Film discussion

Throwback 20: U.S. Marshals

As a sequel to 1993’s hugely successful action-crime-thriller The Fugitive, 1998’s U.S. Marshals is a crashing disappointment. However, ranked on its own merit, as an action-crime-drama, it is actually… merely mediocre.

Don’t get me wrong. I could watch Tommy Lee Jones as Deputy Samuel Gerard in just about anything. He’d be compelling if he were reading the dictionary. So if you’re in it for Gerard then it really doesn’t matter if the film isn’t great. And that’s good news because – well, it isn’t.

Let’s talk expectations. I love The Fugitive. It’s one of my all-time favourite films. And I loved Deputy Sam Gerard in it, with his accountability (“Well, sir, you can blame me. I’m the one that shot him.”), and his who-gives-a-fuck attitude, and his need not just to win but to do the right thing too.

So when U.S. Marshals came out five years later, with its trailer trying to re-hash Gerard’s famous “hen house, out house and dog house” speech to not-great effect – well, I was reluctant to watch it. And my instincts were right. Because when I eventually did, even with my expectations set at really-fucking-low – it still disappointed.

The viewer/lead-character relationship dynamics are all wrong. In The Fugitive we are rooting for Dr Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) from the start because we assume from the start that he is innocent. The film is about Kimble – the fugitive – and so we see things primarily from his perspective. And at first we want him to escape Gerard. And then, as Gerard begins to question Kimble’s guilt, and believe in his innocence, we begin to also root for Gerard, because he is Kimble’s best chance for justice. The tension shifts as the plot moves forwards.

But in U.S. Marshals, with the law as the focus, and Gerard as the lead character, we see things primarily from Gerard’s perspective. It’s nearly a full hour before it is established that Mark Sheridan (Wesley Snipes) might be innocent, at which point it’s a little too late in the day to engage emotionally with him. It also makes very little difference to where the tension lies. The viewer is behind Gerard from the start because it’s his film, and we continue to be behind Gerard because we know he’ll establish Sheridan’s innocence and treat him justly.

Sheridan, even once his possible innocence is revealed, is a less sympathetic character than Kimble. Once it is revealed that he worked for the government, and the story turns to political intrigue, much of the potential for emotional engagement is lost. We might want justice for him, but we don’t care about the two agents that he is accused of murdering. We don’t know them, and besides, if you’re going to get involved in secret agent stuff you should probably expect to be double-crossed. Whereas in The Fugitive we wanted justice not just for bereaved Kimble, but for his murdered wife too.

In terms of an adversary for Gerard, as well as Sheridan there is also Special Agent John Royce (Robert Downey Jr.), and perhaps this is spreading the focus a little too thin. Because in both movies (spoilers!) there is a conspiracy, and an unexpected plot twist revealing who the real villain is, but the second time around we might just have figured out where to look.

Some of the action sequences, whilst striving for peril, actually end up pushing things too far. A plane full of convicts has a window blown open and loses cabin pressure, has engine failure, makes an emergency landing on a road that rapidly runs out, then tips over the edge and slides down a big hill straight into a lake. At night. That is some bad luck. Likewise, there is a showdown on a cargo freighter that involves a gunfight whilst holding onto a net and being hauled out over a drop, and then a punch-out in a hold full of grain. The difference between gaspingly gripping and eye-rollingly ridiculous can be subtle and these scenes cross the line into the latter category.

It’s delightful to see Gerard’s colourful colleagues Renfro (Joe Pantoliano), Biggs (Daniel Roebuck), and Newman (Tom Wood), back again, with their enjoyable banter and understated humour, and their inclusion is a big plus for the film. That is, apart from the fact that Newman gets shot and dies. Newman: dead. This made me so, SO angry, and I’m still not over it.

The film ends – finally! thankfully! – with Gerard catching Sheridan, and then working out who the real villain is and letting him incriminate himself in a scene that should have felt perilous but didn’t. Sheridan is exonerated, and gains his freedom. This is success for everyone, and the film should feel like it’s ending on a high note, but it doesn’t. The story feels too fragmented, the pacing is off, and overall the film is too long. It just doesn’t quite hit the mark.

If The Fugitive was a thrill ride then U.S. Marshals is having to walk to work in new shoes on a hot day because your car broke down. But you should watch it anyway, because Tommy Lee Jones is just flawless.

Are you a fan of U.S. Marshals? Let us know in comments below.

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