Total Recall

Total Recall: Harrison Ford's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the 42 star.

by | April 11, 2013 | Comments

Harrison Ford

He may not be quite the box office draw he once was, but don’t cry for Harrison Ford: Over the last 35 years or so, he’s amassed a lifetime gross in excess of $3.4 billion — and more importantly, he’s kicked bad-guy tail as some of the most memorable cinematic heroes in history, including Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Jack Ryan. He’s made a whole bunch of great movies along the way, too — and with Ford making an appearance in the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, opening this Friday, we thought now would be the perfect time to take a look back at some of the critical highlights of his illustrious filmography.

You’ll notice what might seem like some curious omissions from our list — most notably, Ford’s appearances in The Conversation, American Graffiti, and Apocalypse Now — but those were fairly minor roles, no matter how well-reviewed the films might have been, and since it’s Harrison Ford’s name at the top of this column, we figured we’d better stick with the movies that gave him the most screen time. You’ll probably also notice that some of your personal favorites are missing, but with a top 10 that bottoms out at 83 percent on the Tomatometer, you know some good stuff didn’t make the cut. But enough prologue — let’s take a look at Harrison Ford’s best-reviewed movies, shall we?


10. Working Girl

We knew he could catch bad guys and save the universe, but before 1988’s Working Girl, we didn’t know whether Harrison Ford could just be, you know, normal — if he could help carry, for instance, one of the smart romantic comedies that the studios used to make once or twice a year. As corporate executive Jack Trainer, Ford wasn’t required to carry the film — that fell to Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill, the secretary whose dissatisfaction with her life inspires the screwball ruse that powers the plot. And as it turned out, not only did his sharp comic timing survive the journey from a galaxy far, far away, Ford made a pretty good romantic leading man, too. The result was one of Mike Nichols’ finer mid-period efforts, earning five Academy Award nominations, putting a Best Song Oscar on Carly Simon’s mantel, and inspiring the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley to write, “This scrumptious romantic comedy with its blithe cast is as easy to watch as swirling ball gowns and dancing feet. But oh me, oh my, how much more demanding it is to be a fairy tale heroine these days.”


9. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Going into the second Indiana Jones movie, George Lucas said he wanted it to be darker than Raiders of the Lost Ark; what he didn’t know, at least at first, was which direction the story would take. Abandoned suggestions included Indy finding a hidden valley of dinosaurs and an adventure involving the mythical Chinese Monkey King; eventually, of course, Lucas and Steven Spielberg settled on a Raiders prequel pitting Indy, his sidekick Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), and a feisty nightclub singer named Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) against a murderous Thuggee cult. Temple of Doom suffered in comparison to Raiders, and its ramped-up violence (including an infamous scene featuring a still-beating heart) helped lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating. Despite catching a twinge of the sophomore jinx, Temple was one of the biggest hits of the year, and praised by critics like Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who called it “sillier, darkly violent and a bit dumbed down, but still great fun.”


8. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Five years after they sent Indiana Jones to India (and disappointed some fans) with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Lucas and Spielberg beat a conscious retreat to the lighthearted action of Raiders of the Lost Ark for the franchise’s third, and at the time supposedly final, installment. In terms of tone — and in its Raiders-esque use of the Nazis as villains — Crusade was a definite, albeit enjoyable, step back; perhaps in order to compensate for this, Lucas and Spielberg made sure to stuff Crusade with all kinds of nifty twists, including a prologue starring River Phoenix as teenaged Indy and the addition of Sean Connery as his gruff, no-nonsense father. The new additions, coupled with the returns of Denholm Elliott as Marcus Brody and John Rhys-Davies as Sallah, helped Crusade roll to one of the highest grosses in a year that included Batman and Ghostbusters II. It is, as Josh Larsen of Sun Publications wrote, “a blueprint for how a blockbuster sequel should be done.”


7. Witness

In retrospect, it helped signal his shift toward more adult drama roles, but in 1985, Witness was something new for Harrison Ford — namely, a quiet thriller that forsook set pieces and relied on a taut script and solid acting to get its point across. Needless to say, the Peter Weir-directed film wasn’t a Star Wars-sized smash, but plenty of people still showed up for Witness — and it was a critical winner, too, netting eight Academy Award nominations (and two wins) as well as a pile of other awards. At bottom, the role of John Book wasn’t terribly different from the other tough, morally upstanding heroes Ford had played, but the circumstances of the story — which traces the aftermath of a Philadelphia murder witnessed (get it?) by a young Amish boy — let audiences focus more on Ford’s natural talent than special effects or a pulse-pounding John Williams score. And he was up to the challenge: As Roger Ebert succinctly put it, “Harrison Ford has never given a better performance in a movie.”


6. Blade Runner

By 1982, Harrison Ford was one of the most bankable stars in the business, but not even the level of marquee mojo that goes with the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises was enough to keep Blade Runner from whiffing at the box office when it was originally released. All’s well that ends well, though — more than a quarter century and a handful of expanded cuts later, Runner is regarded as one of the smartest, most enduring sci-fi films ever made. Still, looking back, it isn’t hard to understand filmgoers’ initial confusion; at the time, Ford was mostly known for playing wisecracking, reluctant heroes, and his role here — the burned-out cop Rick Deckard — was a far cry from Han Solo or Indiana Jones. Though it was slow to find its audience, critics were quick to applaud Blade Runner; the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, for instance, called it “The most remarkably and densely imagined and visualized SF film since 2001: A Space Odyssey” and “a hauntingly erotic meditation on the difference between the human and the nonhuman.”


