This time ten years ago, Harrison Ford was hard at work on Robert Zemeckis’ What Lies Beneath. It was a thriller where he effectively took second billing to Michelle Pfeiffer, and by the standards of the Hollywood movie star, he took quite a bold role in the film. A risk, you’d have to call it. When it was released towards the end of the year, What Lies Beneath emerged as a derivative but quite effective thriller (albeit one with a trailer that seemed keen to spoil the main feature), and could generally be chalked up as a success for all concerned.
It was also, with the exception of one major franchise that we’ll come to shortly, the last time that a Harrison Ford movie crossed the $100m mark at the US box office
Harrison Ford’s qualities as a box office draw in the decades before are without question. He chose his roles well, and managed to mix in smaller projects such as Witness alongside some of the better blockbusters of the 90s: Air Force One, Clear And Present Danger and The Fugitive instantly spring to mind. Sure, he had his duffers too, but there was always a big hit never far away. Throw in the two big franchises in his career – Star Wars and Indiana Jones – and it’s not an unreasonable suggestion to infer that we’ll not see a movie star enjoy such consistent box office success for a long time to come.
And yet, the past decade has been really quite barren for Ford. It’s not just that the films he’s made since What Lies Beneath have underperformed at the box office. More importantly, it’s also that they’ve really not been very good. Seriously, here’s the list: K-19 The Widowmaker (dodgy Russian accent a very bad idea), Hollywood Homicide (fairly poor action comedy co-starring Josh Hartnett, directed by the usually brilliant Ron Shelton), Firewall (genuinely shit and unconvincing techno-thriller), Crossing Over and Extraordinary Measures.
The last two have, arguably, been the biggest disappointments. It’s always been a bit of a frustration that, at the peak of his powers, Ford didn’t choose edgier projects to lend his star power to. Among the roles that he reportedly turned down in that time were Michael Douglas’ part in Traffic, George Clooney’s Oscar-winning role in Syriana (a decision he admits he regrets), Kevin Costner’s in JFK, Liam Neeson’s In Schindler’s List, Val Kilmer’s in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Nick Nolte’s in Cape Fear. That’s quite a list of challenging, interesting projects that he chose not to commit to for whatever reason. It almost felt like he was playing safety first.
But perhaps we’re seeing why. For Ford is at the stage of his career where he has been looking at more interesting dramas, such as Wayne Kramer’s Crossing Over, and the newly-released in the US Extraordinary Measures for director Tom Vaughan. Yet, when Michael Douglas picks a serious ensemble drama to commit to, for example, he manages to pick something of real substance and quality. Ford? He’s not having the same kind of luck. It’s hard to knock him for finally gamling on more interesting projects, but he’s striking out both commercially and critically.
Is it, then, a bad eye for material that Ford seems to have now? Maybe, maybe not. But glancing at the Rotten Tomatoes aggregated scores for Crossing Over and Extraordinary Measures doesn’t paint a very flattering picture. Crossing Over scores 16%, while Extraordinary Measures rates at 29%. Reviews were not kind, and Crossing Over now sits unloved in the bargain bin at my local DVD store already. Neither film’s box office was even a shadow of what Ford’s films used to muster at the height of his career, either. Appreciating that these are smaller projects with less ambitious projected box office returns. Extraordinary Measures picked up just $6m in its opening weekend, and is set to sink without trace from US cinemas in the next couple of weeks. Crossing Over (a troubled production, to be fair) brought in – are you ready for this? – just over $3m worldwide. There are smaller projects, but with a big movie star name attached, you’d still expect a good $10-20m in the bank just as a starting point. Ford’s pulling power outside of one film role now seems virtually non-existent. And it’s a real shame it’s come to this.
So, inevitably, it seems that the only franchise that Ford has left in his back pocket to bank on – given that Paramount is keen to go younger with Jack Ryan, having now cast Chris Pine in the role – is Indiana Jones. Much has been written of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, much of it not complimentary. And with good reason: it was, in retrospect, a fairly crappy film. But I’ll give it this: I still got a real kick out of watching Ford do his stuff in the title role. He owns that part, and it was the first reminder we’d had in a decade of what this man can do when front and centre of a big movie. Granted, we’re hardly talking Oscars all round, but it was a big movie star role played by an actor showing why he became a big movie star in the first place. A fifth Indiana Jones film may be the only way he can break $100m at the US box office again (and Crystal Skull, lest we forget, did over $700m worldwide), but there aren’t many actors of his vintage, to be fair, who could even think about powering a hit of that size (or at any point in their careers).
But is there hope on the horizon? Because what’s perhaps more promising is Ford’s next film. Currently in post-production, Morning Glory is a rare venture into comedy for him. I say this, as I’ve always felt that Ford has demonstrated a deadpan skill for comedy (and not just for the way he told Bruno where to go in last year’s Sacha Baron Cohen comedy). His delivery was often comedically brilliant in Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and I always think back to his perfectly-pitched performance in Working Girl too. I maintain the Ford is a skilled comedy actor in the right role, and maybe Morning Glory will be the first role in a long time to allow those skills to flourish.
Because here’s the thing: personally, I love lots of Harrison Ford movies, and unlike some actors who rely on the same-old to bring home their bacon, at least the man now seems to be trying. He’s not always chosen wisely in the past (although who has?), and that list of roles he’s rejected – appreciating retrospect is an easy art – would alone make for a staggering CV. Some actors clearly deserve a box office wallop, and Ford shouldn’t be immune to that. But he seems to be taking his punishment harder than most.
Granted, he’s at a point in his career where that probably doesn’t matter, but wouldn’t it be great now to see him really taking a few big gambles, and committing to some genuinely interesting indie projects? If he still wants the limelight, then Indy is always in his back pocket. But Ford is still a big talent, and a genuine movie star. Imagine him teaming up with an ambitious first time director for a project that genuinely took a few more risks? That’s still got to be something worth waiting for, and I’m indebted to Empire magazine for revealing that he’s next going to working with Bronson director Nick Winding Refn. I’d far rather he took on these small films and failed, than choosing something of the ilk of Firewall again. It’s why, in spite of the numbers and reviews, I’ll give Extraordinary Measures a try when it comes to the UK at the end of the month.
In the meantime, we hold out hope that Morning Glory delivers. The presence of Notting Hill director Roger Michell behind the camera is promising, and at the very least, we’re expecting it to make a more sizeable landing than Extraordinary Measures.
So here’s hoping that, for the first time in a decade (with arguably the exception of Indy, at least for novelty value), we get a really good reason to go and see a Harrison Ford movie on the big screen. It really has been some time…