Ever since I saw “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” a whopping four times in theaters, I’ve been on a bit of a Harrison Ford kick. His triumphant return to the role that launched his career, smartass smuggler Han Solo, reminded me not only of his magnetic charisma, but also the depth of his talent as an actor. He could’ve easily just been another suave leading man with rock-solid self-assurance, masking his vulnerability with a cocky smirk. Yet what makes Ford such a joy to watch is the volatility of his emotions. When he gets angry, his voice practically trembles with rage, and when he gets sad, he puts all one-trickle criers to shame. Feelings can be messy, and Ford doesn’t shy away from portraying them in all their raw nuance. This, of course, makes him even more of a badass.
It’s easy for anyone who grew up loving Ford’s work in the George Lucas-produced “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” franchises to forget the other cinematic highlights of his career. Thus, I set out to watch as many Ford films as possible (thanks to Netflix) in order to put together the following list. I also found that Conan O’Brien’s claim regarding Ford’s penchant for “finger-pointing” was hilariously true. You could make an entire drinking game out of the sheer number of times Ford points in any given movie. It really is amaz—
Yikes! Sorry Harrison. Just thought I’d point that out.
Anyway, with the exception of Ford’s bit parts in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpieces, “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now” (the latter of which casts him—in a sly in-joke—as Col. Lucas), here are the actor’s Top Ten Non-Lucas Films…
10. Patriot Games (1992)
Few action heroes have kept America safe as many times as Harrison Ford. Who can forget him as the President of the United States, barking “Get Off My Plane!” in “Air Force One,” or his heated confrontation with a corrupt POTUS at the end of “Clear and Present Danger,” when he thunders, “How Dare YOU Sir!” Yet my favorite may be the predecessor to “Danger,” Phillip Noyce’s formulaic yet thoroughly entertaining blockbuster that first cast Ford as Tom Clancy’s popular hero, CIA analyst Jack Ryan. The plot could easily be rebooted for modern times by replacing the threat of IRA-inflicted terrorism with that of ISIS, and though the battle between good and evil is painted in the broadest of strokes, Ford’s volcanic fury (and furious pointing) makes us care anyway. “I don’t give a s—t whether you did it or not, and neither will anyone else,” he growls at Richard Harris. “But I will put such a strange hold on your gun money, you will be out in the street throwing rocks! I Will F—king Destroy You.”
9. Frantic (1988)
Here’s the film best known to Ford fans as the one where the actor has a near-nude scene, delivering macho lines before getting kicked in the face, all the while managing to keep his X-rated parts concealed behind a teddy bear (a feat worthy of inclusion at the Olympics). It’s one of the more cheerfully absurd moments in Roman Polanski’s Hitchcockian caper, which benefits from a set-up that is fiendishly clever in its simplicity. Dr. Richard Kimble—er, Walker (Ford) arrives in Paris with his wife, Sondra (Betty Buckley), for a medical conference. While Richard takes a shower at the hotel, the phone rings. Sondra answers it, hollers at her husband—who can’t hear her words over the rushing water—and walks away. When Richard exits the bathroom, his wife has vanished. My only complaint is that Buckley, the star of “Cats,” “Carrie” and yes, “The Happening,” wasn’t given more scenes. Perhaps she’ll return for Polanski’s “Frantic 2,” where Ford disappears, leaving behind only his teddy bear.
8. 42 (2013)
“The Force Awakens” may have put Ford’s popularity through the roof, but it’s far from the only recent highlight in his filmography. I enjoyed his uproarious turn as a cranky news anchor in “Morning Glory” as well as his achingly lovely work as a man who encounters his lost soul mate in “The Age of Adaline.” Yet it was in Brian Helgeland’s biopic “42” that Ford delivered what may be his most transformative performance to date, submerging himself entirely in the role of Branch Rickey, the Major League team executive who recruited Jackie Robinson (played here by future “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman). Though the film itself is rather generic, the two leads bolster every one of their scenes. There are shades of Walter Matthau in Ford’s subdued wit and swift dismissal of BS. Rather than emerge as a patronizing white savior, Rickey is a complex character in his own right, and his final scene with Robinson—in which he confesses the truth of his motives—is deeply moving.
7. K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
Seven years before Kathryn Bigelow became the first—and, so far, only—female filmmaker to win the Best Director Oscar (for “The Hurt Locker”), she crafted another testosterone-fueled thrill ride with timely resonance. Shedding light on a story kept secret for decades, Bigelow follows the crew of Russia’s first nuclear ballistic submarine on their maiden voyage in 1961. Borrowing a few pages from her ex’s “Titanic” playbook, the director involves us in the lives of these men before potential doom materializes in the form of a malfunctioning reactor. “Star Wars” devotees will delight at the opportunity to watch Ford’s confrontations with Liam Neeson, as the two captains quarrel over the fate of their men, though the film is much more than “Han Solo Vs. Qui-Gon.” The effects are stellar, the performances are gripping and the scenes of men succumbing to the ravages of radiation are truly harrowing. Ford served as executive producer on this passion project, and his efforts were not in vain.
