Harrison Ford has become embedded in the national consciousness as a symbol of male strength, whether he's wielding a ray gun or a whip, a legal brief or a scalpel. But what earns him a unique place in moviegoers' affections is not killer force but unsinkable aplomb. He brings an engaged intelligence to his roles that expresses itself most naturally in comedy - as he shows once again in Hollywood Homicide, the droll police action film from writer-director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Tin Cup) featuring Ford's wiliest work since Witness.
After last year's dour K-19: The Widowmaker, Hollywood Homicide (like the underrated Six Days Seven Nights) reminds you of how easily Ford takes to farce and how much he gains in relaxation and authority when he lets himself be funny.
Before attaining superstardom as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and maintaining it with Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, Ford was always getting cast in movie and TV roles that had no names, only simple descriptions like "the guy who didn't do it" or "the witness who cries." Later, when he wasn't acting in Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, he was often the best thing in irredeemable schlock. As a commando chief in Force 10 from Navarone (a staple on AMC), he led with his surly under-lip, investing lame lines with comical incredulity. In the considerably better The Frisco Kid, as a good-natured outlaw (circa 1850) who befriends a frontier rabbi, Ford maintained his dignity by being unafraid to be undignified. He proved that he belonged in the kind of Western made by his namesake, John.
The reason Ford emerged from so many misadventures smelling like a cactus rose is that he appeared to have fun without making fun of what he was doing. It's not surprising that way back in 1973's American Graffiti, George Lucas had him play hot-rodder Bob Falfa, who's always slinging insults like "That must be your mama's car." Ford has a retractable edge that allows him to be ironic without losing credibility or lapsing into self-parody.
Few other American actors could have pulled off his star entrance in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, strolling through a mythical Shanghai Club Obi Wan in a spiffy white tuxedo and saying, "Wah hung how, nee nah? Wah hwey ung jing chee jah loo nee kao soo wah shu shu." Ford takes up a foreign language as matter-of-factly as an outrageous prop or a mechanical co-star; it's just another tool of his trade. One reason he's able to integrate all the aspects of his personality in grand old movie-star fashion is that he never goes for an arbitrary gag or a preening moment.
Ford brings to his acting in Hollywood Homicide the same mix of physical power, emotional reticence and sardonic wit that he brought to his Oscar-nominated role in Witness - albeit in a more lighthearted way. His humor here is tied to his analytical nature: It often comes from thinking through the most recognizable human response to the most ludicrous situations.
Back in L.A.
Over the phone from Los Angeles, he says that he chose to do Hollywood Homicide because he thought a veteran detective with a psychic lover and a real estate sideline "was a pretty funny idea. You have this guy stretching the limits of what's acceptable - as he says to the Internal Affairs cops, 'My whole life is commingled and it's getting more mingled all the time.' What brings the humor to a boil is that he has to wade through one level of poop after another. Given the collaborative disposition of [director/co-writer] Ron Shelton, I thought we'd get something out of this premise that we'd all find fulfilling."
Since Ford's Joe Gavilan is a grizzled cop partnered to a New Age cop named K.C. Calden (Josh Hartnett), a would-be actor and part-time yoga teacher, Hollywood Homicide gave Ford a literal crash course in new-millennium Los Angeles after spending a decade in Wyoming and roughly five years in New York. But L.A. in 2003, he says, is basically full of "the same old stuff." He returned there before Homicide to be close to the kids he had with his ex-wife, screenwriter Melissa Mathison (Kundun, E.T.). Mathison and their children moved to L.A. when the schools in Wyoming proved "less than inspiring."
To Ford, Los Angeles "is a town with a lot of layers. There's the music business and the movie business and other business, and everything overlaps. You never know when you're going to be in a Hollywood frame of mind. You're as likely to get a script from your dentist as from your agent, and the dentist's script may turn out to be the better of the two. But I kind of enjoy this city - except it's a tough town traffic-wise."
The main attraction for Ford in Hollywood Homicide "was working with Ron Shelton. He has demonstrated over and over again a deft hand with character comedy. Josh was already involved. I thought there would be good chemistry, and that the context would allow us to take advantage of the differences in our generations. I'd seen Josh play comedy before; what I liked was that he played it for real."
In Mike Nichols' Working Girl and Sydney Pollack's remake of Billy Wilder's Sabrina, Ford found himself in the kind of romantic comedies "where there are rules to how far one can go. I was the straight man most of the time."
But in Hollywood Homicide, he and Hartnett get to toss the comedy ball back and forth, ever more wildly. As the Motown-fixated Gavilan investigates a murder in L.A.'s rap scene, Ford thought there would be "plenty of opportunities in the story line" for him to cut loose and "stretch to the edge."
Ford is modest about his input in the final writing of the script (which Shelton co-authored with former LAPD detective Robert Souza). "We just fine-tuned each moment as we went along," says Ford, "looking to define the language more particularly and hew it to a nice stout club. You know - get it all down to the necessaries, get the job done, and keep looking for the comedy."
