Something funny happened to action movies in the ’90s. They became, after a fashion, respectable. The action blockbusters of the ’80s had made a ton of money, but they always looked and moved like B-movies, even when they had extravagant budgets. Brutality and crassness were big parts of their appeal. But in the ’90s, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, the twin giants of the ’80s action movie, gradually fell off. And the people who were supposed to be their successors, martial artists like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, never quite made it to the A-list.
Instead, the biggest action movies of the era were slick, accessible entertainments whose stars didn’t come from the world of athletics and who didn’t look like gods on Earth. Instead, the movies now featured people who looked somewhat human, people who were famous for acting. That’s how a clammy, twitchy Oscar winner like Nicolas Cage could become, for a time, arguably the world’s biggest action star. This was the era of the prestige action movie. It really began in 1988, when Bruce Willis, in Die Hard, turned everyman cop John McClane into the hero of maybe the greatest action movie ever made. But the change was slow, and it wasn’t until 1993’s The Fugitive that the efficient studio action movie really took over.
Andrew Davis, director of The Fugitive, had really begun his career during the ’80s action boom, making movies like the Chuck Norris vehicle Code Of Silence and Above The Law, the first movie that ever starred Seagal. A year before making The Fugitive, he worked again with Seagal and gave him his first real shot at huge, crossover fame. I’d rank Davis’ Under Siege just behind Out For Justice on a list of Seagal’s best movies, but Under Siege was undoubtedly Seagal’s biggest movie, in both scope and popularity. It’s a good movie, though it would be a better one if Seagal had any idea how to convey stakes or gravitas. And maybe the smartest thing about it is that it cast Tommy Lee Jones, the hangdog veteran character actor, as its cackling, speechifying, harmonica-tootling villain. Jones spent most of that movie commanding a hijacked American warship while wearing tie-dye and aviators, obviously having the time of his life. When Davis got the call to make a big studio action movie—albeit one with a budget that wasn’t that much greater than the one he’d had with Under Siege—he was smart enough to bring Jones along.
The Fugitive had been one of those ideas kicking around Hollywood for years, going through different stars and directors and writers and stages of development. The movie seemed like a great idea—an adaptation of a groundbreaking ’60s TV show with a story that was honestly better-suited for a two-hour movie anyway—but it kept not happening. The great veteran action director Walter Hill had planned to make a version with his 48 Hrs./Extreme Prejudice star Nick Nolte. Then, later, Alec Baldwin was going to star as Dr. Richard Kimble. But with it all finally having fallen together with Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, and Andrew Davis, it’s tough to imagine things working out better than they did.
The Fugitive stands today as a great example of a veteran low-budget action director putting every trick he’d ever learned into a slick Hollywood product, working with the sort of actors who could convey serious human emotions in quick and often wordless ways while he kept the pace relentless and the set pieces spectacular. Ford, of course, had plenty of experience with action movies. He’d spent years in action-adjacent movies, from Star Wars to Witness to Patriot Games. And he’d spent three movies playing Indiana Jones, one of the greatest action heroes ever created. But other than quick-thinking resourcefulness and the ability to survive absolute calamity, Indiana Jones has nothing in common with Richard Kimble, and Ford made him completely distinct. As Kimble, Ford is haunted and wounded and desperate and sad. He doesn’t crack one-liners, and he only throws a few punches toward the end of the movie.
Meanwhile, Jones was all twinkling, gregarious charm as Samuel Gerard, the U.S. Marshal obsessively chasing Kimble. On the TV show—which the movie’s stars and director claimed they hadn’t watched—Gerard is pretty much the villain. But Jones played him as someone who enjoys doing his job and who doesn’t really bother himself with the ethical implications of ferreting out a guy who might be innocent. Jones did everything he could to make Gerard enormously likable, improvising many of his greatest lines, including the “I don’t care” bit just before Kimble dives off the cliff. Jones even got an actual action-hero moment when he shoots the other guy who escapes the prison bus alongside Kimble. Watching the movie, you find yourself rooting for both guys, so it’s a genuine relief when they finally start working together at the end.
It’s probably worth asking whether The Fugitive even counts as a genuine action movie, since its hero barely does any fighting and its villain isn’t really a villain. (There is an actual villain, of course, thanks to a conspiracy plotline that gets more convoluted as the movie goes on, but nobody much remembers him.) But I tend to define an action movie as one that’s built around its set pieces, and from that perspective, The Fugitive absolutely qualifies. The incredible train-crash sequence—which takes place only a few minutes into the movie, before Jones even shows up—is one of the most iconic and masterful action scenes of its era. And even its less spectacular escapes, its little scenes like the one where Kimble makes it out of a Chicago police station because of the bulletproof glass in the door, are enough to get your pulse going. The movie just never slows down, at least not until that pharma-conspiracy stuff starts up.
The Fugitive is at its weakest when it turns into a conventional movie at the end. The villain’s motivations are muddled enough that I can’t tell you what is even going on because the great John Mulaney bit about it gets stuck in my head. You would think, for instance, that a corrupt pharmaceutical executive, when making a hotel-ballroom speech and confronted by his wanted-by-police ex-friend, would come up with a better plan than smashing a chair over the guy’s back, running around on a rooftop, and attempting to murder two U.S. Marshals. (Another quibble I’ve always had: I’m fine with the idea of Kimble surviving that cliff dive relatively unhurt. But there is no way he survives sleeping outside, overnight, with wet clothes on, in the Illinois wilderness, in March. As someone who has lived in Chicago, I can tell you that I wouldn’t last five minutes.)