6. Working Girl (1988)
What too many directors tend to forget is how playful a performer Ford can be, and how his irreverent asides in “Star Wars” were a major reason why he became a star in the first place. Luckily, Mike Nichols banked on the actor’s comedic chops in his winning study of workplace vengeance and female empowerment. Ford is at his most Cary Grant-like here as Jack Trainor, an investment broker smitten with Melanie Griffith’s ambitious secretary. He has double takes worthy of Grant’s in “To Catch a Thief,” especially when Griffith delivers her famous line about having “a head for business and a bod for sin.” Nichols and Ford later re-teamed with more problematic results in “Regarding Henry,” a flawed yet frequently charming look at a man’s Capra-esque moral awakening that occurs after he is shot in the head (Han would’ve shot first, of course). Perhaps what’s most notable about “Henry” is that it was scripted by 25-year-old Jeffrey Abrams, who later changed his first name to “J.J.”
5. Presumed Innocent (1990)
Ford has excelled at playing so many likable everymen that the notion of him as a potential evildoer comes as a bit of a shock, recalling the against-type casting of Grant in “Suspicion” and “Charade.” This electrifying whodunit from Alan J. Pakula (“All the President’s Men”) invites us to guess whether deputy prosecutor Rusty Sabich (Ford) killed his mistress (Greta Scacchi), and the answer remains up in the air for nearly the entirety of the film’s running time. Even the ominously subdued score by John Williams keeps us on our toes. With first-rate support from Brian Dennehy, Bonnie Bedelia and especially Raul Julia—whose courtroom monologues stop the show—“Presumed Innocent” is a prime example of Pakula’s mastery as an actor’s director. Though Ford’s character is enigmatic, the truth of his emotional state is never in doubt. Robert Zemeckis attempted to achieve something similar in “What Lies Beneath,” only to foolishly give away the central twist in the trailers.
4. The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Peter Weir’s galvanizing exotic adventure is perhaps the strangest film that Ford ever starred in. The actor hurls himself with wild abandon into the role of Allie Fox, an eccentric inventor so disillusioned by America’s broken system that he moves his wife (Helen Mirren) and kids to Central America, where they will start a new life, a la the Swiss Robinsons. At first, Ford’s rebelliousness is immensely appealing, and his clashes with a Christian missionary result in some priceless exchanges. “There are many rooms in my father’s house,” the missionary quotes verbatim from the Bible, “But I am the door,” to which Fox quips, “Well don’t slam it on the way out.” Yet as the family ventures further from civilization, we observe Fox’s descent into madness through the eyes of his eldest son, played brilliantly by River Phoenix. One suspects that Phoenix studied Ford’s mannerisms like a hawk, considering his spot-on portrayal of the teenage Indiana Jones in “Last Crusade” three years later.
3. Blade Runner (1982)
In between “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi,” Ford starred in another groundbreaking sci-fi classic, this one directed by the visionary behind 1979’s terrifying “Alien.” Ridley Scott’s fusion of futuristic fantasy and classical noir proved to be enormously influential on countless filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg (whose fantastic “Minority Report” certainly owes more than a passing debt to this picture). Ford channels the coolness of Bogart as ex-cop Rick Deckard, a “blade runner” tasked with hunting replicants (Rutger Hauer and Daryl Hannah are among the villains). Depending on which cut of the film you see, there are details in Ford’s performance that suggest he may, in fact, be a replicant as well. That ambiguity—so effectively mined in “Presumed Innocent”—is what keeps fans hooked on revisiting the film, which tends to play differently on subsequent viewings. No matter which version of the film you happen to see, Ford’s commanding intensity remains intact.
2. The Fugitive (1993)
Boasting as many spectacular set-pieces as any Lucas film in Ford’s filmography, Andrew Davis’s adaptation of the classic TV serial is one of the greatest chase movies ever made. Rather than devote the first act of his picture to setting up the plot, Davis swiftly establishes everything in the opening title sequence, allowing the two hours that follow to essentially be one epic chase, with Dr. Richard Walker—er, Kimble (Ford) evading the manhunt led by Deputy Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones). Kimble has been wrongly accused of his wife’s murder and is determined to clear his name by tracking down the real suspect, a one-armed man (“You Find This Man!”). Though Jones deservedly won the Oscar for his mesmerizing performance, Ford is every bit as impressive. The early scene where his outrage causes him to weep while under interrogation is genuinely shattering, and his mounting desperation leads us to buy every one of Kimble’s death-defying leaps into the unknown.
1. Witness (1985)
A year prior to making “The Mosquito Coast,” Weir gave Ford the best showcase of his career in this marvelous picture set largely within an Amish community. Ford is cast in what initially appears to be a by-the-book role—he’s John Book, a cop investigating a murder that was witnessed only by a young Amish boy, Samuel (Lukas Haas). In order to protect the boy, Book goes undercover, living among the Amish while falling for Samuel’s mother, Rachel (a beguiling Kelly McGillis). What unfolds is many films in one, each utilizing a different side of Ford’s screen persona. It’s a gritty crime drama, a fish-out-of-water comedy, a sociological study, a haunting romance and an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller. Ford earned his only Oscar nomination for the film, and though he lost to William Hurt for “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Witness” still stands as the crowning achievement of his career, an indelible ode to his undervalued versatility. He’s funny, riveting, heartbreaking and utterly unforgettable. Plus his rendition of Sam Cooke’s “(What a) Wonderful World” is pure magic.