Februrary 11, 2013

Three Fugitives (1989)
Starring Nick Nolte, Martin Short, and James Earl Jones

Comments:   Three Fugitives is one of those movies that seems to have completely disappeared from the face of the earth.  I don't think I have heard it mentioned by anyone in more than 20 years.  Hell, I probably haven't even seen it myself in more than 20 years, and there are very few movies (that I once liked) that I can actually say that about.  It is just one of those random little comedies that was funny for a while, then people moved on to other things, and then people just kinda forgot about it.  

Oh, and then people realized that Martin Short was never meant to be a movie star, so they just sort of blocked it out of their minds and pretended like it didn't happen.

I don't have a whole lot to say about this movie because, like I said before, I haven't seen it in more than twenty years.  So I can't sit here and reel off my top twenty moments from Three Fugitives or anything.  But there are a couple of notable things that I have always remembered about it, and that is why I have chosen to write about it on my 200 Underloved Movies Countdown.

Three Fugitives is the story of a man named Lucas (Nick Nolte).  He is a career criminal and a badass who has spent most of his life in jail.  The cops in the area all know him, and the cops in the area all hate him.  They hate him because he is the type of scumbag criminal who they are always arresting and letting out and then re-arresting.  They know that there is no good in his heart whatsoever, and that he will always be a criminal.  And that he will always be a scumbag.

Lucas (right) doing Lucas things

Well Lucas has just been released for prison for the umpteenth time, and the cops (by law) are required to escort him back into society.  So they take him on a ferry boat back to the mainland, and he asks them to drop him off a bank.

"Why," ask the cops, "So you can rob it?"

"Yep," grins Lucas.  "See you back in jail in a couple of minutes."

The cops, played by James Earl Jones and Alan "Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day Off" Ruck

Lucas is just kidding of course.  He has no plans to rob a bank.  He has decided during his latest prison stint that he doesn't want to lead this kind of a life anymore.  He doesn't want to be in jail anymore, and he doesn't want to live his life on the run.  He has decided to turn over a new leaf and go legit.  And this trip to the bank is the first step to beginning his new life as an honest law-abiding citizen.

And then... trouble

Unfortunately, Lucas picked the wrong day to walk into that bank.

Held hostage by Ned Nederlander

Lucas isn't in the bank for more than two minutes before a spazzy little bank robber named Ned (Martin Short) comes bursting into the building.  He has a gun in his hand and he is holding a grenade and he announces that this is a robbery.  And Lucas has to sit there in disbelief as Ned pulls off the single most inept bank robbery in American history.

Ned ripping his nylon stocking mask when he attempts to set off the grenade

The bank robbery scene is seriously one of my favorite scenes of any comedy of the 80's.  I remember just absolutely loving it the first time I saw it.  I remember going to school the next day and talking about it with my friend Brian, and he loved it too.  And that is one of the reasons why I wanted to write about this movie.  The bank robbery scene is just way too good to have been completely forgotten by the annals of time.  That is the scene that I think of when I think of Three Fugitives.

So anyway, the robbery fails because Ned is such a fuck up, and since there are cops already sitting there right outside the building (the ones who dropped off Lucas) now he is trapped inside the bank and surrounded by cops.  And at that point in the robbery he only has one solution left available to him.  All he can do at this point is grab a hostage and see if the two of them can walk out that door.

Naturally, he picks Lucas as his hostage.

Even after Lucas wisely suggests to him "Uh, pick somebody else."

Lucas in total disbelief that this little douchebag is holding him hostage now

You can pretty much guess the rest of the movie.  Ned and Lucas spend the rest of the movie on the run from the cops, who of course think that Lucas is the bad guy and that Ned is his hostage.  They can't believe that they drove Lucas to the bank and then he robbed it right in front of them.  Basically they are just out to shoot the guy now.  No questions asked.  At this point they aren't going to listen to anything he says anymore.  At this point now they just want to kill him.