Still, whatever its faults, The Fugitive is a remarkably streamlined and effective piece of filmmaking, and it never could’ve worked the way it did if, say, Sylvester Stallone was the star. It made a fuck-ton of money, earning back its budget more than eight times over. It garnered the sort of critical respect that only rarely touches an unpretentious, crowd-pleasing action movie. And it scored a Best Picture Oscar nomination—pretty good for a movie that the director of Under Siege made a year after Under Siege. This is frankly baffling to consider. Also, the villain of The Fugitive won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. For an action movie, this was uncharted territory. For those of us who love action movies, the sheer unlikeliness of that story is amazing. It’s enough to make us forgive The Fugitive for pretty much ending the classic ’80s action movie. After that movie, there would be no more. Things would be different.
Other notable 1993 action movies: I’d originally planned to write this column on Hard Target, the troubled but fucking awesome Van Damme vehicle that marked the Hollywood debut of Hong Kong’s John Woo, the greatest action director in history. Woo had a terrible time making the movie, but he was able to use it to launch a Hollywood career that was more successful than anyone could’ve predicted. Also, he made it into my favorite Van Damme movie ever, with Lance Henriksen’s turn as the ice-blooded, manhunting villain; its cheesy New Orleans trappings; and its shameless absurdity. This is a movie in which Van Damme kicks an oilcan into a guy’s face and then shoots it with a shotgun. It’s a movie in which Van Damme punches a rattlesnake in the face. It’s a movie in which Wilford Brimley, as Van Damme’s cartoonish Cajun-bootlegger uncle, kills multiple people with a bow and arrow. And it’s a movie in which Van Damme, on a motorcycle, plays chicken with an oncoming van full of gun-toting henchmen. He gets up on the bike like he’s surfing, shoots the henchmen, jumps over the van right before crashing into it, and then hits the ground, wheels around, and shoots the van, somehow causing it to explode. I love Hard Target. So yeah, Hard Target gets the runner-up spot. (That same year, Van Damme also made Nowhere To Run, a movie I literally do not remember at all.)
But really, Hard Target was more a glorious anomaly than a sign of things to come. And if we’re going to talk about the dawn of the prestige action era, there’s more to 1993 than The Fugitive. It’s also the year that Clint Eastwood, making his victory lap after winning Oscars with Unforgiven, played a veteran Secret Service agent saving the president from a driven and resourceful psycho in In The Line Of Fire. Eastwood had made plenty of movies not too different from this, but with Eastwood’s post-Oscar pedigree and a great John Malkovich as the villain, it all felt classier somehow.
Stallone had his last truly great year in 1993. In the formulaic-in-a-good-way mountain-climbing Die Hard rip Cliffhanger, he played a mountain guide taking on John Lithgow’s gang of stranded plane-robbers. And in the still-hilarious dystopian comedy Demolition Man, he played a hard-nosed L.A. cop thawed out in a nanny-state future to spout one-liners and fight the bleach-haired, giggling, also-thawed-out lunatic Wesley Snipes. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, made Last Action Hero, a smart John McTiernan meta-comedy that was also a notorious flop, the first true commercial failure in the man’s career. There would be more.
With Tombstone, Cobra/Rambo: First Blood Part II director George Cosmatos turned the Wyatt Earp saga into a straight-up action movie, getting a great performance out of Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in the process. With Judgment Night, a movie better remembered for its hybrid rap/metal soundtrack than anything else, Emilio Estevez and Cuba Gooding Jr. play yuppies stranded in a bad era and on the run from, seriously, gang leader Denis Leary. With Point Of No Return, Saturday Night Fever director John Badham threw Bridget Fonda into an English-language La Femme Nikita remake that had nothing on the original. And then there was the pretty great under-the-radar Only The Strong, with martial artist Mark Dacascos as a military badass who becomes a teacher and then fights to rid his school of the organized crime corrupting his students.
At the same time, even without Woo, Hong Kong action movies were thriving. In the giddy old-school kung fu romp Iron Monkey, Donnie Yen truly became a star. With The Heroic Trio and its almost-immediate sequel Executioners, director Johnnie To gave us the grand, surreal vision of Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung as super-powered avengers fighting ancient demons. At the same time, The Bride With White Hair and its own almost-immediate sequel applied that same windswept, mythic aesthetic to a Romeo and Juliet story set in some magical bygone age. In Fong Sai-Yuk, Jet Li continued a great streak of playing Chinese folk heroes in period martial arts epics. And with Crime Story, Jackie Chan attempted to give his beloved slapstick comedy a rest long enough to tell a story about an edgy cop.
Meanwhile, in Japan, Takeshi Kitano made Sonatine, the most deadpan of his deadpan yakuza masterpieces. In that one, Kitano directed himself as a middle-manager criminal who attempts to defuse a gang war in Okinawa and spends most of the movie on a beautifully shot seaside, getting into Jarmuschian hijinks with his co-workers, before pretty much everyone is unceremoniously killed. It’s a great movie.
Next time: Speed shows just how well the ’90s mass-entertainment action movie can work when everything is doing what it’s supposed to do.