Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Top Ten Things: Harrison Ford Characters

Welcome to a special edition of Top Ten Things, here at!  It's been a while since I created a new one of these, but the occasion definitely warranted a return to the list-making ring.....

It's July 13th, 2022, and that means it's the 80th birthday of iconic actor and national treasure Harrison Ford!  Growing up in the early 80s, Mr. Ford was my first celebrity hero, thanks of course to his not one but TWO transcendent popcorn movie characters, the swashbuckling scoundrel Han Solo and the intrepid, world-traveling archaeologist Indiana Jones.  Starring in that era's two most successful action-adventure movie franchises made him the most recognizable movie star in the world at the time, and for many years Ford's films outgrossed those of any other actor.  Not bad for a guy who'd all but given up on acting in the mid-70s due to a dearth of quality roles.  It's pretty staggering to think the film industry had written him off during his salad days, deeming him "not believable as a movie star," his looks too rugged and his acting style too understated to be a leading man.  

Indeed, Ford was never even supposed to be cast in the two legendary roles that made him world-famous.  George Lucas, having already used him in American Graffiti, only brought him in to read for other actors when casting Star Wars because he happened to be working as a carpenter across the hall.  But he nailed the character of Han Solo so completely Lucas had no choice but to give him the part.  Four years later when Steven Spielberg suggested Ford for Indiana Jones, Lucas again balked, not wanting Ford to become the Robert Deniro to his Martin Scorsese.  Only after Lucas's first choice Tom Selleck became unavailable thanks to his Magnum P.I. commitments did Lucas assent to offering Raiders of the Lost Ark to Ford.  His unexpected rise to superstardom is one of the great Cinderella stories of Hollywood lore.

From then Ford could pick and choose his projects, and throughout the late 80s and 90s he mostly focused on roles that would challenge him as an actor, rather than simply taking comfortable action star gigs.  Films like Witness, Frantic, Working Girl, and Presumed Innocent revealed new facets to his acting game and proved he could bring credibility and gravitas to any kind of film, be it a heavy drama, a suspense thriller, or a light comedy.  He'd continue taking on action vehicles as well - films like Patriot Games, The Fugitive, and Air Force One scored big at the box office, in no small part thanks to Ford's cache as a relatable everyman action star.  By the late 90s he'd established himself as a versatile leading man with a subtle economy to his acting style.  Rather than relying on flashy speech-making in his films, Ford leaned toward conveying emotion and tension through facial expression and body language.  Sadly at awards season he'd be perennially overlooked (except once), but his choices set did him apart from his fellow leading men.

In recent years Ford's filmography has mostly included a lot of B-movies, his only really notable projects being reprisals of his most famous characters, but regardless of film quality, anytime Harrison Ford is in a film, I'm interested in seeing what he'll do.  He is one of the all-time great movie stars, and by all accounts a pretty damn cool dude in real life.

Here are some of his career highlights....

HM: Quinn Harris (Six Days, Seven Nights)

Heads-up, some of the entries on this list won't so much be reflective of the quality of the film in question, but on Ford's contributions to it.  Six Days, Seven Nights is a highly entertaining piece of crap, an Ivan Reitman-helmed adventure comedy where Ford's character is a grizzled pilot hired to transport Anne Heche's magazine editor to Tahiti for a photo shoot.  They hate each other at first but of course end up falling in love after some wacky Pacific island hijinks.  But Ford's performance is a pretty great comedic spin on his usual rugged action hero persona, and helps elevate the film above its station.

HM: Dr. Norman Spencer (What Lies Beneath)

Likewise in Robert Zemeckis's pretty terrible attempt at Hitchcock-style suspense, Harrison Ford is the film's brightest spot, providing a rare and welcome performance as a villain.  I'd love to see Ford try this in a smarter film (Incidentally he'd been offered the Nick Nolte role in Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear but turned it down, hoping to land Deniro's spot instead), his performance here is so much against type it makes an otherwise drivelous piece of supernatural melodrama worth a look.

