Introduction: When I was a teenager, I was the world’s biggest Tommy Lee Jones fan. The first movie of his I remember seeing was Men in Black and I was impressed with the way he portrayed the character of Agent K. So, as teenagers tend to do, I started obsessing about seeing all of his movies (or at least as many as I could from 1997 to 1999 when I eventually outgrew my obsession). Eventually, I ended up watching The Fugitive (1993) and really enjoyed it; so when a sequel was released in theaters in 1998, I knew I had to see it. Back then, I thought U.S. Marshals was the coolest movie ever and Tommy Lee Jones couldn’t be any cooler! Recently, I was feeling nostalgic and decided to watch this movie after nearly 20 years. But is U.S. Marshals still the coolest movie ever? Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: [from Rotten Tomatoes]: Tommy Lee Jones returns as United States Marshall Sam Gerard, the role that earned him an Academy Award, in this sequel to the 1993 blockbuster The Fugitive. Gerard has been assigned to escort a federal prisoner to a maximum security prison in Missouri. On the same flight is Mark Sheridan (Wesley Snipes), who has been arrested and charged with the murders of two Federal agents, though he insists he’s innocent. The plane is involved in an accident leading to a crash, and after helping to rescue some of the passengers, Sheridan escapes. The State Department informs Gerard that finding Sheridan and putting him back behind bars is a top priority, and Gerard sets out on his trail, with the very much uncalled-for assistance of eccentric FBI agent John Royce (Robert Downey Jr.). However, Gerard soon begins to wonder just how Sheridan became such an important man in the eyes of the government, while Sheridan is determined to find out who turned him in to the authorities.
My Take: Allow me to go ahead and get this out of the way: is U.S. Marshals still cool to me now?
That’s not me falling into the old-age cynicism trap – that’s just me seeing this movie after nearly two decades and with the viewing experience of having seen far better films in the same genre. So while I enjoyed watching this, it didn’t strike the same chord with me now as it did back then. And you know what? That’s okay!
I suspect most of us harbor the following sentiments when we revisit the media of our youth:
Most movies and television shows you watched as a kid or a teen are probably not going to leave you with the same feelings of delight now that you’re an adult. But, again, that’s okay. Our viewing tastes and artistic discrimination should change as we age. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy our childhood or teenage years’ favorite movies or television shows, but it does mean that what we thought was cool when we were 10, 12, 15, or 17 probably won’t be at the same level of coolness when we grow up.
That being said, I had fun watching U.S. Marshals this time around, and I suspect that’s what it was striving to be back in 1998 – an entertaining pre-summer popcorn flick. And if you don’t desire it to be anything but that, then you won’t be disappointed.
The plot to U.S. Marshals is entertaining but admittedly paper thin and waxes predictable, especially in its second act. This is a movie where watching the characters do their thing takes precedence over the story they’ve been dropped into. Back in the day, I was new to this sort of movie, so the plot twists came as total surprises to me – but not so much now. The film seems like it’s trying to offer up a complex mystery plot but it’s as substantial as a bucket of movie popcorn. Sure, it’s fun, entertaining, and keeps you satisfied for a little while but, deep down, it’s just empty calories and doesn’t satiate no matter how badly you want it to.
As expected, U.S. Marshals stays true to its Fugitive roots by retaining some of the marshal characters from the first movie and introducing viewers to another man on the run. Here, Mark Sheridan (Wesley Snipes) is accused of murdering some federal agents. Sheridan is arrested but his prisoner transport plane crashes (echoing the infamous train crash in The Fugitive). This enables him to go on the lam to clear his name while U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) stays hot on his trail. But unlike last time when Gerard and his fellow marshals were free to do whatever they pleased to bring in their man, here they are shadowed by Special Agent John Royce (Robert Downey, Jr.). Thus, the film splits its time between Gerard uncovering the truth about Sheridan and Sheridan seeking to clear his name (or, in his words, be made “righteous”).