Lucas is frustrated over this new development.  And he spends most of the movie taking out this frustration on Martin Short's head.

Three Fugitives was never the most ground breaking comedy in the world.  Once Lucas and Ned get on the road (and it turns into a chase movie) it really isn't anything special.  You have seen cute little PG family comedies like this a million times before.  In fact, if you go to Rotten Tomatoes and you read what all the retro reviews say about it, you will see that only about 15% of the reviews even try to say anything nice about it at all.  Three Fugitives' reputation over the years seems to be that it is either A) forgotten, or B) hated.

This is F-U-N.

However, there are four things I would like to point out about this movie that explain why I would recommend it.  And why I don't think it deserves to be placed in the wastebasket of history like it has been.

For starters, her

Three Fugitives has perhaps the most adorable child actor in any movie I have ever seen.  And yes, I know that is blasphemous to be saying when Heather O'Rourke from Poltergeist is still out there in the nominee pool.  But whenever I think of Three Fugitives I will always think of Ned's daughter, the adorable little Sarah Rowland Doroff.  Who, if you check out her bio on the IMDB, pretty much retired from acting the year after this movie.  This movie is pretty much the only documented history out there that she was ever an actress.

In the words of Mystery Science Theater, Sarah wasn't cute, she was "aggressively cute."

Okay, so there is one positive aspect about Three Fugitives.  This movie has maybe the most adorable little kid actor ever.  Whenever she pops up on screen, she will melt your heart.

Oh, and did I mention that she is mute?

The second thing that I would like to recommend about this movie is that it is set in Seattle.  Well, okay, not -in- Seattle.  It was actually filmed in Tacoma (about thirty miles south of Seattle).  And since Seattle is where I grew up, well, I consider this to be kind of a big deal.

And I know what you are thinking.  You are thinking "So what?  Hundreds of movies are set in Seattle?  Why is that such a big deal?"

Well this movie was made before the big Seattle hipster/grunge craze of the early 90's.  Back in 1989 almost NO movies were ever set in Seattle.  Or filmed there.  Ever.  So Three Fugitives was kind of a big deal because it was one of the few movies that were made there before Seattle became, for lack of a better term, "cool."  

There is no way you can watch this movie and not think of the Northwest.  They even have the characters traveling on ferry boats.  I watch it and it reminds me of home.


Okay and now for the final two things I would like to recommend about this movie.  And they are basically the exact same thing, so I will just combine them into one.

The third thing I have always loved about this movie is (like I said before) the bank robbery scene.  Hands down, that is one of the funniest twenty minutes of any comedy from the 80's.  If this movie should be remembered for one scene, and for one scene alone, it is because of that bank robbery.  No way should ANY movie with a scene that good have ever been forgotten this badly.

Martin Short is the key to the bank robbery scene, of course, and that leads me into thing #4 that makes this movie so memorable.

Martin Short.  

Or, more specifically, the physical abuse that Martin Short takes throughout the course of this movie.

Simply put, I have never seen an actor take more physical abuse during the course of a comedy than Martin Short takes during Three Fugitives.  The entire movie is just 90 minutes of Nick Nolte punching Ned in the face, or slamming his head into a wall, or Nick Nolte just randomly tossing him face first into something or generally beating the shit out of him.  In fact during some of the scenes in this movie you actually find yourself wincing.  You sit there, and you watch Ned take more and more abuse, and at certain points you actually find yourself thinking, "Holy shit, I think Nick Nolte really just punched him there."

They don't really give out awards for slapstick, and I am sure that slapstick comedy isn't really everyone's cup of tea.   But if they ever did hand out awards for the most brutal slapstick comedy ever made, I am guessing that Three Fugitives (and more importantly Martin Short's face) would be right up there.  He really takes a pounding in this movie.