10. Henry Turner (Regarding Henry)

I've reviewed Regarding Henry as an Awesomely Shitty Movie, and while I stand by said review - Mike Nichols' dramedy about a ruthless lawyer rendered a simpleton cuddly bear after a bullet to the head is shameless in its low-rent manipulation - Ford's performance is quite admirable, conveying slimy aloofness in the early scenes and childlike innocence later on.  With any other actor this film would be pretty unwatchable, but once again Ford makes it better than it is.

9. Jack Trainer (Working Girl)

Alright, here's a film Ford didn't need to completely carry on his shoulders.  Another Mike Nichols effort, Working Girl is actually a thoroughly well-made grown-up comedy about a young professional woman trying to find her way in the cutthroat world of Reagan-era big business.  Harrison Ford plays a mergers and acquisitions executive who believes in her and her ideas, and helps her broker a major business deal.  Their relationship of course turns romantic and Ford and Melanie Griffith have very sweet chemistry together, lending relatability to what could've otherwise been a pretty dry premise.

8. Bob Falfa (American Graffiti)

Ford's first collaboration with George Lucas was in this 1973 coming-of-age comedy, with semiautobiographical elements from Lucas's teenage years.  In the persona of charismatic bad boy Bob Falfa, Ford would give audiences almost a preview of his future Han Solo portrayal.  Even with very little screen time Ford made an indelible impression as the fast-talking rascal you didn't want to like but couldn't help getting a kick out of.  Given how obvious the through-line is between Falfa and Han it's more than a little baffling Lucas didn't initially want to cast Ford in Star Wars.

7. Allie Fox (The Mosquito Coast)

Another film that fell short of expectations but was nonetheless vastly improved by Ford's performance, The Mosquito Coast was a followup to Witness for both Ford and Australian director Peter Weir.  The story centers around an inventor who, fed up with the American capitalist system, decides to move his family to South America, hoping to sell to the technologically undeveloped natives an ice machine he's invented.  After numerous crippling setbacks he gradually goes insane, refusing to give up on his dream even though it's destroying his family.  The premise was fascinating and the lead character of Allie Fox provided Ford one of his most complex roles, but unfortunately the film ended up flat and ponderous in execution.  Still it's worth a look, once again because of Harrison Ford's nuanced performance as this deeply flawed protagonist.  Side note: The Mosquito Coast co-starred River Phoenix, who would later play young Indiana Jones himself.


6. Rusty Sabich (Presumed Innocent)

Speaking of flawed protagonists, perhaps none in Ford's filmography are quite so flawed as prosecuting attorney Rusty Sabich, who becomes the prime suspect when his colleague and brief extramarital partner Carolyn is found murdered in her apartment.  All signs point to his having a motive, while circumstantial evidence implicates him as the killer, and his defense team breaks numerous laws to get him acquitted.  As with his Mosquito Coast character, Ford makes Sabich very unlikable at times, and yet manages to mostly keep the audience's sympathies. 


5. Rick Deckard (Blade Runner/Blade Runner 2049)

One of three 80s characters Ford would reprise much later, Rick Deckard is the hard-boiled detective in Ridley Scott's sci-fi film noir masterwork Blade Runner.  Tasked with hunting down four escaped androids, Deckard uses cleverness and grit to "retire" his physically far superior targets, while falling for another replicant named Rachael.  Still, Denis Villeneuve's 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049 might be an even greater film, and Ford's performance as a much older, spiritually broken recluse Deckard is note-perfect.  Deckard reveals that somehow he and Rachael were able to conceive a child, who was left in the protection of a political group to keep the authorities from finding her.  In this sequel Ford found numerous new layers to explore, in what had previously been more an archetype than a three-dimensional character.

