thanks to a fairly spectacular first-act track wreck/police van sequence, but that is only the start of his adventure. Tracked by U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones, in an Oscar-winning performance), Kimble must race to elude capture while figuring out the identity of his wife's real killer. With his only clue that the murderer is a "one-armed man," Kimble will discover the revelation is far more tangled -- and personal -- then he ever expected.
There is much to appreciate in 'The Fugitive' -- its acting, directing, writing and production values are all aces. But perhaps most gratifying is that this is the rare thriller that respects the audience's intelligence. We are never one step ahead or one step behind Kimble. We know only what he knows, and that keeps us enthralled in his plight. 'The Fugitive' is also so memorable because we genuinely care about the fate of these characters -- and not just Kimble, but also Gerard. We understand their motives, motivations, strengths and weaknesses. That gives 'The Fugitive' an emotional charge sorely lacking from most suspense thrillers of its type, which are so often more concerned with narrative double-crosses and surprise endings than real human pathos. It is so much of a cliche it almost doesn't bear repeating, but that doesn't make it any less true -- it is about characters, not plot points, stupid.
What is also so fascinating about watching 'The Fugitive' almost fifteen years after it was made is that it comes from a time before CGI, when heroes were ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances, not the other way around. So many big-budget thrillers these days put their protagonists in such over-the-top jeopardy (swinging from flying helicopters, leaping out of exploding buildings in a single bound, etc.) that they don't seem like flesh-and-blood human beings but superheroes. Watching 'The Fugitive' is still so exciting because for the most part, that's really Ford up there on the screen in physical jeopardy -- whether leaping out of the way of a speeding freight train (as you learn in this disc's included supplements) or breathlessly eluding his captors during a crowded St. Patrick's Day parade, this doesn't feel like a comic book -- it feels real.
Sharply directed by Andrew Davis and filmed on location in Chicago, everything about 'The Fugitive' works with a clockwork precision. It is one of the last remnants of a now-bygone era -- the era of the real-world thriller, one that's exciting and involving and suspenseful not merely because of what the fantastical things its characters do, but who they are. And that makes all the difference in the world.
'The Fugitive' was first remastered in high-definition back in 2001, in preparation for a standard-def DVD special edition of the film. I thought it looked pretty good back then, if not exactly superlative. Warner then went back to that same master for last summer's HD DVD release of 'The Fugitive,' and now returns to the same well on Blu-ray. While the HD DVD release featured a 1080p/VC-1 transfer, the Blu-ray version is MPEG-2, but the results are still a wash.
However, controversy was generated by the HD DVD release, with some online reviewers and early adopters complaining that despite the 1080p label on the package, the transfer was really just an upconverted 1080i master, which resulted in noticeable motion artifacts, namely jagged edges on sharply contrasted objects. Subsequently, we requested a clarification from Warner on the issue, and were told that all of Warner's next-gen releases come from true 1080p masters. Whether you want to take their word for it or not, I was certainly doubly curious to check out this new Blu-ray version, to see if it suffers any of the same alleged picture issues.
But first, my general impressions of 'The Fugitive' on Blu-ray. I"m never sure what to expect in terms of picture quality with films more than a decade old, but in many spots 'The Fugitive' still looks like a new movie. Though now five years old, the source print used for the original high-def master is very clean. Blacks are rock solid and colors surprisingly robust -- though some hues, mainly reds and greens, still look a bit fuzzy in comparison with most of today's ultra-sparkly transfers. Also, a few of the daylight exteriors have a purposefully overcast, even drab look (blame it on that Chicago weather), but the image still has a nice and smooth film-like look.
However, there are a couple of picture flaws. The first is that there is some grain evident in many scenes, mostly low-light interiors. The second is not really a fault of this transfer. The high-def format's superior resolution renders quite noticeable the inherent deficiencies in pre-CGI era special effects. Many shots in the film that rely on matte techniques and rear-projection (such as the opening train crash) look rather phony on high-def, as well as a bit more grainy and unstable than on lower-res standard DVD. Of course, this transfer is still quite fine, but the clarity of Blu-ray certainly doesn't do the film's effects any favors.
