The Fugitive and the Brilliance of Tommy Lee Jones’ ‘I Don’t Care’ Line

The Fugitive remains one of the most relentless action movies ever made, and it comes down to Tommy Lee Jones’ Oscar-winning line: “I don’t care.”

Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

The Fugitive was not the movie audiences expected when they walked into their local cinemas 30 years ago. Designed to be a splashy star vehicle for Harrison Ford that summer, the film was an action-thriller, obviously, and one that even back then was banking on name recognition and brand familiarity—in this case for a 1960s television series that aired on ABC. Still, few moviegoers or critics expected it to wind up on end of year lists, or for it to be included in conversations about the best movies of 1993. But it was, including when it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (it lost out to Schindler’s List).

There’s a reason the film made such a visceral impact in its heyday, though, and why even three decades on it remains one of the finest action movies ever produced. And it may very well come down to one of the picture’s most quoted lines: I don’t care.

This brutally succinct piece of dialogue is uttered deep in the bowels of a storm drain beneath a frozen Midwest forest. Here, in the filth and backwash, a hunted, terrified, and limping Dr. Richard Kimble (Ford) has managed to get the drop on his pursuer, U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones). “I didn’t kill my wife,” Ford’s hero barks, his cracking voice betraying a pleading desperation. Jones’ dogged pursuer is unimpressed, with his retort being so merciless he might as well have slapped Kimble and audiences in the face. “I don’t care.”

The delivery of this alone might have cemented Jones’ Best Supporting Actor Oscar win. In a sentence, he has revealed the breadth of his motivation. He chases men not because he wants to bring them to justice, but because it’s his job. That distinction in a genre filled with black hats and white hats also exposes an understated sophistication which elevated The Fugitive above mere cat-and-mouse foreplay. In an instant, it encapsulates why this movie is just so damn good.

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Ironically, Jones did not want to say the line, according to screenwriter Jeb Stuart, who along with many other collaborators on the film, including Jones and director Andrew Davis, spoke to Rolling Stone for an oral history on the film. The way Stuart recalled it, Jones didn’t even like the line and they spent more than an hour in the freezing waters beneath a North Carolinian mountain trying out different phrases and declarations before Jones simply agreed to say the line out of exasperation.

Yet that determination to find something real and authentic speaks to the qualities that ultimately worked in The Fugitive’s favor. Because all the way to the end of the film’s breakneck, 10-week production schedule (with it being filmed in early ’93 ahead of an August release), the filmmakers were working to improve what at a glance is an inherently pulpy concept.

There’s of course high dramatic pedigree to the story about a hunter and his prey. Even the waterlogged setting of Kimble and Gerard’s face/off intentionally evokes the climax of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. However, a far more rote and generic version of this film could’ve been made. In fact, The Fugitive almost was exactly that.

In the oral history, director Davis even confirmed one of the various drafts on The Fugitive percolating at Warner Bros. pivoted on the revelation that Gerard was actually the mastermind behind the murder of Kimble’s wife; the idea being Gerard had a wife who died in surgery some years earlier and so he murdered Richard’s wife and framed him in revenge. It’s the kind of lousy Hollywood plotting that would find its way into the shabby U.S. Marshals spinoff.

However, Davis shuddered at the idea—and then called his sister who was a nurse in Los Angeles. “Jo, what could get a doctor in trouble?” he recalled asking her. “I got this biggest movie star in the world, the studio’s hot on me this week, and where are we going to go? I got to fix this. What can get a doctor in a lot of trouble?” The answer she and a friend who was in his residency came back with was simple: What if a doctor knew a pharmaceutical’s big new wonder drug needed to be recalled?

Greed and predatory capitalism is less shocking decades after the opioid crisis, but this relatively grounded answer got to the cold banality of the medical industrial complex, and it pivoted away from the typical binary of “hero” and “villain” in so many action movies, then and now.

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The thing that makes The Fugitive so compelling is that it essentially has two protagonists whose motivations are diametrically opposed: Richard Kimble is the classic wrongfully accused man, however by having to unpack the labyrinth of corporate malfeasance in which his hospital was complicit, he is always active in undoing his dire situation. His chase isn’t an excuse for globe-trotting adventure; it’s a bitter realization about the rot beneath his once glamorous life in Chicago, a truth that becomes as bitter as a winter spent on the South Side instead of off the Magnificent Mile.

Meanwhile Jones is given a meaty role in which he isn’t the villain. He’s the hero of his own story, but that dogged professionalism that makes him so compelling to watch is downright terrifying when he pulls a gun on Kimble during the famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade sequence. There’s a tactile grit to their dance, because he doesn’t care whether Richard lives or dies. This also allows him to be the only character with a real arc in the story. Gerard is forced to, against his will, come to care deeply for Kimble’s plight, which the film confesses with an unspoken grace in its closing moments.

At the end of the day, Gerard does get his man, handcuffing Richard after the conspiracy that left the latter a bereaved widower is exposed. When Gerard promised Richard he “didn’t care,” the movie set up a tension that could only be paid off with the doctor arrested or dead. But when he’s finally taken into custody, Gerard also immediately removes the shackles, revealing that the journey of the film is really about getting this cold-blooded hound dog to care as much as the viewers.

Watching a tenacious bastard like Gerard become as invested as us makes every close call, foot chase, and narrative switch back genuinely thrilling: an action movie you care about.