Shelton couldn't be more delighted that Ford came aboard. "Of course, Harrison has learned to be guarded," Shelton told me from L.A. "How else can you be when you can't walk down the street without the paparazzi getting in your underwear? But when you see him as Joe Gavilan, you see a lot of Harrison. He has a great sense of humor; he loves to poke fun at himself. And there's a genius to the way he plays the generation gap. When Gavilan goes to K.C.'s yoga class and sees all these young beauties in their workout clothes, he plays the judgmental parent and the leering adolescent at the same time. You get both sides of the coin - 'this is ridiculous' and 'don't I wish I could have some of that.' "
At the same time, in his own romantic scenes, Ford strikes a genuine amorous vibe with Lena Olin. "I was very pleased about her casting," says Ford. "I didn't want an ingenue. Partly because we were paying so much attention to generational issues, it was nice to have a mature and very attractive lady."
Ford's physical commitment to the role brings zing to the love scenes and to the movie's virtuoso action climax. "The chase is sort of a generic obligation," says Shelton, "so the challenge for us was to serve the genre and still do something fresh. Part of the freshness came from Hollywood, where traffic chopper gals are beauty queens. Part of it came from keeping the story going in the midst of all this mayhem: Is Joe going to sell any real estate before the movie's over, and is the kid going to prove he's Marlon Brando? But the other part was to stage it like old Westerns, where real guys were falling off horses and tripping. When Joe pulls a muscle it's because Harrison really pulled a hamstring muscle, and when Joe limps through the rest of the scene it's because Harrison wanted to keep shooting."
Maintaining emotional equilibrium throughout was part of the challenge, too. "The movie is a tricky balancing act," says Ford. "We have to make sure you're with us at every point. It's actually a complex little movie because there's a murder you're meant to care about and there's also all this comedy. You have to hit the right tone at each moment or else you'll lose the audience."
As Gavilan, Ford functions as an Everyman for non-L.A. audiences, taking us into a world where houses routinely carry multimillion-dollar price tags. But that effect was never part of the star's strategy: It came from his determination to be true as well as entertaining from moment to moment. When a rap club owner (played by Master P) tells Gavilan that he'll pay "6" for a classy house - and Gavilan realizes the man means 6 million - Ford heightens the moment with a hilarious arrested double take. From Ford's perspective, the point of the scene is simply to show Gavilan's "pleasure in the opportunity and ability to shift from the tone of interrogator to the tone of salesman."
A rare dance scene
Among the many pluses for Ford fans in Hollywood Homicide is his finest dance scene since Witness. Why have they been few and far between? With typical dryness, Ford responds: "You can only do them when they come up; you can't really reach for them. Here it's a rare moment, obviously meant to show another side of Joe's character in quick shorthand. Up to that point, the audience thinks he just doesn't have it in him; the dance helps us segue into the film's romantic gel." The movie also gives Ford a rare chance to indulge in sexual gloating, during a morning-after confrontation with Olin's ex-boyfriend. "I love that scene," Ford admits, "and there's not much to it - just attitude."
Ford and Shelton play more subtle fun-and-games with rhythm. The movie's beat alternates between rap and Motown. Often Gavilan holds to his own obdurate pace while the hip-hop performers and kingpins all around him try to speed him up and out of their scene. "Well, I've seen cops use that as a tool in the past," Ford says. "Sometimes if you slow down you make people edgy, and they make mistakes."
That statement leads to the question of how much prep time Ford spent with L.A. cops. Not much, it turns out: "I had done so many cops before, my main goal was to spend one or two days with LAPD to figure out how L.A. cops might be different from New York or Philadelphia cops - to learn their own particular rules and regs and style. I think a lot has to do with the LAPD's desire to project a very professional image, like a military kind of operation. The detectives have to keep their ties knotted up and they don't often walk around without their jackets on." Of course, Hartnett's K.C., caught between following in his policeman-father's footsteps and trying to be the next Brando, isn't as uptight about all that as Gavilan.
In this movie, the comedy of age vs. youth is mostly about conserving energy, "especially," Ford says, "when you've got a young partner who is always wasting his energy." Joe Gavilan waiting for a bad guy to unload all his bullets or for a runaway witness to exhaust himself in and around the Venice, Calif., canals isn't that different from Indiana Jones facing off with his whip against a master swordsman and finally deciding just to shoot him.
Ford confirms that plans are afoot on a fourth Indiana Jones movie, currently being written by Frank Darabont (who, before writing and directing films like The Shawshank Redemption, wrote a handful of episodes for the Young Indiana Jones TV series). The actor won't divulge any details. But he does say: "I think you have to look for devices like introducing Sean Connery as his father [in the third movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade] in order to continue creating opportunities to explore the character. When you think you know him very well, let audiences see another aspect in which they get to know him better. Sean gave us that. All I can tell you about the new one is that it has an ambitious idea - and that I'm very happy we have Frank writing it."