5. Star Wars

On playgrounds across America in 1977, two things were true no matter which school you went to or which grade you were in: One, Luke Skywalker was the hero of the coolest sci-fi action movie ever to grace the screen; and two, when it came time to play Star Wars during recess, you wanted to be Han Solo anyway. Luke might have been the chosen one, but Han got all the coolest lines, and nobody ever looked cooler with a laser pistol slung low on his hip. As would become something of a habit with Ford, he acquired the role of Han through unusual circumstances; he was originally only hired to read lines during casting sessions, but eventually impressed George Lucas enough to win what would become a cornerstone part in one of the most beloved film franchises in history. He’d scored movie roles before, but really, this is where it all started for Harrison Ford — and although no one could have guessed where Star Wars‘ amazing success would lead, plenty of critics loved it. As Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “It is, all in all, hard to think of a place or an age group that would not respond to the enthusiastic inventiveness with which Lucas has enshrined his early loves.”


4. Presumed Innocent

We don’t see them as often as we used to, but during the ’80s and ’90s, theaters were flush with legal thrillers, and although the genre eventually wore itself out with hackneyed plot twists and a tired succession of grizzled anti-heroes, filmgoers were treated to some great stuff along the way. A case in point: 1990’s Presumed Innocent, which placed Alan Pakula behind the lens for an adaptation of the Scott Turow best-seller about a prosecutor (Ford) investigating the grisly murder of a colleague (Greta Scacchi) who just happens to be the woman he had an affair with — and who dumped him before she died — only to discover, much to his consternation, that a growing body of evidence points at himself. Working from Turow’s gripping novel, and with a stellar cast that included Brian Dennehy, Raúl Juliá, Bonnie Bedelia, and Paul Winfield, Pakula had all the right ingredients for what Variety called “a demanding, disturbing javelin of a courtroom murder mystery” — and a film that, even in the era of Jagged Edge and Suspect, managed to stand out. It also represented another opportunity for Ford to shine in a movie featuring zero aliens, robots, or supervillains; in the words of Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, “Ford — breaking again from his Indiana Jones heroics — is astonishingly fine in a performance of controlled intensity.”


3. The Fugitive

Movies based on television shows aren’t always box office duds — the first Brady Bunch and Addams Family films were harmless fun, and borderline Fresh on the Tomatometer besides — but it’s exceedingly rare that they achieve the kind of critical and commercial success enjoyed by 1993’s The Fugitive. It helped, of course, that the original series was one of the more highly regarded TV dramas of the ’60s, and that its central plot device — a man on the run for a crime he didn’t commit, and in pursuit of the real villain — was exceedingly easy to move to the big screen and turn into a pulse-pounding 1990s action thriller. What The Fugitive really had going for it, though, was a pair of terrific leads in Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. As the titular wanted man, Dr. Richard Kimble, Ford got to play another of the reluctant action heroes he embodied so well in the ’80s and ’90s — and Jones might has well have been born to play the blunt, brilliant, and driven U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard. A movie so successful it made the studio think 1998’s “spiritual sequel” U.S. Marshals would be a hit, The Fugitive sold tons of tickets while earning high praise from critics like the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley, who wrote, “A flurry of stunts, close shaves and deeds of desperate daring, it easily transcends its television origins to become a stylish pacemaker-buster on the order of Die Hard, MD.


2. Raiders of the Lost Ark

As was the case with Han Solo, the role of Indiana Jones only fell to Harrison Ford after the filmmakers’ original plans came to naught. Not wanting Ford to be “that guy I put in all my movies,” Lucas initially balked at casting Ford, instead handing the whip and fedora to Tom Selleck — only to have Selleck walk away from the movie when he couldn’t swing it against his schedule with Magnum, P.I. Ford was, of course, the perfect fit for Lucas and Spielberg’s swashbuckling archaeologist — something the rest of the world knew by the end of 1981, when stubble and a decrepit leather jacket were synonymous with high adventure and Paramount was on its way to pocketing more than $380 million in ticket receipts. A delirious mashup of everything from classic Saturday serials to Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge comics, Raiders took audiences on a thrill ride so breathtaking that not even the New York Times’ Vincent Canby could keep from cheering that it was “one of the most deliriously funny, ingenious and stylish American adventure movies ever made.” In the words of Flipside Movie Emporium’s Rob Vaux, “If you can’t love this film, you have no business loving movies at all.”


1. The Empire Strikes Back

Everyone knows most sequels are lame, but quite a lot of that has to do with the fact that most sequels are made for money — and although Star Wars made more than enough dough to demand a follow-up, George Lucas had always intended for it to be the first installment in a space opera anyway. As a result, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back is that rare second installment that’s obviously setting up the saga-concluding events of its sequel, but has enough of a story of its own — and moves through its plot so deftly — that it never feels like it’s marking time between the bookends of a trilogy. Empire‘s somber tone was a bit of a surprise to fans who expected another helping of Star Wars‘ crowd-pleasing intergalactic adventure, but what it lacked in exploding Death Stars, it more than made up for with a deeper, more affecting storyline, and some of the most resonant scenes of the series — not the least of which being the arrest and imprisonment (and possible death) of Han Solo. Ford did, in fact, argue for his character’s demise, but his pleas fell on deaf ears — and even without that added bit of pathos, Empire earned the approval of critics like the late, great Gene Siskel, who noted, “It balances bloodshed with charm, spectacle with childlike glee. It’s a near flawless movie of its kind.”

In case you were wondering, here are Ford’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. The Empire Strikes Back — 94%
2. Return of the Jedi — 93%
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark — 93%
4. Star Wars — 93%
5. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — 91%
6. Blade Runner — 89%
7. The Fugitive — 82%
8. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — 80%
9. Witness — 76%
10. Patriot Games — 70%

Take a look through Ford’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for 42.


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