½*/**** Image B Sound B-
starring Nick Nolte, Martin Short, Sarah Rowland Doroff, James Earl Jones
written and directed by Francis Veber
by Walter Chaw Written and directed by Francis Veber, remaking his own Les Fugitifs from two years previous, Three Fugitives is one of the middle-period films under Disney's Touchstone imprint, although the growing pains are still obvious. What works in a French farce is wearying and disturbing in a purportedly "light-hearted" American comedy (see also: Three Men and a Baby, The Birdcage, and Cousins); not helping, of course, is a screenplay in English by a non-English speaker and a performance by Nick Nolte that is by turns unnecessarily terrifying and unintentionally grotesque. It is not as terrifying and grotesque, however, as the implications of a man released from prison after five years cuddling a little girl in an abandoned warehouse, nor of that same man demanding that little Martin Short dress up in drag.
In roles originated by Gérard Depardieu and Pierre Richard, Nolte is Lucas, a grizzled fourteen-time loser just out after five years in the pen, while Short is Perry, a lifetime loser who decides to knock over a bank to pay for his emotionally-disturbed child's "special" school. Their paths cross during Perry's bungled robbery: a pair of cheerfully bantering multi-racial cops (Alan Ruck and poor James Earl Jones) have a hard time believing that Lucas isn't responsible for the heist (all evidence be damned), forcing Lucas to team up with Perry, bound for Canada. Surprise to no one, hardened Lucas melts under the catatonic ministrations of moppet Meg (Sarah Rowland Doroff), and Meg gifts the psychotic meathead with a few monotone declarations.
Three Fugitives ironically places Martin Short as his generation's Jim Carrey: gifted physical comedians, both, they too often find their attempts to stretch beyond the constraints of slapstick doomed to embarrassment. Short is elastic when taking punishment, but that punishment is frequently meted out by criminals cruel and brutal enough that it just becomes sad. I suspect that Three Fugitives is attempting to find pathos in Perry's physical mortification (a dissolve between Perry beaten and unconscious and Lucas "spooning" little Meg cements that suspicion), but the tone is uncertain enough throughout the picture that one is left in the uncomfortable spot of being prodded to laugh at what is inherently unfunny. The struggle to stifle is not a mighty one (Three Fugitives is dedicatedly not-funny), but the fact that humour might be attempted through the sadistic and unjust torture of a small man leaves a bitter aftertaste.
Nolte's turn is so off-the-chart virile that my television grew hair, a collection of growls and glowering slow-burns that call into question Meg's sanity for her love of him more than two years of silence ever could. It's something out of fairy tale or Japanese animé: an urchin with bangs and giant, solemn, watery eyes squatting next to a brutish hulk of a man in silent tableaux of existential irony. Tedious and unamusing--save for the intellectual puzzle of trying to solve why anyone thought this film was fresh or entertaining--is how it plays. Nolte's performance is so excessive and off-kilter that it almost distracts from the film's stunningly bad and overused score (by David McHugh--think Kenny G somehow crappier and with less connection to the concept of "music"), though he can do nothing to distract from the bad idea that forms Three Fugitives' core. Veber's American debut is interesting now only as a better-forgotten relic of a time in which people actually paid full-ticket price to see Martin Short in a movie. Admittedly, tickets only cost around five dollars back then.
Presenting the film in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, Touchstone's DVD release of Three Fugitives looks a touch grainy now and again but is mainly indicated by that casual slickness that came from a lot of money and misplaced ambition. Haskell Wexler (!) shot the film, displaying little of the grittiness one might expect; Three Fugitives is soft-serve through and through, with colours a little on the muted side. Black and shadow levels are satisfying. A Dolby Surround soundtrack makes pretty good use of the front channels, providing a nice atmospheric wraparound effect during an early car chase, and the dialogue is crisp and of good volume. On the whole, it's underused as perhaps befitting a track of this age. There are no special features whatsoever on the deservedly sparse DVD, unless one counts a packaging blurb that confirms Michael Medved as one of history's busiest media whores. Originally published: April 23, 2002.