And so there you have it.  Three Fugitives.  A movie that I used to get confused with Quick Change all the time because they have similar plots and because they came out right around the same time.  A movie that has only a 15% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but if you go to amazon.com and you read the user reviews, almost every single one of them is positive.  The very definition of an innocent little comedy that was once semi popular, but ever since then has been completely forgotten by everyone.

A lot of people hate Martin Short.  A lot of people can't stand him, and they will specifically never watch a movie or a TV show just because he is one of the actors in it.

I can understand that.  In fact, in a way, I sort of agree with it.  I have never really been a big Martin Short fan.

However, that shouldn't dissuade you from watching this movie.

If you love Martin Short, well Three Fugitives is perfect for you.  Because Martin Short does a ton of Martin Short things in it.  It is just 90 minutes of him mugging, and spazzing, and flopping around, and screaming.  In fact, there may have never been a more Martin Short project ever made than Three Fugitives.  I can't really think of anyone else who could have played Ned the world's most inept bank robber any more effectively than he did.

Oh, and if you are one of those people who DON'T like Martin Short?

Well if that is the case, then you should like this movie too.

Because if you don't like the guy, you can watch 90 minutes of Nick Nolte pretty much beating the shit out of him.  

And that should be incredibly satisfying.

Oh and don't forget her.  Whatever happened to her?

* My favorite IMDB user reviews about Three Fugitives:

Wonderful funny film - 8 October 2012
If I ever need cheering up, I watch this movie. One of my favourite comedies.

The unlikely pairing of Nick Nolte and Martin Short works wonderfully, with Nolte as the hardened ex-con Lucas, unwittingly gets involved in the bumbling bank robbery carried out by Short (Ned Perry). James Earl Jones plays the cop who has been itching to nail Lucas once again and assumes that, once Lucas is taken hostage by Perry, that they are in it together.

The first 15-20 minutes contain some pure slapstick which has me crying with laughter every time I see it.

It is particularly heartening to see the tough guy Nolte being enchanted by Martin Short's mute 6 year old daughter.

Lovely, simple and heartwarming.

Enjoyable - 4 August 2010
I won't say this is a perfect movie, but I liked it. It was funny, enjoyable and well-performed. One or two moments may drag and the sentimentality is not quite kept at bay, but overall I really liked Three Fugitives.

Three Fugitives is beautiful to look at certainly, the sumptuous cinematography and beautiful scenery really gives the film a lovely look to it. The music is good too, as is the direction. The script is very funny and quotable and the story is believable with good action, while the pacing on the whole is secure enough. The acting also helps elevate, Nick Nolte and Martin Short's chemistry might not be an immediate classic, but it is believable and both men do really well in their roles especially Short who has plenty of slapstick laughs. And it was a delight to see James Earl Jones again, a great actor with a wonderful, dignified presence and rarely disappoints in his films and this is no exception.

In conclusion, an enjoyable film and worth watching at least once.

Unfairly forgotten 80s charmer. - 14 November 2010
This is the kind of 1980s film that Hollywood never seems to make anymore. Unassuming, low key and charming without a big budget or a labyrinthine plot, it simply tells a simple story and then finishes.

Nowadays low budget films must have a hook, which generally means they are extremely art-housey or plain horror flicks, there aren't many little family-friendly flicks. Marketing and a lack of cross-promotion opportunities wouldn't allow it.

This is a bit of a shame, as Three Fugitives is the kind of film that you can all sit in front of the TV and kill 100 minutes without anyone in the room whining unnecessarily. Nick Nolte plays Lucas, who is being released from prison after a 5 year sentence earned by holding up 14 banks. (It was amazing seeing how fit Nolte looks here, he's still gruff and weathered but he is actually in really good shape, something he couldn't say for anything since the early 90s.) Now Lucas claims he is going straight, something that his arresting officer (played by James Earl Jones) gravely doubts. When Darth Vader stops Lucas as he leaves prison to tell him "I've got my eye on you", Lucas asks for a lift to the local bank so that he can rob it, and this is where the fun starts… After entering the bank to open a new account, Lucas unwittingly becomes embroiled in a hold up perpetrated by the bumbling Ned, played by Martin Short, (who these days turns me to tears but who is fitting here, as his character is required by the plot to be pathetic and annoying, something he is in spades).