The plot, which possesses obvious hiccups at times, is fluffy, forgettable, and relatively average but still manages to entertain. The characters avoid becoming stock figures as they manage to elicit enough sympathy to keep viewers invested. Likewise, the comradery between Gerard and his team of marshals is organic, and while their personalities clash at times, especially against Gerard’s hardheadedness, they are like family to one another. If one of them is hurt, attacked, or insulted, it’s as if the entire group was hurt, attacked, or insulted – that’s how tight their bond is and it’s a blast to watch. In the same way, most of the action set pieces are enjoyable and well-filmed. The aforementioned plane crash, for example, while trying to evoke a similar scene in The Fugitive, is still intense and impressive in scale; and a particular escape scene, which took months to shoot, actually uses practical effects rather than digitally inserting actors. Overall, the action scenes are tastefully included so the movie doesn’t feel too sparse nor overstuffed.
However, the film tries a little too hard to run parallel to The Fugitive so it no longer feels like an homage but more like a mediocre clone. As stated, this movie’s story comes complete with yet another innocent man on the run, a large-scale disaster scene, sundry law enforcement figures who try to uncover the truth, and several showdowns where said fugitive and lawmen face off. While in The Fugitive these elements were presented as part of a fresh formula (though even that was a remake of a 1960s television show of the same name), in U.S. Marshals it becomes a classic case of deja vu. I suppose if you had never seen The Fugitive, then these parallels would remain unknown. But for those of us who have seen the first movie, U.S. Marshals feels like it’s trying too hard to recapture a previously used formula but never quite hits the same notes.
That being said, I will give U.S. Marshals credit for not taking itself too seriously and maintaining a high entertainment value, especially in its first and third acts. Concerning the former, while this is a crime drama, it’s hard to take a story too seriously where, during Gerard’s introductory scene, we see him arresting neer-do-wells all while donning a chicken suit and delivering a KFC-inspired line in the gruffest, most deadpan way possible. It’s absurd, it’s hilarious, and it’s meant to be taken that way. I liked this introduction (or re-introduction, I suppose) to Gerard better than how we initially meet him in The Fugitive. Here, we instantly see two sides to his personality: one is that he’s clever, smart, and determined to see justice done, and the other is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. In another way, this scene serves as a fairly accurate snapshot of the film as a whole – it’s serious but not too bleak as it knows when to crack a joke to ease the tension.
All of this contributes to the movie’s entertainment value as the plot itself is passable but it’s the characters who make this flick worth watching if only just for fun. As stated, the first and third acts are the movie’s strongest points, but most of the second act – especially its midsection – falls victim to the usual crime drama follow-the-clues type of plotting and incessant run-and-chase sequences. I started to get bored during this time in the movie, and to quote Sam Gerard, “I get cranky when I’m not having fun.” But the story does pick up near the end though the denouement is fairly easy to map out early on, especially if you’re no stranger to these types of films.
That being said, I feel like this was a case of having good actors in a mediocre film but doing their best with the material they were given. As a whole, the acting comes across as half-hearted at times, as if the actors realized they were in a semi-sinker and decided it wasn’t worth a full attempt. Collectively, it’s not a terrible effort but it’s definitely not a defining film for any of the top billed stars.
This middling undercurrent is probably best exemplified by Robert Downey, Jr. who, in all fairness, I like as an actor. Here, he seemed disinterested and even checked out of character at times. Royce’s exchanges with Gerard offer some odd couple-esque moments that are genuinely funny, but essentially Royce is present to serve the role of the young, meddling whippersnapper. Downey does a passable job but this wasn’t a pivotal role. Likewise, anyone who has seen even a handful of these types of films will be able to spot the “surprise” regarding Royce’s character rather quickly. There are also moments when it feels (and looks) like Downey is physically present but not staying in character, as if he just walked in on the scene and decided to hang out, not interacting with anything or anyone except when delivering lines. In his defense, Downey is a better actor than this. One thing I keep in mind is that U.S. Marshals was filmed during a dark time in his life when Downey was dealing with some personal demons, so it’s possible he might not have been fully invested. (For the record, I’m glad Downey opted to get and stay clean. He’s very talented, so it’s great to see him taking advantage of the second chance he has been given.)
