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Harrison Ford’s Better Days

The adaptation of Ender’s Game has arrived in theaters, marking the long awaited return of Harrison Ford to the sci-fi genre.  Eternally revered for his classic turns as space cowboy Han Solo in the original Star Wars trilogy and as archeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones, pure geeks also unanimously praise his subdued turn as a reluctant Replicant hunter (and probable Replicant) in 1982’s Blade Runner.

Between George Lucas’ sprawling space opera and Ridley Scott’s future noir, Mister Ford has long been instantly associated with the best of big budget science fiction and action epics.

His turn in Ender’s Game as a starchy and gruff military leader is reportedly monotonous (so is the film, I hear), but before we lament the fading star of our favorite two-fisted, wiseacre hero, here’s a brief glance back at his more illustrious days, and a tease of some potentially great things to come.

Early Years

After his brief role as hot-rod hot-shot Bob Falfa in George Lucas’ nostalgic 1973 hit American Graffiti, Ford appeared in another early ’70s classic, sneaking up as a shady menace in Francis Ford Coppola’s chilly 1974 paranoid conspiracy thriller The Conversation.

A few years later, he’d pop up in the early scenes of Coppola’s massive Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now as a military intelligence officer who doesn’t look old enough to shave (and who’s named, probably not by coincidence, Colonel Lucas).

Though released in 1979, filming of Apocalypse Now took so legendarily long that Ford’s few scenes were shot shortly after Star Wars wrapped. In the interim, Ford also co-starred with Robert Shaw in a loose sequel to The Guns of Navarone called Force 10 From Navarone in 1978, worth noting mainly for the participation of frequent James Bond director Guy Hamilton.

Glory Years

The 1980s began with a bang, with Ford still riding high off of his fame from Star Wars and its new blockbuster sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. After that, of course, came the incomparable Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie role that was famously first offered to Tom Selleck, who opted instead to don a Hawaiian shirt and detect things in the Aloha State as Magnum, P.I. The inaugural Indiana Jones adventure wouldn’t be the first time Ford was “thisclose” to missing out on a seminal role.

In 1982, Ford starred in Blade Runner, and though critics and audiences expecting another whippersnapper adventure were left cold, the film was light years ahead of its time. Now, 30 years beyond its first release—and after no fewer than four alternate versions—the film has justifiably earned its reputation as a sci-fi classic. His rebound from the box office failure of Blade Runner was somewhat of a sure thing: 1983’s Return of the Jedi.

From 1985 through 1988, between the second and third Indiana Jones movies, Ford branched out into more serious dramatic roles, earning an Oscar nomination (his only nod so far) for Peter Weir’s gorgeous and lyrical cops-and-Amishmen thriller Witness in 1985. His follow-up in 1986 was another disturbing drama for Weir, The Mosquito Coast, in which he portrays a jaded inventor who uproots his family (including Helen Mirren and River Phoenix) and relocates to the jungles of Central America. After that, he traveled to Paris in 1988 to film Roman Polanski’s somber and superb Hitchcockian thriller Frantic, playing a jetlagged surgeon desperately seeking his kidnapped wife. Then, following these three searing dramatic performances, Ford came into his own as a nouveau Cary Grant in the nimble corporate-ladder comedy Working Girl, in which Ford competes with Alec Baldwin’s supporting character for the affections of Melanie Griffith. Though Ford and Baldwin didn’t share any screen time in Working Girl, their film careers would intersect twice more in the early 1990s.

In 1990, Alan J. Pakula’s legal potboiler Presumed Innocent generated some controversy for Ford’s close-cropped haircut, but the film was—and remains—a terrific ensemble piece and one the finest courtroom thrillers of the decade. After that came Ford’s touching but feather-weight turn as an amnesiac in Mike Nichols’ 1991 family drama Regarding Henry.

In 1992, Ford famously stepped into the role of Jack Ryan in Patriot Games, the follow-up to Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October which co-starred Alec Baldwin as Ryan (Baldwin reportedly bowed out when production of Patriot Games was delayed so he could honor a commitment to appear on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire).

Ironically, Ford was originally approached to portray Jack Ryan in 1990’s Red October but, even though Ford and Sean Connery got along famously during Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ford passed on the first Ryan flick because the Red October script clearly put Connery’s role of Captain Ramius in the center spotlight. Ford would go on to make another Jack Ryan thriller, 1994’s superb Clear and Present Danger, but not before edging out Alec Baldwin once again in 1993 for the prime role of Doctor Richard Kimble, a/k/a The Fugitive.  From this point on, Ford’s choices would become curiouser and curiouser, with unpredictable and undependable results.

Latter Years

The rest of the 1990s would see a gradually softer and more comedic Ford, popping up as himself for a cutesy cameo in Jimmy Hollywood (1994), and headlining rom-coms like Sabrina in 1995 and Six Days, Seven Nights in 1998. Ford’s two attempts at R-rated adult-oriented action in 1997 were mixed, with a solid hit as a besieged U.S. President in Wolfgang Petersen’s Air Force One (1997) and a woeful miss in Alan J. Pakula’s The Devil’s Own as a straight-laced New York cop sheltering a notorious IRA soldier (Brad Pitt).

The aughts would see our favorite stalwart hero finally portraying his first downright evil villain in Robert Zemeckis’ wickedly entertaining ghost story What Lies Beneath. (Whoops—that’s actually a major spoiler but, c’mon, you’ve had thirteen years to catch it).

Since then, Ford has appeared in a tense but otherwise unremarkable Soviet submarine tale for director Kathryn Bigelow (2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker); he’s paired up (acrimoniously, according to reports) with Josh Hartnett for a lame mystery/comedy/thriller (2003’s Hollywood Homicide); and he’s made an uninspired save-my-family techno-thriller (2006’s Firewall). Then there was 2008’s risible Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, followed by a few forgettable comedies and dramas, leading up to his last big movie, Jon Favreau’s intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying sci-fi/western mash-up Cowboys & Aliens in 2011.

And, of course, there was Ford’s hilarious blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in 2009’s Bruno as he drops a wicked F-bomb on Sacha Baron Cohen’s obnoxious alter-ego.

Love it or loathe it, Ender’s Game is hardly the last we’ll see of the aging Ford. He turned up—nearly unrecognizable—in the inspiring Jackie Robinson biopic 42 earlier this year, delivering a likable character performance (his first based on a true-life person) that has received some Oscar buzz, so we may be seeing him at next spring’s Academy Awards ceremony. This Christmas, Ford will appear with Will Ferrell and gang in Anchorman 2 and he recently signed to play a supporting part in the third Expendables flick alongside Sylvester Stallone and just about every other aging ’80s action superstar.

Meanwhile, every geek out there ought to be crossing their fingers that J.J. Abrams’ and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay for Star Wars – Episode VII will feature an elder Han Solo, and that Ford will agree to appear in the part once more (or thrice more, considering there’s going to be a new trilogy). Further beyond, say your prayers that Ridley Scott does indeed make his planned sequel to Blade Runner, and that Ford’s character Rick Deckard somehow figures in the story.

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