Ned ultimately screws up big and takes Lucas hostage for some reason, even though at 6 foot plus and a good 50kg heavier than Ned he could snap him like a twig. The cops, thinking Lucas really held up the bank, tell him to give up and he yells back that he has nothing to do with it, a gun accidentally goes off, Lucas is shot in the leg and off they go on the lam. (That's cops & robbers shop talk for run away.) Initially Lucas tries at the first opportunity to turn Ned in at the local cop shop to absolve himself from guilt and clear his name, he quickly realizes that Ned has no intention of giving himself up, but a lack of blood caused by the bullet in his leg removes a bit of his get up and go, so Ned takes him to a Vet for treatment.

Enter the reason for Ned's robbery and desire to remain free: 6ish year old Meg.

Meg is Ned's daughter, who hasn't spoken for years since the sudden death of her mother. Ned is unemployed and attempted the hold up to keep afloat so that Meg wouldn't need to go to a home or a special needs facility, and his desire to care for her is evident.

Lucas initially wants nothing to do with Meg and gives Ned the address of a guy who can forge him some papers so that he can at least safely skip town.

Without going into detail or the Spoiler-iffic zone, the three fugitives of the title band together through the various impediments and pitfalls that beset them in order to cross the border to Canada, with the cops on their tail the whole time.

This is very light and fanciful stuff, and a great deal of the amusement comes from watching Lucas brutalise Ned in an off-handed way, as if he does it all the time (and he probably does).

The second half of the film is Run. Escape. Run. Escape, with more and more unlikely near misses each time, all wrapped in a neat bow with a hokey 80s movie ending.

This doesn't mean the film is not entertaining though, it is a fluff piece that never seems dated despite being in its 20s, and while never scaling great heights it remains amusing throughout.

A Really Funny Movie! - 24 May 2003
This film is not destined to become a cinema classic, but it does provide a lot of laughter and fun throughout. In fact, it is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. While the plot is somewhat predictable, the laughs keep coming (and the mushy, feel-good stuff is kept to an absolute minimum, but provides an anchor to the plotline). Nolte and Short play off of each other admirably; so well, in fact, that it is amazing the two never made a sequel, or at least co-starred in another film. As noted, if you like to laugh, and like your humor clean (a real rarity these days), this is the movie for you!

This movie will make you laugh 'till you cry at times - 18 December 1998
This movie starts out funny and keeps on being funny until the very end. Naturally it has to have the mandatory American 'happy ending' but despite that the characters are lovable and compelling. The scene with the 'doctor' is priceless and is in keeping with the whole insane reason from the start. I would be tempted to call this movie a humorous version of 'Dog Day Afternoon' Don't miss it!

Funny buddy movie - 19 January 2005
Nick Nolte is a sort of Angel protecting a weak father and child. The relationship with the little girl (Sarah Rowland Doroff) Meg and Nick Nolte is very sweet and endearing. The scene in the warehouse where Nick Nolte passes out and Meg rests on his shoulder is particularly memorable.

Martin Short and Nick Nolte make a surprisingly hilarious pairing.

There are so many funny scenes and quotes from this movie. Martin Short's slapstick, falling over and being a loser will have you laughing throughout the movie. Watch, enjoy and laugh with one of the funniest movies of the eighties.

* My favorite trivia about Three Fugitives:

* The character Meg is mute for most of the movie. James Earl Jones, who plays Dugan, was functionally mute for eight years until he reached high school.

* My favorite scene in Three Fugitives:

Easily the bank robbery scene.  I haven't seen it in twenty years and it still makes me laugh just thinking about it.

Three Fugitives at the IMDB

Three Fugitives at Wikipedia

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