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's also that rare Hollywood "reimagining" that not only doesn't blow, but actually improves upon the source material on 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 Richard Kimble (originally made famous by David Jansen).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 train wreck/prison bus sequence, but that's 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. His only clue in the knowledge that the murderer is a "one-armed man." Ultimately, 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 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 -- 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's 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' 20 years after it was made is that it comes from a time before widespread 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 Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Bros. has finally done High-Def justice to the much deserving 1993 Academy Award-winning film, 'The Fugitive.' This new 20th Anniversary Edition is a major step up from the previously released Blu-ray. Ding-dong, the highly-flawed BD-25 MPEG-2 release is dead. This newly remastered transfer is justly placed on a BD-50. The cover art features the same shot of Harrison Ford running in front of a speeding (elevated) train, but it's no longer slanted at an angle. The image is now cropped vertically and the previously black space is now white. Nowhere on the cover art does the disc refer to it as an Anniversary Edition, so the white box art will be the prominent giveaway if you plan on picking it up. Upon inserting the disc, the only video to play before the main menu is a skippable Warner Bros. vanity reel. The aesthetic downside to this release is the typically ugly main menu button layout that Warner Brothers doesn't seem to think is atrocious.
Expect a night-and-day difference between the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode of the 20th Anniversary Edition and the 1080p/MPEG-2 of the previous Blu-ray release. If you compared the previous release's video quality with that of a DVD copy, you'd notice that they were identical, the unique flaws serving as the tell-tale sign of an effortless Blu-ray release. Finally, 'The Fugitive' has been given the remastered transfer that it deserves.
My only fear prior to reviewing this disc was the potential distracting use of DNR and edge enhancement. Nothing can ruin a cinematic favorite faster. I'm proud to announce that there isn't a single trace of either to be found. It's evidenced by the fact that we occasionally see soft images, shots that were probably filmed imperfectly. There aren't many of them. Any time they show up, they serve as a true reminder of the film's age. For the most part, great details can be seen. The jagged lines from the old Blu-ray are now missing, edges of objects appear natural and normal. The hairs on Ford's bearded face carry a prominent definition as he trims them off prior to a shave. Jones' face, which I simply cannot recall ever looking young, shows strong porous textures.
The debris that once littered the film is now absent. All specs and lines caused by dirt and fibers have been removed. The jutter from the 2006 Blu-ray is also missing. I expected a decent amount of grain to pop up in the new transfer, but the video is surprisingly clear of it. The only noticeably grainy shots are in the flashbacks of Helen's murder. The slow-motion black & white scene fragments appear to tighten or crop the frame, only making the grain appear larger. I'm certain that this was how the film looked in theaters (I believe I saw 'The Fugitive' six or seven times on the big screen), so it's definitely not a star-dropping complaint. The black levels, which crushed incessantly before, are now deep and rich. Noise, aliasing and banding are non-existent. The muted and bland colors from the 2006 edition are now revitalized and vibrant.
While the video quality still isn't quite demo-worthy, this is a major step up. Being an avid fan of the film, I couldn't be more pleased with it. After watching the 20th Anniversary Edition, I popped in the 2006 edition and was blown away by how bad it is in comparison. I watched the first 18 minutes, all the way through the derailed and mangled train finally coming to a halt. For any other 'Fugitive' die-hards out there, I recommend doing the same. The contrast is astonishing.
Just as the video encoding was upgraded for the 20th Anniversary Edition, so was the audio quality. The old Blu-ray carried a standard 5.1 Dolby Digital track, but now we're blessed to have an impressive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track to carry us through the film.
The opening credits kick off this great new remastered track. As title letters spin onto the screen and reveal flashlights in the background, the echoing scored tones proudly ring out through all channels loud and clear. James Newton Howard's score is probably the strongest part about this audio mix. I've always held this score in high esteem and the new special feature 'Thrill of the Chase' only strengthened that love by showing one scene twice – first without scoring, and again with scoring. What a difference the music makes! The rhythmic and horn-filled orchestra is the beating heart of the film. When Gerard is hot on Kimble's trail, we get the stern percussion-driven dragnet themes. When we're meant to connect with solemn Kimble, we get the moody jazz horn themes. The two are blended with seamless perfection and the well-spread mix certainly gives extra emphasis to the on-screen content.
Nothing has been lost with regards to the vocal clarity. Jones' voice carries a great bassy resonance that unmistakably belongs to him. Even when he whispers, "I … don't … bargain," into the rookie Newman's ear, you don't lose a thing. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I heard Gerard utter the "F" word this time around, something that I've never heard before. I'm not certain, so let me know what you think Gerard says as he walks away from the dam drop-off right after Kimble "does a Peter Pan," while Joe Pantoliano is left looking over the side of the ledge.
Just like the music, sounds effects are also very well mixed. Each sound emits from a specific place. Nothing appears to come from a general area. Instead, sounds come from their own properly designated channels. When Gerard's team searches the tunnel prior to pursuing Kimble in the storm drain, you can hear exactly where shouts and yells are coming from, where water is dripping, where car doors are slamming. The effects also turn the film's settings into environments. The sound of a light clicking on in a dirty gas station bathroom reveals the echo of a small tiled room. If the setting is a moving elevated train, the audio carries the rocking back-and-forth sounds of a train from the movie world to our own. Whether the train sounds more like an "el" than a subway is still out to the jury.
All of these features were previously available on the DVD version of the film. See the HD Bonus Content section below for the new goodies.
'The Fugitive' was one of the very first films that I became obsessed with as a kid. I couldn't get enough of it. I saw it handful of times during it's first run and then another time or two when it was re-released in theaters following its seven Academy Award nominations. I've seen it dozens and dozens of times over the last 20 years, and this is definitely the best-looking and sounding that it has ever been. I bought it twice on VHS (because the first tape started wearing out), once on DVD, and also the 2006 Blu-ray. Even if you're repeat dipping history resembles mine, I highly recommend picking up the 20th Anniversary Edition. The new 1080p transfer is worlds better than the last edition's and the lossless audio mix is fantastic. All of the original features are included, as are two new Blu-ray exclusive special features: a 28-minute retrospective documentary featuring current interviews and insights from all of the major players, and the pilot episode of the 2000 television series adaptation staring Tim Daly. It literally doesn't get any better than the 20th Anniversary Edition of 'The Fugitive,' a Blu-ray completely worthy of the double-, triple-, or quadruple-dip. HIghly recommended. A Must own for fans.
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.