U.S. Marshals (1998): Stuart Baird’s Action Crime Thriller, Starring Tommy Lee Jones and Wesley Snipes

From Our Vaults:

British filmmaker Stuart Baird directed U.S. Marshals, an action crime thriller from a screenplay by Roy Huggins and John Pogue.

Grade: B- (** 1/2 out of *****)

U.S. Marshals
U.S. Marshals (movie poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

Sort of a spin-off to the 1993 picture The Fugitive, for which Tommy Lee Jones won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. (it based on Huggins TV series of the same name.

The tale does not involve the character of Dr. Richard Kimble, portrayed by Harrison Ford in the initial film, but instead centers on US Deputy Marshal Sam Gerard, once again played by Tommy Lee Jones.

Gerard and his team pursue fugitive Mark Sheridan (well-played by Wesley Snipes), who tries to escape government officials after international conspiracy scandal.

The charismatic presence of Harrison Ford in “The Fugitive,” and the gravity that he brought to his role as a wrongly convicted man, are very much missed in “U.S. Marshals,” a disappointing sequel to the 1993 Oscar-nominated blockbuster that represented Hollywood craftsmanship at its best.

Granted, it would have been hard to match “The Fugitive’s” level of accomplishment under any circumstances, but Stuart Baird’s new thriller is inferior to the Andrew Davis movie in every respect: script, acting, rhythm and even tech credits. Curiosity element will enhance pic’s standing on opening weekend, but unappetizing title, lack of genuine stars and lukewarm word of mouth should result in mid-level numbers that are not likely to change the B.O. jinx that has afflicted Warners over the last year.

“The Fugitive” demonstrated the glory of professional moviemaking as a collaborative art. Unfortunately, “U.S. Marshals” outdoes “The Fugitive” only in running time, beating the 1993 pic by six minutes — and overextending its welcome by at least 15. Almost every possible mistake was made in the execution of the new film, beginning with its routine, uninvolving story, credited to John Pogue, who’s described in the production notes as one of Hollywood’s most successful unproduced screenwriters.

Tommy Lee Jones reprises his Oscar-winning role as chief deputy marshal Sam Gerard, a dogged pursuer who this time around is chasing the ruthless and mysterious Sheridan (Wesley Snipes), accused of murdering two top agents in a Gotham parking lot. Joined by his tightly knit team (reliably composed of Joe Pantoliano, Daniel Roebuck and Tom Wood), Gerard is obsessively committed to capturing the deceptive and cunning fugitive.

Slavishly attempting to repeat the gimmicks of “The Fugitive,” the filmmakers have come up with a hodge-podge yarn that offers parallel set pieces. Instead of the terrifically produced train crash in the 1993 movie, this one features a plane crash, which enables Sheridan to escape from the aircraft that carries him and other prisoners — with Gerard onboard. In lieu of the glorious overhead shot that depicted Ford diving into a waterfall, Snipes jumps from the roof of a skyscraper onto a moving train.

Gerard’s elite law enforcement crew is newly joined by Cooper (Latanya Richardson), a black woman, and John Royce (Robert Downey Jr.), a cocky special agent who’s not completely trustworthy. The interaction between Gerard and Royce provides some humor, in the form of witty exchanges between the relentlessly tenacious, street-smart marshal and the educated, well-dressed officer, who proves to be more intelligent than he seems.

Pogue’s script suffers from two major weaknesses. In the first reel, not much info is provided about Sheridan, who remains enigmatic throughout the film. And whereas Ford’s character was accused of murdering his wife, the crimes here concern national security issues, which are less involving on an emotional level and don’t serve to make the hunted man sympathetic.

Second problem is that an hour into the movie, almost everything is disclosed, which means the story has nowhere to go. Indeed, the last two reels consist chiefly of several set pieces, some of which, like the one entailing an exchange of money bags on a crowded Fifth Avenue, are masterly executed.

In his first effort, the generic but enjoyable “Executive Decision,” Baird showed that he was a skillful helmer who could elevate a well-worn plot with narrative twists and shrewd casting. But here, the helmer is defeated by a patchwork script that’s unable to sustain suspense beyond the duration of its individual sequences. Considering that Baird is a former editor, what’s most dissatisfying about “U.S. Marshals” is its lack of calibrated rhythm — pic is burdened with the kind of tempo that allows viewers too much time to think about the fraudulent plot.

First reel is particularly badly edited, with too many abrupt cuts, rushing from one locale to another in a story set in Chicago, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and New York.

Jones, who was so malevolently clever in “The Fugitive,” has few opportunities here to demonstrate his panache when it comes to rapid delivery of witty lines. His cat-and-mouse interaction with Snipes, who does his best to endow a pedestrian role with some elegance, lacks the edge that marked his encounters with Ford. As the boyish, diplomatic agent, Downey has some good moments, but his character’s consistent outsmarting of Sheridan undercuts audience involvement and plausibility. Kate Nelligan is OK as tough U.S. Marshal Walsh, while beautiful French thesp Irene Jacob is miscast as Snipes’ girlfriend.

Production values, like everything about the film, are uneven, with Andrzej Bartkowiak’s sharply alert camera and Maher Ahmad’s proficient production design providing some visual pleasure in a pic that lacks momentum and is not much fun, even on its own terms.

A commercial disappointment, U.S. Marshals premiered in the U.S. on March 6, 1998, grossing $57 million in its domestic run. The film took in $45 million  internationally for a worldwide total of $102 million, against a budget of over $45 Million.

Production: A Warner Bros. release of a Kopelson Entertainment/Keith Barish production. Produced by Arnold and Anne Kopelson. Executive producers, Keith Barish, Roy Huggins. Co-Executive producer, Wolfgang Glattes. Co-producer, Stephen Brown. Directed by Stuart Baird. Screenplay, John Pogue, based on the characters created by Roy Huggins.

With: Chief Deputy Marshal Sam Gerard. . . .Tommy Lee Jones Mark Sheridan . . Wesley Snipes John Royce . . . .Robert Downey Jr. U.S. Marshal Walsh . . .Kate Nelligan Deputy Marshal Cosmo Renfro . . . Joe Pantoliano Marie . . . . Irene Jacob Biggs . . . . Daniel Roebuck Newman . . . .Tom Wood Cooper . . . .Latanya Richardson Chen . . . . .Michael Paul Chan Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Andrzej Bartkowiak; editor, Terry Rawlings; music, Jerry Goldsmith; production design, Maher Ahmad; art direction, Bruce Alan Miller, Mark Worthington; set decoration, Gene Serdena; costume design, Louise Frogley; sound (Dolby, DTS/SDDS), Scott Smith; makeup, June Westmore; special effects coordinator, Michael Meinardus; visual effects supervisor, Peter Donen; associate producers, Glenn Richard Cote, Linda Warren; assistant director, Vincent Lascoumes; casting, Amanda Mackey Johnson, Cathy Sandrich. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 133 MIN.