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Non-Review Review: US Marshals

Robert Downey Jr. apparently once described the film as “possibly the worst action movie of all time.” That’s quite a statement. Too be honest, it’s just a little bit sensationalist from the actor, but it still doesn’t mean that U.S. Marshals is a good film, even on its own merits. When it stands in the shadow of the movie it was intended to follow, the superb Harrison Ford adaptation of The Fugitive, it seems even weaker.

They had some neck making this film...

Part of the problem with the film is Sam Gerard, Tommy Lee Jones’ Oscar-winning dogged fugitive-chasin’ man of the law. Jones is superb as Gerard, both here and in the original feature, but the problem is with the character. Gerard worked ridiculously well in The Fugitive because he was the perfect foil and supporting character. He was chasing our hero, but he was never a bad guy. He was a dude who was good at his job, trying to track down a wanted criminal. That moment where Kimble attempts to concern the officer that he didn’t kill his wife told us everything we needed to know about Gerard. “I don’t care,” he honestly replied. That’s not his job. His job is tracking down those who have escaped the law, and then letting the other organs of the criminal justice system do their work.

He struck the audience as a man who was extremely defined by his job, and by the fact that he seemed to life solely to execute it. He was a smart and shrewd man, but he didn’t question his orders. What little introspection the man allowed was firmly bottled up inside, and he seemed not to allow himself the luxury of a moral opinion on the individuals he was assigned to bring to justice. These traits make for a fantastic supporting character, an implacable man who won’t be stirred or moved or diverted. Unfortunately, they don’t lend themselves to a leading man.

The sequel nobody was Jones-ing for...

It’s the same sort of problem that we had with Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, where the popularity of a character (or characters) leads to a movie based around them. I worry the same fate might await the rumoured Tom Cruise spin-off from Tropic Thunder. Supporting characters exist to serve a particular plot function, and it’s sometimes difficult to stretch them beyond that. I wonder if the writer sat down and got a tiny way into the script before realising the limits of Gerard as a character. He only works as a foil – as a man hunting some other guy. Despite the title of the film, and the poster featuring Tommy Lee Jones, it’s next to impossible to make Gerard a leading man.

So the movie inevitably becomes something of a re-tread of The Fugitive. Gerard needs to be chasing someone, after all. Except the movie seems to have made the worst possible choices. It might have been a bit much to chase another fugitive resembling Doctor Richard Kimble, but it was an incredibly stupid idea to take the premise of a federal manhunt and craft on the most banal international espionage subplot ever written. It is literally like Gerard wandered on to the set of 24 knock-off as he (again) finds himself hunting an innocent man, but this time the Chinese and Taiwanese and “traitors” and such are involved. Part of me wants to think: If I want to see a spy film, I’ll rent a spy film – I want a fugitive chase, here! Still, this would be forgivable if it wasn’t the most workman-like plot ever. There is no suspense or ambiguity. We know the suspect is innocent from the get-go, and we can easily deduce the real culprit.

Wesley, I know it's bad, but don't jump!

Think of the other possible options. Imagine Gerard tracking down a guilty man, for example. That would allow the character to seem like an unambiguous hero, as well as illustrating the bulk of what his work looks like – part of me wonders whether Gerard is questioning the justice system with all these innocent people he’s hunting. Or perhaps, I don’t know, invert the dynamic by making him the fugitive or something. These aren’t the most creative ideas in the history of the world, but they hold infinitely more potential than what we actually got, which was a Wesley Snipes film guest-starring Samuel Gerard.

It doesn’t help that this edition’s fugitive from justice is quite possibly the most bland innocent person ever. He has a girlfriend, a motivation, a secret background… but no personality. We knew nearly everything we needed to know about Kimble instantly (though whether that was imbued by the script or by Harrison Ford, I am not sure), but we know nothing of the kind of guy Mark Roberts is. The movie teases us with the possibility that he might be more hardcore than Kimble, as he’s shown holding a trucker’s wife hostage with a knife to her throat, but the movie calls its own bluff early on. He’s just acting tough, but is really a nice guy, as Gerard wonders why this “ruthless assassin keeps letting people live.”

The real fugitive from justice is the writer...

It doesn’t help that the movie tries to hit the same beats as the original, but seemingly can’t match the energy or enthusiasm. Compare Gerard’s fantastic manhunt talk in the original to the bland, functional one he offers here. “Said perimeter to extend downstream from Brookport to Mound City,” he outlines in a scene that even has a montage to remind us of how awesome the original was. “Every bridge across the Ohio river from Gulconda to Metropolis to Carro needs to be closed down. Extending south from the Alexander and Poleski county lines have every house, hotel, hospital, backroad, and backwater searched for Mr. Mark J. Roberts.” It just feels like a flat imitation. There are other award moments, like the way the camera buzzes around Gerard as he utters the cringeworthy (yet seemingly mandatory) line, “We have a fugitive.”

Still, it’s not so bad when you put the original out of your mind. It’s just fairly bland. It’s competently (if not superbly) acted by all involved. In particular, there’s a nice chemistry between Joe Pantaliano and Tommy Lee Jones. Director Stuart Baird feels more comfortable with the functional action set pieces than character work, and they are efficiently handled. None of them stand out as having a hint of originality or spark to them, but they get the job done.

Well, at least Tommy Lee Jones gets to be top gun...

In the end, that really pretty much sums up the movie. It gets the job done. Not well, not enthusiastically, but it gets there.

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