Monday, June 5, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #167 - Three Fugitives (1989, dir. Francis Veber)

One of my dad’s favorite movies when I was growing up was 48 Hrs. He loved it and I would often hear him quote lines from it to his buddies. Since I thought my dad was the funniest dude in the world in those days, I became obsessed with seeing the movie. Due to its “R” rating, however, neither of my parents would let me watch it. Except for my memorizing of the film synopsis on the back of the VHS box and occasionally sneaking downstairs late at night while my parents were watching the film to see 30- to 40-second clips here and there, I never got familiar with 48 Hrs. until much later in life. But I was obsessed with it, and I would quote those same lines that my dad would quote to my own friends at school. For all intents and purposes, it was “my favorite movie” and I had never even seen it. What made the film so appealing to me was not only the presence of Eddie Murphy (although I was already a giant fan of his stand-up comedy records, unbeknownst to my parents), but the other leading man: Nick Nolte. I loved his roguish good looks and his gruff cigarette smoker’s voice. I loved his large and looming stature. I loved that he would use verbal and physical jabs at his film counterpart when he became frustrated with him (which was often) like some kind of modern-day Moe Howard. Nick Nolte became my first favorite actor and I wanted to see everything he’d ever done.

In 1989, when I was eleven years old, a little film called Three Fugitives was released in theaters. Directed by Francis Veber, it pairs Nolte with Martin Short. The film is a remake of the French film Les Fugitifs, also directed by Veber. As a comedy fan, I was excited by the fact that Mr. Ed Grimley himself was starring in a new film with my favorite actor. I was even more excited by the film’s “PG-13” rating. I bothered my parents for weeks to take me to the movie, but alas it came and went in theaters and I never got to go. And back then, it seemed to take ten years between theatrical release and home video release. When I finally saw the film, it was worth the wait. I instantly loved it and has become a go-to movie for me ever since.

Nolte plays Daniel Lucas, an ex-con who was just released from prison after serving five years of a ten-year sentence for armed robbery. On the day he is released, Lucas goes to the nearest bank with his prison payroll check to open a savings account. While inside, an armed man (Short) comes in and holds the place up. The robber is inept and clumsy and barely bungles through the robbery. When the police are notified, the robber decides to take a hostage and picks Lucas. Due to Lucas’ past, the police assume that he and the robber are working together. After eluding the police and accidentally shooting Lucas in the leg, the robber identifies himself as Ned Perry, an unemployed widower who robbed the bank to provide for his six-year-old daughter, Meg, who has been mute since the death of her mother. After Ned enlists the help of his senile veterinarian friend to tend to Lucas’ wound, Lucas, Ned and Meg all go on the lam, much to Lucas’ chagrin. The trio end up forming an unlikely family-type bond in the process.

The film seems to be widely disliked by viewers and critics. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is so embarrassingly low that I don’t even want to say what it is here. User comments tend to range from “unfunny, dated” to “irredeemably uneven.” While I do think that those words are a trifle harsh, I’m not going to argue and tell you that it’s a groundbreaking piece of cinema or anything like that. It just isn’t. However, I can say that it’s a warm story with a hilarious cast that works very well together. The scenes between Nolte and the little girl are particularly touching. When the two get separated from Ned, it is up to the reluctant Lucas to watch over Meg as they track her father down. Meg becomes so fond of her temporary guardian that when they do find her father and Lucas decides to part ways with them, Meg breaks her years-long silent spell and utters the words, “don’t go.” The scene is so heart-wrenching that I get close to tearing up every time I see it. Even Lucas and Ned’s relationship starts out violent and angry and forms into a close friendship (still with some occasional violence). It reminds me very much of Nolte’s prior on-screen dynamic with Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs.

Call it nostalgia or sentimentality, but my cockles still get all warm watching this movie. When I was re-watching it recently for this article, I felt like eleven-year old Jon again. I laughed at the same dumb jokes and slapstick moments from the film’s leading men. I got excited at the more action-oriented scenes. Most of all, I was reminded what it was like to be a kid obsessed with a movie star. I don’t expect this reaction from most viewers; the film hasn’t aged super well, after all. But I do think that if you grew up in the ‘80s and are a fan of buddy-style crime comedies, Three Fugitives might just be right up your alley.

-         Jonathan Eagle

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