The Firm, In The Line Of Fire and The Fugitive all debuted within four weeks of each other – and Hollywood’s not had such a run of blockbuster thrillers since.
I gravitate quite a lot when I’m writing about film to the 1990s. It’s an era I grew up with, which helps, but also I think it marked a real turning point in Hollywood. This was the decade where the blockbuster took over, where you can see the realisation from studios that they felt they all needed to go big, and where we started to see the squeeze on mid-budget ventures.
It’s also, I’d argue, the last great era of the mainstream Hollywood movie star thriller. That in the current climate, if you have a big movie star, it has to be either in an action movie or a comedy, ideally both at the same time.
I think back to the summer of 1993 in particular, and the blockbuster season perhaps best known for the arrival of Jurassic Park and the puncturing of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s seemingly-unstoppable box office run with Last Action Hero.
Yet 1993 was also the year that Hollywood served up three big thrillers, each from a major studio, and each with a movie star in the lead. They each arrived in the US within one month, and each hit big.
What’s more, all three of them I’d argue were hugely enjoyable then, and have stood the test of time since. None of them got a direct sequel, one of them was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. And it’s a summer season that Hollywood has never quite matched since.
Coming into this particular season, Hollywood wasn’t shy about thrillers: the box office of Presumed Innocent back in 1990 eradicated any doubts that it had, but also the tills had been ringing in the 80s off the back of Jagged Edge, Fatal Attraction and such like, and 1992’s breakout hit – Basic Instinct – was a thriller too. It was a genre Hollywood studios were hungrily pursuing.
This particular threesome then started with the film that we got second in the UK – this being the era of staggered release dates – but was first up in America. It was The Firm, arguably the weakest of the three films, but far, far from a slouch.
The Firm was the eagerly-awaited screen adaptation of John Grisham’s second novel (a story he would describe as “a naked stab at commercial fiction”), a book that had gone on to be a gigantic bestseller in 1991. The project had been offered to Tom Cruise whilst he was filming courtroom thriller A Few Good Men, a starry Hollywood movie that too earned a Best Picture Academy Award nomination. Cruise would, of course, accept.
With The Firm, it was clearly a big project even by the time it landed at Cruise’s door. Still, there was a smaller version of the film that knocked around first. Driving Miss Daisy producer and Rush (1991) helmer Lili Fini Zanuck was the first director who came close to making it, and at that stage Jason Patric was being mooted for the lead role.
But the screenplay that had been penned by David Rabe was far more action-driven, and whilst the resultant film would still stray some way from the text, it didn’t end in a machine gun sequence. The first stab at the film screenplay did.
With Cruise on board, Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack was lured to the project, burned by the commercial failure of his last film, Havana. The script was reworked, and Pollack in turn brought in the cast of the summer, with roles of note for Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ed Harris, Wilford Brimley, Holly Hunter, Gary Busey, Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn and the mighty Gene Hackman.
I always liked The Firm, notwithstanding its two and a half hour running time. But it’s got enough interesting characters given enough time to do stuff, that I always find it a surprisingly breezy watch. It helps that Dave Grusin’s score is just majestic.
But also, Paramount ruthlessly sold this one. It gave both Jurassic Park and Last Action Hero a wide berth when picking a release date for the film, and would open it on July 2nd. Cruise’s star power hadn’t quite peaked at this stage, and his movie star career was still climbing. The Firm was – in spite of the superb ensemble – sold firmly (chortle) as a Tom Cruise vehicle though, and it was a huge success. Opening with $25.4m, it would end up the third biggest film of the year at the US box office. And, as with all three of the thrillers we’re talking about, it’d end up at the Oscars, with Holly Hunter snagging a Best Supporting Actress nod, and Grusin’s unusual score getting a nod too. Hunter would win her Oscar too that year, just for a different film: she won Best Actress for The Piano.
Following The Firm by just a week in America was the longest shot of the three films.
When filming began on In The Line Of Fire at the end of 1992, Clint Eastwood’s best box office days seemed some way behind him. Sure, his new western – Unforgiven – had given him some of the best reviews of his career, but it’d take its time to cross $100m, aided by its eventual Oscar win. Before that, films such as 1989’s Pink Cadillac and 1990’s The Rookie had suggested his big movie star days were gone.
Still, that didn’t stop leading independent production company Castle Rock backing Eastwood for the lead role, off the back of a draft penned by Jeff Maguire.
It was a gamble: a $40m budget was assigned – and all three films we’re talking about here had a budget in that ballpark – and Columbia would distribute. It was the first film Eastwood had made for a studio other than his home at Warner Bros since 1979’s Escape From Alcatraz.
Wolfgang Petersen was hired, having earned considerable international acclaim with Das Boot. But that had been a decade before. Whilst he’d since enjoyed success with The NeverEnding Story and more modestly with Enemy Mine, his 1991 thriller Shattered hadn’t really cut through (a pity, as it’s well worth seeking out). He too was a bit of a gamble.
Robert De Niro turned the supporting role down in the film, and John Malkovich instead joined the movie. For a big summer movie, this one appeared just a little short of star wattage in its lead roles.
Yet it would be magical casting.
