August 16, 1993 12:00 PM

Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Jeroen Krabbe, Sela Ward

Few program concepts have ever been so ideally suited to series TV as was that of The Fugitive, the 1963-67 ABC series about the perpetual escape of a Midwestern doctor who, after being unjustly convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to death, was accidentally freed when the train he was riding to prison derailed. Nor have many TV actors ever been so well suited to their roles as David Janssen, master of the furtive look and embattled expression, was to play Richard Kimble, the doc on the lam.

This movie, however, suffers too much by invidious comparison. While it is often a strikingly tense, absorbing drama with lots of flash and scale in its action, it doesn’t have time to create the new relationships and (sometimes) romances for Kimble that enlivened the series.

Ford is pretty much on his own; his capacity to be ingratiating hasn’t been tested this severely since 1979’s The Frisco Kid. Ward appears in flashbacks as his murdered wife, but nobody new comes into his life. (Krabbe plays an old medical colleague.) Jones, Hollywood’s current all-purpose villain, takes on Barry Morse’s TV role as Gerard, the cop obsessed with recapturing Kimble, although he’s now a deputy U.S. marshal, not a local type. Morse did a better job of suggesting that Gerard had turned a professional duty into a vendetta. But screenwriters Jeb Stuart and David Twohy seem less concerned with character than with setting up director Andrew Davis for the action scenes with which he is most comfortable.

Their script also convolutes the plot. No longer is Mrs. Kimble’s murder a simple piece of random violence committed by the elusive one-armed man whom Janssen chased. Now Dr. Kimble, a Chicago “vascular surgeon,” has been framed as part of a corporate conspiracy to market a drug he knows has dangerous side effects. The film treats this profoundly preposterous plot as if it were a serious idea.

The Fugitive demands not only a mega-suspension of disbelief but also a convenient loss of memory. Pretending this movie is an original notion is the best way to get through it feeling entertained. (PG-13)

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