4. John Book (Witness)

Ford's lone Oscar nomination came in 1986, for his portrayal of another hard-boiled police detective, John Book, tasked with investigating the murder of one of his colleagues on the force.  After uncovering a drug-related coverup, Book himself becomes a target, and disappears into Pennsylvania Dutch country to protect an Amish mother and son (who witnessed the murder).  Ford wonderfully conveys Book's arc, from emotionally detached cop to valued member of this technologically simple society, as he forms strong familial bonds with both the mother and her son.  Ford would lose the Oscar to William Hurt that year, but his maturing from world-famous action hero to Oscar-nominated dramatic actor must have been quite a triumph.

3. Dr. Richard Kimble (The Fugitive)

Apparently neither Harrison Ford nor his co-star Tommy Lee Jones had much hope for this 1993 film adaptation of the famous thriller television show, each fearing the film would sink their respective careers.  Fortunately they were both sorely mistaken, and The Fugitive was a commercial and critical smash, grossing $386 million worldwide and picking up seven Oscar nods (Jones would win Best Supporting Actor).  The film's central emotional anchor is of course Ford's performance, as the doctor falsely convicted for murdering his wife and on the run after a prisoner transfer gone awry.  The Fugitive combined so many elements of his previous successful performances - the wrongly accused family man, the sharp-minded detective who uncovers a conspiracy, and the everyman action hero, in way over his head.  This film and its lead performance are masterful, a tripwire-taut suspense vehicle starring one of Hollywood's most appealing movie stars.

2. Han Solo

The final two entries should come as no surprise to anyone; they're the two characters to whom Harrison Ford is most closely tied, the two to whom he owes his monumental success.  Either order is fine, these two characters are #1 and #1A.  Han Solo was the role that put Ford on the map, after his aforementioned audition readings impressed George Lucas so much that he changed course and simply cast Ford in the role.  Ford later remarked that the three leads in Star Wars were so clearly drawn and had such rich territory to explore that bringing Solo to life was easy.  As the oldest and most world-weary of the Star Wars heroes, Han was the cool guy of the group - brash, sardonic, swaggering, morally ambiguous.  By Return of the Jedi he'd lost some of his cool factor in favor of some domesticated humility, but much to Ford's delight, Han later got a fantastically upsetting death scene in The Force Awakens to complete his arc.  

Even as a young child I immediately gravitated toward Han over Luke; there was just so much more depth to his character than in Luke's callow, white meat good guy.  When my friends and I would pretend to be Star Wars characters, I always picked Han, sacrificing the use of a Wiffle Ball bat-lightsaber for a squirt gun blaster.  Whatever your favorite Star Wars era, there's no denying Han Solo is one of the all-time great film heroes.

1. Indiana Jones

The reason I put Indy above Han is that while Han is technically a supporting part of an ensemble piece, Indiana Jones is front and center at all times, the one character carrying his films.  I first became aware of Indy after seeing a Raiders of the Lost Ark trailer (don't ask what movie I saw it in front of), and finding it weird that the apparent good guy in this movie was gruff, unshaven and punched people a lot.  I didn't even recognize him as the same actor from Star Wars, but my parents later informed me of that fact, insisting I'd love the movie.  And they were right, I was obsessed with Raiders from the first viewing (the first of at least five in the theater incidentally), donning a straw cowboy hat when I got home and pretending it was a brown fedora.  Indiana Jones is maybe the greatest action hero character ever written - valiant and fearless (as long as no snakes are nearby), but far from invulnerable.  At a time when most action movie protagonists seemed impervious to pain, Indy endured more than a few lumps on his way to finding the treasure.  While the stunt doubles on these films allowed Indy to perform superhuman feats, Ford lent him his humanity and credibility.  More than any of his other film roles, Indiana Jones is the one that defines Harrison Ford's career. 

That's my love letter to Mr. Ford - regardless of how the rest of his acting career plays out, his work has made a significant impact on my life, and he's left the film industry better than he found it.  Happy 80th birthday, good sir, and thank you for the countless movie memories!

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