Mark Roberts (Wesley Snipes), formerly of the Diplomatic Security Service and wanted for murder, escapes when his prison transport aircraft crashes into an Illinois swamp. U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) was on the same flight and quickly assembles his team so that they can track down and capture the fugitive. That’s what Sam Gerard does. He’s the best fugitive hunter around. Complicating matters is that an inexperienced DSS agent named John Royce (Robert Downey, Jr.) has been assigned to the team. Royce says that the men that Mark killed were friends of his and this hunt is personal for him. However, Sam suspects that Mark might not be as guilty as he seems. Considering that the last high-profile fugitive that Sam chased was also innocent, I have to wonder why Sam has any faith in the system at all.
Based on the classic televisions how, The Fugitive was one of the biggest film hits of 1993 and it also became one of the few action films to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture of the Year. Even though the film starred Harrison Ford as a doctor wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, it was Tommy Lee Jones who got all the best lines and all the critical attention. Tommy Lee Jones was also the one who received an Oscar for his work on the film. The Fugitive was such a hit that it was pretty much guaranteed that there would be a sequel. Since there were only so many times that Richard Kimble could reasonably be wrongly convicted of murder, it also made sense that future films were focus on Sam Gerard and his team.
U.S. Marshals was the first Fugitive sequel and, as a result of terrible reviews and a lackluster box office performance, it was also the only sequel. I saw U.S. Marshals when it was first released in 1998. I enjoyed it but I was also a teenage boy. Back then, I liked everything as long as it featured a car chase, a gunfight, and a leggy female lead. Last night, I rewatched the film for the first time since it was originally released and I still enjoyed it but I could also understand why U.S. Marshals didn’t lead to a Sam Gerard franchise.
The plane crash was as cool as I remembered. So was the scene where Wesley Snipes escaped from Sam by jumping onto a train. (That scene was featured in all of the commercials.) The scenes of Tommy Lee Jones getting frustrated with incompetent local law enforcement were still entertaining, as were the scenes of him interacting with his team. I even liked the much-criticized cemetery stakeout. There was much about the film to like but the main problem was that Sam Gerard works better as a supporting player than as a leading character.
Harrison Ford really doesn’t get enough credit for the success of The Fugitive. One the main reasons why that film works is because Ford is so likable and sympathetic as Richard Kimble. It’s entertaining to check in on Sam and his team but it’s Ford who makes us care about the story. In U.S. Marshals, Wesley Snipes’s character is never as clearly defined as Kimble. We learn very little about him, other than he tries not to actually hurt anyone while escaping. There’s no emotional stakes to whether Mark is innocent or guilty and no real suspense as Sam goes through the motions of hunting him. Sam may still have a way with words but, in U.S. Marshals, he’s just doing his job. Things do get personal when Sam and his team are betrayed by one of their allies and a member of the team is killed but even then, it doesn’t make sense that the bad guy, who had been pretty careful up until that point, would mess up his plans by impulsively killing someone who hadn’t really witnessed anything that incriminating.
I think U.S. Marshals missed its calling. Sam and his team were entertaining enough that, if they had starred in a weekly television show called U.S. Marshals, it probably would have run for ten seasons. As a movie, though, it can’t escape the long shadow of The Fugitive.