Daniel Lucas (Nick Nolte) is having a bad day. He’s just gotten out on parole after spending 5 years in prison for armed robbery. No sooner has Lucas left the prison than he’s met by Detective Dugan (James Earl) and his partner, Inspector Tenner (Alan Ruck). Dugan says that he knows that Lucas is going to return to his life of crime and that, when he does, Dugan will be there to arrest him.
Determined to go straight, Lucas heads to the nearest bank. Maybe he thinks that going to a bank and not robbing it will convince everyone that he’s no longer a criminal. Unfortunately, the bank does end up getting robbed, not by Lucas but by Ned Perry (Martin Short). Ned’s not much of a bank robber. In fact, he’s never committed a crime in his life. But he desperately needs the money so he can afford a special school for his young daughter, Meg (Sarah Doroff), who hasn’t spoken since her mother died. When the bank robbery doesn’t go as planned and Lucas ends up accidentally getting shot, Lucas and Ned end up going on the run together with Dugan and Tenner in pursuit.
When I was a kid, Three Fugitives was a movie that seemed like it was on television nearly every day. Of course, it was popular on HBO but it also used to regularly show up on the local stations, with all of Nick Nolte’s profanity awkwardly edited out. Looking back, I can see why Three Fugitives was so popular with television programmers who needed something fill a two-hour time slot. It’s got enough broad slapstick and just enough violence to keep the kids happy while also being so sentimental and inoffensive that parents wouldn’t complain about what their children were watching.
That Three Fugitives was such a ubiquitous presence on television is really the only memorable thing about it. On paper, the idea of pairing Nick Nolte with Martin Short sounds like it should generate a lot of laughs and they are funny in the initial bank hold-up but after that, neither seems to be acting in the same movie. Nolte is too serious for the comedic scenes and Short is too cartoonish for the serious scenes and their partnership is never credible. Nick Nolte was the king of the mismatched buddy comedy in the 80s but Three Fugitives is no 48 Hours.