U.S. Marshals (1998)
August 9, 2022 12:09 AM - Subscribe

U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard and his team of Marshals are assigned to track down Sheridan, who has been accused of a double-murder.

An airplane bearing gruff U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) crashes in the wilderness. On board the same flight is Mark Sheridan (Wesley Snipes), a federal prisoner accused of double murder, who escapes during the ensuing chaos, but not before rescuing several people from the wreckage. Gerard is ordered to hunt down the fugitive along with State Department agent John Royce (Robert Downey Jr.), and the two pursue Sheridan relentlessly, despite growing doubts about his guilt.

Mick LaSalle: Going after one innocent man was bad enough. Going after another constitutes a pattern. This marshal isn't a hero. He's a menace.

In fact, Gerard wasn't a hero in "The Fugitive." He was, within the structure of that story, a colorful, likable villain. In "U.S. Marshals," which opens today, his personality remains unchanged, but we're supposed to see him as a lovably gruff old bear. He's the type who tells his underlings, "This is the sorriest excuse for a warrant squad I've ever seen," and yet you know he loves them all.

This time Gerard has a whole crew of young, scruffy marshals working with him. Ever since "Twister" that's a mandatory feature in action movies -- the merry band of happy idiots joined together for a cause. Such crews serve as an ersatz family unit and provide a ready source for corpses late in the movie when things gets slow.

You'd figure if they were going to make a movie about a marshal using a large staff and advanced technology to track down one poor slob, at least they'd make the slob a serious threat to society. But the filmmakers are so wedded to "The Fugitive" formula that once again Gerard is after the wrong man. This time it's Wesley Snipes as a former government agent who was set up and framed by rogue members of his agency.

Moreover, the movie tells us from the beginning that the fugitive is not quite innocent. He killed two fellow agents in self-defense. All this does is muddy the moral waters, making us queasy about the one guy we like. At no point is there ever a compelling reason to keep watching.

So a cop is chasing an almost- innocent man. Under those circumstances, a viewer's natural impulse is to want to follow the fugitive. But no, we have to watch Gerard as his mood careens from brusque and unpleasant to downright nasty. The movie wants us to believe that he is noble, but all we see is a nasty bureaucrat with a little kingdom and an outsized ego.

MaryAnn Johanson: In The Fugitive, the audience could empathize with Harrison Ford’s Dr. Richard Kimble — he was an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, and you could practically see the gears turning in his head as he struggled to find a way out of each predicament. Certainly, you felt his fear and felt afraid for him. But Wesley Snipes’s Mark Sheridan here is a CIA operative, an ex-marine — a tough guy, and not a particularly nice one. He’s in his regular environment, and he knows exactly what to do. There’s no emotional investment to be made in him.

But the thing that really left a sour taste in my mouth was a betrayal by the moviemakers of deputy U.S. marshal Sam Gerard (Jones). The Fugitive‘s Gerard turned out not only to be a good guy but also a Good Guy. In moviedom’s panoply of scheming, manipulative, dirty cops (and other law-enforcement types) who are as bad or worse than the criminals they’re after, Gerard was by-the-book yet most definitely passionate about his work. He was someone you could trust not to abuse his considerable authority.

You guessed it. The writer of U.S. Marshals has Gerard abuse his authority in a way that was completely unnecessary. The point made by this uncharacteristic behavior — that Gerard is finally and utterly pissed off — could easily have been made in other ways that would portray Gerard less like the typical movie antihero and more like the man of integrity he was in The Fugitive.

Barbara Shulgasser: IF YOU could occasionally forget that "U.S. Marshals" is an unashamedly blatant rip-off of "The Fugitive" - same plot, same co-star - a fact that caused the audience to derisively laugh out loud several times, it would be a pretty darn good action movie.

The director, Stuart Baird, last made "Executive Decision," a not-so-interesting action picture, but this time he had the blueprint of "The Fugitive" to follow and a competent script by John Pogue. The airplane crash that slams this movie into high gear is a heart-stopper that beats the first movie's great train crash. That was the one that released mistakenly convicted Harrison Ford to freedom and launched the chase that set federal marshal Tommy Lee Jones on his trail.

Jones returns as Sam Gerard (the role for which he won the 1993 best supporting actor Oscar). He's chasing Mark Sheridan (Wesley Snipes), another good guy wrongly accused, and Gerard intends to do his job because he always gets his man, guilt or innocence not being his concern. However, Gerard is a just man, and when he smells yet again that the guy he's after has been framed, you can see his sympathies changing.

It's a good formula; even when the audience groaned, they went for it in a big way.

posted by Carillon (6 comments total)
I definitely fall on the enjoyment side of this movie. I think it's because I almost always love Wesley Snipes in movies, plus Jones is great fun. I think the criticism by Mick LaSalle is accurate, they really do undermine him here.

That said, the set pieces are fun! The overall pattern works for a reason. The hunt in the swamp is dumb and silly. Irene Jacob is just there and isn't asked to do much. I even liked the scene in the graveyard. Were it not a sequel I think people would like it a lot more.
posted by Carillon at 12:12 AM on August 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Were it not a sequel I think people would like it a lot more.

Well put. IMO almost every flaw of this film comes from comparison with its predecessor—and not just the moments where it apes Fugitive laughably. U. S. Marshals is a different type of story morality-wise, quite distinct from the moral flavor (which is the whole point of) The Fugitive, and so the fact that it's an ostensible sequel shifts audience expectations too much w/r/t "good guys"/"bad guys" in U. S. Marshals.

(In fact, Kimble doesn't even get mentioned in Marshals, does he? Maybe it's better to think of it as an o'er-hasty franchise reboot than a sequel!)

The other thing I noticed on my most recent (and probably last) rewatch is the Gerard character leaves a much worse taste in the mouth in These Times, and unlike in Fugitive, he's the focus, so :/
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 3:43 AM on August 9, 2022

Years of referring to this as "Us, marshals" means I cannot read it any other way.
posted by Molesome at 6:47 AM on August 9, 2022 [2 favorites]

I think it's worth remembering that Jones won the best supporting actor Oscar for his role in The Fugitive, I suspect that had a lot to do with why this was a sequel focused on him rather than a stand alone movie without his character.
posted by biffa at 1:36 PM on August 9, 2022

It has been a while since I've seen this one, but if I am recalling this correctly there was a bit of ham-handed misdirection that really annoyed me, on first viewing and on subsequent rewatches on cable.

If memory serves, there's a point in the movie where the marshals are about to execute a warrant on a house and the editing is very deliberately cut to suggest that the raid is occurring at the place in which the protagonist is sheltering. And then they burst through the door and it's someplace else entirely and the target is one of the other escaped convicts. Or was that in the first movie?
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:53 AM on August 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

First movie! They are busting into the landlord's place above Richard Kimball's basement apartment.
posted by Carillon at 1:00 AM on August 12, 2022

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