CINEMA / Disgusted, rural Texas: The real star of 'The Fugitive' is Tommy Lee Jones. David Thomson studies his style

HOW important is Tommy Lee Jones to The Fugitive? Well, first of all, he carries himself with the insolent, I-dare-you-tosmile briskness that knows he's in a piece of expensive nonsense and doesn't mean to be caught loitering. If it jolts you to consider that this knock-out, clean-up entertainment is nonsense, think of it in this light: one of Chicago's top doctors comes home to find his wife being murdered by a one-armed man; he is himself accused of the killing; in court, due process and the best lawyers cannot keep Doc from the slammer; but once he escapes from prison it proves surprisingly easy for even a harassed loner to establish his innocence - after all, one-arm still lives in Chicago, and he got his false arm from the doctor's own hospital. The Fugitive may be Hollywood's most flagrant defaming of the American legal profession.

Yes, I know, Harrison Ford is the hero, the fugitive, and Mr Ford is decent, likeable and to these eyes so dull he may actually be a little hit-shocked: having been in so many bonanza movies without really being vital to them. But Tommy Lee Jones attacks, roars out wicked wisecracks and barges aside the machinery of this silly film. He is like the train that lurches out of the moonlight and into the camera as it makes its terrific crash. Jones is the film's energy and engine, and if the cop he plays is a nonentity masked in professional toughness, well that's the way of movies these days. If you can stand to see The Fugitive a second time, you'll find nothing much there except Jones's restless surface and his deadpan refusal to own up to being in a farce.

So, at the age of 47, Tommy Lee Jones (a man with a boy's name) finds himself the object of excitement and job offers. Don't expect him to melt with gratitude: he's set on being surly, hiding his mind behind gorilla brows and wilfully dead eyes. He's been around 20 years and he looks disgusted. Perhaps it's because of being told he was too ugly, too rural, too Texan - and whoever heard of a movie star whose face was a history of acne?

As if such press was not enough, Jones had several grim movies to explain away in the Texas hill country, where he was raised, or at Harvard, where he was educated. Wasn't he, after all, the detective who falls in love with Laura Mars (The Eyes of . . . ) but who is also the killer who is threatening her. Why? Let me quote a synopsis: he 'has been made schizophrenic by seeing his father kill his mother as a child, and (his) psychopathic 'half' hates Laura for exploiting death in her pictures.' Don't we all know cops like that? And can't you see how acne can be aggravated by character motivation?

Mr Jones also practised impassivity trying to explain why anyone ever thought to make Rolling Thunder, The Betsy (in which he plays an Italian motor racing driver), Back Roads, Nate and Hayes (he is a kind of pirate in that one), Black Moon Rising, The Big Town, The Package and Fire Birds. If there are readers who can accurately recount the plots of these films . . . they are people who have been too long in the dark.

A few projects were more worthwhile - Jones was very good as Loretta Lynn's husband in Coal Miner's Daughter; he had been memorable in 1976 as the prisoner who escapes with Yvette Mimieux from Jackson County Jail; he was touching as a man out of prison trying to make a life with his teenage daughter in The River Rat.

But Jones had done his best work on American television. That is a way of conceding that he was not a star, and not in the first two ranks of esteemed actors. American movies disdain television, ignoring the way that Jones's depth and intelligence were only made clear over the years in three remarkable TV epics. In 1977, he played the title role in the 215-minute The Amazing Howard Hughes, creating a sombre, neurotic figure such as movies would not dare take on (and for all the talk, no big star has yet played Hughes). Then, in 1982, he won an Emmy as Gary Gilmore in the 240-minute The Executioner's Song, scripted by Norman Mailer from his own book.

I stress the length of these works because of the searching richness of Jones's TV films. His movie killers have maybe half an hour of screen time. They are nasty, unexamined villains. But the TV Gilmore is insecure, not very bright, a mess, with fascinating hints of half-buried gay urgings and a chronic inability to keep in character. In movies, that's what actors are supposed to do, whereas, in life, most people feel they're slipping all the time: failing and being unconvincing. If ever the full Executioner's Song comes back - it was released as a a 135-minute theatrical movie in Britain - look at it for Jones's uncanny compilation of forlorn attempts at character or identity in a shattered man.

By the age of 40, Jones had not transcended the biography of one born in San Saba, Texas, or the rough vacancy of his face. In so many films, he was in and out of jail. Where was Harvard in his acting? He was all Texas again in the TV mini-series Lonesome Dove (1989), but he had never had so large an audience. Maybe movie- makers looked at him afresh and saw the bleak look of fatigue and experience. No one has eyes with less readiness for hope or self-delusion.

JFK was the turning point. Amid the grotesque melo-history of Oliver Stone's film, Jones gave an intricate, witty performance as the rich, swish and languid Clay Shaw, the object of Jim Garrison's investigation. All of a sudden, Jones was allowed to be funny, urbane and eloquent: he got an Oscar nomination as supporting actor. A year later, director Andrew Davis (who had met Jones on The Package) cast him as Steven Seagal's enemy in Under Siege. The film was a hit, in no small part because of Jones's sardonic assurance. Davis was certain then that he needed Jones for The Fugitive.

I'm sure Tommy Lee Jones doesn't trust his new status, yet he's getting better scripts and there's the realisation that he can be much more than a gloomy good ol' boy. Later this year he is an American soldier in love with a Vietnamese woman in Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth, and there is more in prospect: a lead role in the film of John Grisham's airport thriller The Client; Natural Born Killers, directed by Stone again, from a script by Quentin Tarantino; with Jeff Bridges in Blown Away; The Good Old Boys, a Western for TV that Jones will direct as well as star in; and, for Ron Shelton (who made Bull Durham), the biopic of Ty Cobb, arguably the greatest baseball player who ever lived, and the lousiest human being to play the game.

Such lists can disappoint when and if they reach the screen. But Cobb is a real rogue hero and, with Hughes and Gilmore, he could give Jones a grand trio of awkward Americans. And if there's one thing needed in American movies it's that awkward trace of hinterland reality that scorns glamour.

'The Fugitive' (15) is on general release. West End times are given on page 106.

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing