U.S. Marshals (1998)

One good thing about The Fugitive, even though it was adapted from a TV series, is that it left that heritage behind definitively. Like all good TV-show adaptations, from The Flintstones to the Brady Bunch films to the SNL successes, The Blues Brothers and Wayne's World, The Fugitive succeeded because it took full advantage of the longer and yet more succinct story arc and the cinematic visual style, which is more symbolic and less close-up-focused than television's visual style, to tell an old, familiar story with panache and a certain freshness.

A couple of years later, in walks U.S. Marshals, with different writers, a different director, and no Harrison Ford. From the first moments of the film, you feel like you're watching the opening of a really good episode of "Starsky and Hutch" or "C.Hi.P.S." This is not a criticism. I love a really good episode of "C.Hi.P.S." Always have. But the filmmakers can't even leave that TV-show level of good enough alone.

Think about it. You know what you're going to get when you tune in to any cheesy TV drama. That's why they're successful. You've got two partners. One is old; one is young. Or one is the ladies' man, one is the straight-arrow with wife and kids. Or one is the bad-ass and one is the moral compass. They have conflicts. Their boss gets on their backs halfway through, and it really unites them. There's a shoot-out. One gives his life for the other, or tries to. Book 'em, Danno. There's nothing hard about it, except doing it well.

The Fugitive, of course, didn't follow this formula at all. That was part of its success. It knew it was a movie and so it set up a protagonist and an antagonist who were both good guys, but whose priorities put them in conflict. There's nothing so breathtakingly simple or effective in the sequel.

U.S. Marshals starts out with some passable action and then we get Robert Downey, Jr., a counterintelligence agent, as Tommy Lee Jones's foil in the hunt for fugitive Wesley Snipes. So the conflict is young vs. old, experience vs. inexperience, and federal government vs. shadowy spy-type agency. These are all conflicts rife with potential. If there had been a straightforward hunt with some interesting chases interspersed with scenes where these conflicts could flare up individually, U.S. Marshals would have satisfied. It wouldn't have anywhere near approached The Fugitive in quality, but there was never any danger of that, really, now was there?

But they even throw this potential away. The plot is convoluted completely unnecessarily. Interesting characters are only barely shaded in. There are no really good conflicts between Jones and Downey. The resolution of the chase is deeply unsatisfying. There aren't even any good catchphrases, a must in my book for any good action film, be it something standard like Face/Off or Supercop, or something more ambitious like The Fugitive.

"I didn't kill my wife." "I don't care." There's nothing near that stunning in U.S. Marshals. Not even close.

And Sam Gerard is practically a cipher. Now, I've seen Tommy Lee Jones in bad movies. I've seen him in movies I wouldn't show my dog. But if you watch him, you can still enjoy your time in the theater. He's not just wisecracking or scenery-chomping, ever. He's always creating a character who is real and alive. But even Tommy Lee isn't more powerful than a bad director in an editing room. Sure, he can take all the bad scenes in the world and make them work, but if the director doesn't know to keep as much of him in as possible, he might as well have hired Jamie Farr. Director Stuart Baird, so good with Executive Decision, seems to have lost all his good instincts here. Jones still manages to shine through in a couple of powerful moments, but there's nothing like his Oscar-winning Fugitive role here for him to work with.

It's unfortunate. Robert Downey, Jr. is working hard. Wesley Snipes is ready for action. Irene Jacob, the fine French actress from Red and Othello, seems poised to do something interesting the whole film. But, in the end, none of these potential strengths pays off.


Links for U.S. Marshals

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review

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