In the same way, Wesley Snipes seems like he wants to get invested into his character as Mark Sheridan but never fully commits. To his credit, he at least appears more invested than Downey, and Sheridan’s chemistry with his girlfriend, Marie (Irene Jacob), seems genuine. Seeing as Sheridan is set up to be the protagonist, one basic trait I expect from all protagonists is that they have to be likable. Heroes shouldn’t be perfect but any hints of obnoxious airs or jerk-like tendencies get no points from me. Sheridan remains a likable guy who is determined to protect himself and clear his name. However, unlike Dr. Kimble in The Fugitive, Sheridan’s innocence isn’t apparent from the start; thus, it makes it difficult to side with him until later on. In the same way, Sheridan goes to questionable lengths to stay one step ahead of the law (something Dr. Kimble did his best not to do) but never intentionally tries to get innocent people hurt and even, as Gerard notes, “keeps going out of his way to let people live.” Thus, he’s easy to eventually root for and Snipes delivers an average performance.
Lastly, it’s only fair to scrutinize Tommy Lee Jones as Sam Gerard. Jones won an Oscar for the same role in The Fugitive and I believe that recognition was fairly warranted. While the same gruff charm is delivered here, it is more of the same from The Fugitive. Thus, if you loved Sam Gerard in The Fugitive, you will love him in U.S. Marshals. But if Gerard was not your favorite character in The Fugitive, then you won’t like him this time around either. Despite the lack of revised or evolved dynamic, I still enjoyed Gerard’s no-nonsense nature, dry wit, and smarts. He gives off the aura of not exactly being unapproachable, but you still better have a darn good excuse why you want to talk to him. To Gerard’s credit, he gets respect because he earns it, not because he demands it by acting like a jerk. In the same way, he takes his work personally as his fellow marshals are like his family and Gerard gladly assumes the role of the gruff, protective papa bear.
Likewise, we get a good “save the cat” moment that showcases a heart beneath Gerard’s rough, weathered exterior. (As a sidebar, the term “save the cat” comes from a book of the same name by Blake Snyder and refers to an inconsequential scene depicting the main character doing something to “save” someone or something, thus casting the character in a favorable light.) During the plane crash when the rest of the officers swim to safety, Gerard stays behind, at great risk to himself, to set the prisoners free as they are shackled and unable to escape. He works tirelessly, freeing the men by hand, until he’s forced to give up his efforts. Even while urged by others to save himself and leave the prisoners, Gerard views these men as human beings and refuses to willingly abandon them to a watery grave. This shows that, deep down, Gerard upholds human decency and mercy over justice: while it would have been easy to let these men die (they are prisoners, after all), Gerard tries to save as many as he can. Overall, it’s a great moment of showing us, not telling us, about the heart of his character.
However, Gerard slightly devolves in this movie as he is, at his core, a cerebral character, thinking first and shooting last. But in U.S. Marshals, he gets reduced to an action movie star where thinking is a secondary trait and running and shooting are the primary focus. Gerard is at his best when he’s mulling things over and thinking his way through a problem, but for much of the movie, he’s confined to running around, doing stunts, and barking lines. That’s not to say older actors can’t be in action films. By way of example, Colin Firth assumed the role of a highly intuitive spy who wasn’t afraid to get his hands bloody in Kingsman: The Secret Service and he excelled at it. So perhaps it comes down to the actor and his personality, temperament, and/or feelings towards a project. In U.S. Marshals, Jones doesn’t seem like he feels entirely comfortable being an action star but he makes an effort. In truth, he seems more at ease delving into Gerard as a person, showcasing his wit and intellect, rather than proving he can run, shoot, and jump with the best of them. Thus, his approach to this character is at its best in the film’s quieter moments and at its weakest when he’s participating in run-and-shoot sequences.