Even by the time The Firm landed in cinemas the week before, Columbia knew it had a second sleeper hit of the summer on its hands, following the previous month’s Sleepless In Seattle. With In The Line Of Fire, test screenings were through the roof, and the marketing game wasn’t shy in the slightest about this being a taut thriller (a tight trailer turning 1963 into 1993 as a way of suggesting history was repeating itself sold the concept quickly). Strong reviews added some fuel, and the film would become one of just seven movies to cross $100m in the States that year. Its $102m total gross came following a $15m opening weekend, with word of mouth giving the film a long run in cinemas.
Oddly enough, this one would never actually top the box office (and a tepid thriller released at the end of July – Rising Sun – would), yet it’d hang around the top of the chart for weeks.
But then In The Line Of Fire is a terrific, intelligent, grown-up film –reviews at the time reflected that – and in any other year would be the high watermark for a commercial thriller. It earned Oscar nominations for Malkovich, for Maguire’s script and for Anne V Coates’ editing. But it also completely an extraordinary career reboot for Eastwood. From the doldrums, he’d end 1993 with two movies crossing $100m in the States in the same year, and an Oscar win for good measure. It’s remembered that 1993 gave Steven Spielberg’s career a dramatic lift, with both the biggest and most acclaimed films of the year being pictures he directed: Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. His career would never be the same after – but neither would Eastwood’s.
In The Line Of Fire also gave a hit to co-star Rene Russo, I should note, and her career ascendancy in the 1990s – and the impact she made with her movie roles and choices – is most certainly getting an article on this site soon.
The most successful of these three thrillers though would land in a traditionally off-peak period for Hollywood blockbusters.
In the 1990s, studios would leave the films they had slightly less confidence in until August, away from the glare of the biggest dates in the summer blockbuster season. Now, we’re used to blockbusters landing anytime. Here, it was considerably rarer.
Harrison Ford, coming into 1993, hadn’t quite been able to replicate his 1980s success in the new decade. 1990’s Presumed Innocent – as mentioned before – had got things off to a strong start, but he stumbled with 1991’s Regarding Henry (one of Steven Seagal’s favourite films, no less). This was at a time when the trend was towards the caring, sharing 90s – it didn’t last – and Ford reunited with Working Girl director Mike Nichols to play a man rebuilding his life after a near-fatal shooting.
Audiences weren’t keen, and the box office reflected that. Even a return to hitting people with 1992’s Patriot Games fell slightly below box office expectations.
Still, Ford was still a big movie star, and in an ideal world, Warner Bros would have released The Fugitive earlier that summer. At it happened, it wasn’t able to do so, and it was a welcome stroke of luck. When The Fugitive would land, competition was sparse. It meant it could thrive for weeks.
What’s extraordinary about The Fugitive though is just how fragile it was. The Firm had come together relatively quickly, but at least when filming began there was a clear path for the film in place. In The Line Of Fire meanwhile had been in development for some time, and benefited from that. Whilst The Fugitive was based on a hit TV series, clearly working in its favour (even if the series wasn’t familiar to the full audience), the problem the movie had was it was so last minute.
Harrison Ford had a small window to shoot the film, and the script on this one was in a continual state of flux. Rewrites were coming on a daily basis, the core background plot was said to have been generated as the film was shooting, and a very much all hands on deck approach to getting the story and dialogue nailed was reportedly being deployed.
Furthermore, the window to actually edit the film was under three months: an insanely brief amount of post-production time in the digital film era. But this wasn’t even that: this was still reels of film, and time too had to be built in to physically distribute cans of the stuff to cinemas around the US. In the end, a whole bunch of editors were recruited, with the story being that seven edit suites were on the go at once.
Incredibly, it worked. I remember reading about the writing of the all-time classic Chinatown, and the last minute decisions involved that contributed to it becoming regarded as a masterpiece. The Fugitive might not be that level, but it’s also a very rare example of when significant production problems and a very late completion aided the film. A lot of going on instinct, and not too much time to change anything.
If The Firm and In The Line Of Fire had become well-reviewed and hugely successful hits, The Fugitive went stellar. Here was an absolute marriage of critical acclaim and commercial success, the movie opening on August 6th and instantly snapping up $23.7m of people’s cash. And that was just the start.
This one would be the biggest hit of the lot, right around the world. It’d be second only to Jurassic at the box office come the end of the year, and would – who saw this coming? – earn seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It’d win one, with Tommy Lee Jones taking home a statue for Best Supporting Actor.
I’ve mentioned box office a lot during this piece, and I do a little bit subscribe to the notion that the money is for the studios to worry about, not us audience members. Yet we all know that Hollywood responds to cash, and if films hit big, studios try to jump on a bandwagon (Warner Bros wanted a Fugitive sequel so much, it’d make it in the end without Harrison Ford involved). If thrillers are making money, Hollywood makes more thrillers. For a while it tried to: the problem was they could never quite match these three again in terms of big, commercial summer examples, with some brain cells to them.
For what I find particularly of note with The Firm, In The Line Of Fire and The Fugitive is that box office met critics met movie stars. All within one month.
I love thrillers, and I love glossy Hollywood thrillers too. And in truth, I miss them. Perhaps that’s why I keep going back to that 1993 trio, a run I can’t remember before or since.
Firstly, the films were good and stand up. Secondly, we perhaps didn’t realise just how good we had it. Thirdly, I really wish Hollywood rediscovered how to make them like this…
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