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)

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living