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)