Now, about the whole 1080i issue. Maybe I'll get flack for saying this, but comparing the HD DVD and Blu-ray discs, I did not suffer any motion artifact problems. Yes, I did see some slight edginess at times, but it appears to me to be standard edge enhancement, which was pretty common on masters dating back to the time 'The Fugitive' was remastered for DVD. Also, it is important to note that the current first-gen Toshiba players are only capable of outputting 1080i, so it is up to the display device or outboard processor to de-interlace the signal to produce a true 1080p image. Which can increase the potential for motion artifacts depending on the quality of one's display technology. In any case, in my comparisions, I didn't suffer any such issues.
The soundtrack to 'The Fugitive' is both good and bad. Good, in that for a 1993 film, it was one of the first theatrical releases to benefit from a Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation, so at the time was state-of-the-art. Bad, in that state-of-the-art in 1993 is not state-of-the-art in 2006.
Upgraded to Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (encoded at 640kbps) for this Blu-ray release, any noticeable improvement over the standard DVD's soundtrack is marginal for the most part, just as it was on HD DVD. Though there are some aggressive moments to the mix (the action scenes, of course) they are obvious-sounding by today's standards. For example, the big opening train wreck employs the surround channels to nice effect, but the discrete sounds are pretty localized, so imaging across the soundfield doesn't feel particularly natural. Quieter scenes also lack much in the way of atmosphere or a sense of an envelopment, though that is arguably typical of soundtrack from this period -- the industry was just getting their feet wet with multi-channel theatrical mixes, so it is to be expected that 'The Fugitive' might sound a bit gimmicky.
Otherwise, this is still a good soundtrack. It is certainly well-recorded, with dialogue reproduction always clear and distinct, plus fairly robust frequency response and nice integration of the score. Again, the action scenes were balanced a bit too loud in the mix for my taste, but for a 1993 soundtrack, 'The Fugitive' gets high marks.
Released not once but twice on standard DVD, the second time still wasn't quite the charm. The new supplements produced for that 2001 re-issue were okay but far from exhaustive. All of them have now been ported over for this new Blu-ray release with nothing new added, so don't expect any surprises.
The best extra is certainly the screen-specific audio commentary with director Andrew Davis and star Tommy Lee Jones. Both are connected via telephone, and it is primarily Davis' show (ever the dutiful thespian, Jones is largely silent unless prodded with a question by his director). Still, it is a very strong track, with Davis going into quite a bit of detail about staging all of the film's big action setpieces, as well as shooting in Chicago, working with the actors and the many intriguing scenes that were shot but excised from the finished product. Most notable was a romantic subplot involving Harrison Ford and Julianne Moore, which explains her oddly miniscule role in the theatrical cut. Unfortunately, none of this excised material is included on the DVD as proper deleted scenes, which is a real disappointment.
Note that the audio commentary session with Davis and Jones was apparently filmed, as the disc's "Director & Star Introduction" consists of the first few minutes of their chat. It can be accessed either before the start of the film or as a stand-alone supplement.
The only other major extras are two featurettes produced specifically for the standard DVD release. The 23-minute "On the Run" is a surprisingly good overview of the basics of shooting the film. It is largely confined to the technical aspects of the production, specifically the on-location shoot and the action sequences. Still, not bad, especially considering that most of the cast did not contribute new interviews for the featurette, including Ford. The second vignette is a detailed 9-minute look at the famed opening action scene, "Anatomy of a Train Wreck." Though it doesn't look it today, the sequence was actually shot at full scale (i.e., no miniatures), and one shot was even digitally tweaked for the DVD release. Worth a watch.
The only other extra on the disc is the film's theatrical trailer presented in widescreen and 480i video.
Definitely one of Harrison Ford's finest efforts -- some might even say it is his last truly great film -- 'The Fugitive' still holds up as a crackerjack thriller that is both smart and suspenseful. This Blu-ray release, though an equal with its HD DVD counterpart, doesn't deliver a huge upgrade over the standard DVD release. Still, the video and audio show some improvement in high-def, even if the extras aren't that thrilling. Not a must-have, but this one is worth a look if you don't yet own 'The Fugitive' on disc.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.