To be fair, it seems like Jones plays the same type of character in every movie. When I was a teenager, he was my favorite actor without question, but over the years he’s been replaced by other gents who I feel present more versatility. But he’s by no means on my no-watch list and there’s nothing that would stop me from checking out some of his more recent movies. To his credit, Jones looks like he’s having fun (or at least trying to have fun) in this role much like he did in The Fugitive. I wouldn’t call this a case of lightening striking twice but it’s a watchable performance. However, it feels more like a redux than a remix.
As it stands, U.S. Marshals as a whole feels like it’s trying to repackage The Fugitive akin to wrapping a gift by reusing scraps of old wrapping paper – the content is technically new but the veneer is clearly recycled. It’s so strange to me now that, next to Men in Black, U. S. Marshals was my second favorite movie as a teenager. I honestly have no idea why as a good portion of this movie is the usual manhunt plot trope and waxes a bit insipid, especially during the second act. However, it’s not a terrible movie as it’s mostly entertaining and even ends on a smile-worthy, light-hearted note, which is rare for its genre. Overall, while I wouldn’t place this movie among my favorites anymore, I was still glad I checked it out if for nothing more than to relive one of my favorite teenage years flicks.
Content Breakdown: U.S. Marshals was given a PG-13 rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Profanity usage is frequent but not pervasive and chiefly employs PG and PG-13-level words, including religious exclamations. One character also spouts off a single f-word.
Violence – Most of the violence is confined to police-style violence, chiefly shootouts and images of gunshot wounds. One character is shot and dies, and this scene is rather drawn out as we watch the character expire on screen despite being given medical treatment. Crime scene photos of bodies with bloody bullet wounds and grainy, black and white security camera videos of a shooting are shown at different times throughout the movie but nothing ever turns gory. Elsewhere, a quick shot reveals a male body in a shower (from the chest up, so there is no nudity) with a slit neck, but this scene lasts only a second or two. Also, one character is physically tormented by another character while lying prone in bed. Lastly, the plane crash is a very intense sequence that involves explosions and peril. During these moments, one character suffers a heart attack (it’s never revealed if the character survives or not) and other characters are implied to have drowned (but their bodies are never shown).
Sexual Material – Essentially none. In a quick scene, a marshal glimpses several bikini-clad women being interviewed on a television show before Gerard tells him to turn it off. Elsewhere, two officers barge in on Marie while she is changing clothes in a dressing room, but she’s covered up and all we see is a portion of her back. Lastly, Sheridan and Marie kiss a few times but nothing ever becomes sexual or even sensual.
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe U.S. Marshals stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Not recommended due to the film’s story and content.
Older Children & Teens – Somewhat recommend, especially as a relatively clean action/suspense film for teens who are starting to get their feet wet into the genre. Likewise, teen fans of Robert Downey, Jr. (who portrays Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) might be interested as this reflects some of his earlier work.
Young Adults & Adults – Somewhat recommended, especially if you’re nostalgic for some forgotten late-1990s popcorn flicks. Likewise, fans of the 1993 movie The Fugitive might want to give it a view as well as anyone who is a fan of the cast in general.
Overall, U.S. Marshals is one of these movies that doesn’t look better in hindsight. When I was a teenager and saw this for the first time, I was a newbie to the whole police-themed action/suspense thriller genre, so I thought it was great. But age and experience with better films have caused me to see this movie differently so it’s more of a mediocre attempt than a jaw-dropping masterpiece. That doesn’t mean U.S. Marshals is bad and I have good memories associated with it. In the end, I think that’s how it can best be appreciated – not as a work of incredible cinema or storytelling but as a solidly entertaining way to pass the time.