U.S. Marshals: Robert Downey Jr.’s Forgotten Pre-Marvel Action Movie

Like a blast from the past, interest is soaring in U.S. Marshals, the forgotten (and inferior) 1998 sequel to Harrison Ford's classic The Fugitive. And there's one reason for this: a babyfaced Robert Downey Jr.

Robert Downey Jr and Tommy Lee Jones in US Marshals

No one saw this coming: U.S. Marshals, the 1998 sequel/spinoff of 1993’s The Fugitive, skyrocketed on Netflix’s movie chart in 2022. It’s a strange development considering the movie’s age and how, frankly, irrelevant it’s been since it hit theaters. Yet its return to some form of cultural awareness—that is perhaps higher than when it came out two decades ago—is curious. How did this happen?

The most likely needle mover here is likely Robert Downey Jr., who plays a supporting role as hot-shot secret agent John Royce, who joins U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones, reprising his Oscar-winning role from The Fugitive) and the old team on a manhunt centered on a highly-skilled escaped prisoner named Sheridan (Wesley Snipes). Sheridan’s been accused of murdering two of Royce’s fellow secret agents.

The ensuing pursuit thriller is a bit of a flop in many ways, but let’s keep the focus on Downey for a moment. In and of itself, the experience of watching RDJ as a 31-year-old, pre-Tony Stark, burgeoning actor in the ‘90s is justification enough for watching this mostly meh movie on a lazy afternoon. All of the things we love him for—the self-assured saunter, the endlessly emotive eyes, the unique ability to somehow come off as both adorable and psychotic all at once—that stuff is all here, in glimmers at the very least.

As for the movie itself, its individual components actually aren’t all that bad. The set-pieces are pretty great, like the plane full of convicts plummeting from the sky early in the movie (a derivative variation on the spectacular and non-CGI bus crash in The Fugitive), or Sheridan’s death-defying leap from the roof of a building to a moving train, all to narrowly evade capture. Again, a real stunt worthy of a Spider-Man swing. There are also some well-done foot chases throughout, and unlike a lot of action movies from the era, the violence here feels appropriately visceral and methodically paced.

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The climactic hospital room showdown between Gerard, Royce, and an injured Sheridan falls so flat that when Sheridan surrenders and tells Gerard that he’s done running and is “going back to bed,” it’s like the movie is almost daring you to follow suit. Director Stuart Baird (Stark Trek: Nemesis) keeps the plot moving for the most part, but the movie never gets into high gear like The Fugitive did in its multiple climactic scenes, including a still iconic dam sequence where Harrison Ford’s Dr. Richard Kimbel makes the ultimate leap of faith.

It’s worth noting that U.S. Marshals is one of the last movies Downey made before infamously being arrested numerous times over the course of several years for crimes stemming from his addiction to drugs and alcohol. It’s deeply sobering to watch on full display the raw potential he had and almost threw away. Add to that the context of the incredible work he’s done since going sober in 2003, and it’s hard not to feel gratitude for the great actor that the world came so dangerously close to losing.