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The Harrison Ford Guide to Phoning It in

Sure, he’s Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Rick Deckard, but in the 21st century, he’s also unmatched in his ability to care as little as humanly possible

20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

In a 2017 GQ profile tied to the release of Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, Harrison Ford seemed more focused on the aviation award he was receiving that day than his acting career. (The same year, Ford almost hit an American Airlines jet on a runway at Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, following an incident two years earlier when he crashed a WWII-era plane on a golf course.) When finally pushed to discuss the film he was supposed to be promoting, Ford volunteered:

“It’s a story that grows naturally out of the story of the first film, 35 years later,” [Ford] says. “And Ryan Gosling plays a new character who has the same job I used to have. And that’s really about all one might want to say.”

He tells me that when he was contacted about this sequel, “I saw no downsides at all.”

I ask him what the upsides were.

“The experience of making a film that was a bit different to what I’ve lately been doing. And the intellectual puzzle of it. And I got paid. Always happy to be paid.”

He cited the proverbial check in 2015, too, when explaining his return to Star Wars, the source of his super-fame and the self-stated bane of his existence. And now he has said it, too, about his turn in the new Disney live-action flick The Call of the Wild, which marks the first non-supporting role that Ford, 77, has played in more than 10 years. The film, out on Friday, takes a different tack than previous cinematic adaptations of Jack London’s middle school reading-list favorite by casting Cirque du Soleil veteran Terry Notary instead of a collection of real dogs as Buck. Of the movie—which is being released while some of us are still recovering from the first troubling computerized animal film of 2020, Dolittle—Ford had this to say, in an interview with CBS News:

“I mean, it’s a little strange, I’m rollin’ around on the floor with this guy, and scratching his tummy, and rubbing him behind the ear!”

”You physically were doing that with him? ‘Cause you had to, I guess, right?”

”There was money involved!” Ford said.

Ah, it’s one of his little jokes, you might argue. It’s that wry Harrison Ford wit. He just doesn’t like interviews. I have to strenuously protest: I do not know if it is the wry Harrison Ford wit, because I don’t know if that exists. Rather than to say Ford is funny, it seems more accurate to say that contexts arise in which the way Ford happens to be becomes a vehicle for humor. For instance, in the last straightforward comedic film he starred in—2010’s Morning Glory, a star vehicle for Rachel McAdams that plays out like a budget remake of Broadcast News, he plays a hard-bitten, formerly respected TV journalist who says stuff like “News is a sacred temple and you’re part of the cabal that’s ruining it … with horseshit” and “People only say ‘lighten up’ when they’re going to stick a fist up your ass.” I guess these lines are funny, but he doesn’t really deliver them like jokes; the whimsical soundtrack does the work instead.

To circle back to that devil’s advocate argument, even if he is framing it as a joke and doesn’t like interviews, I don’t believe that it is any less true that, in the 21st century, Harrison is in the game for the checks. (To be clear: A check is a good reason to do most things, such as this article.) Either way, my tolerance for generous explanations of Harrison Ford’s motivations is low because—as the worrying invocation of Morning Glory may have hinted—I recently watched nearly every film Ford has made in the past 20 years. Think of it as a kind of endeavor to try to work toward a theory of the late, checked-out Ford, or as a masochistic, headstrong test of endurance—my own private Free Solo exertion.

Part of the deal with Ford, traditionally, is that no one really understands who he is. His enigmatic public persona funnels into the appeal of the antihero characters which made him a movie star in the first place: Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Rick Deckard. We might credit his charm as an actor to the compelling eccentricities of his jaw, like the way he pulls one side of his mouth up and hardens his gaze a bit ironically. But there is something great about Ford that somehow has nothing to do with him—it stems from the absence of something more than what is actually there. Think great antihero actors like John Wayne or Robert Mitchum, only even richer and with a heavier weed intake.

What is actually there? These days, it seems to be mostly an eternal grump factor that transmits strongly even in his gentlest performances. Like other veteran actors who originated numerous classic roles in the 1970s and ’80s and then swam out into toward murkier, choppier water in subsequent decades—mostly looking at you, Al Pacino—it is difficult to pinpoint the special, personalized spark Ford might put into the new roles he takes on. It’s almost impossible to detach him from the deep sociocultural mythology surrounding him and his widely impersonated mannerisms. Sometimes, one wonders whether a certain later-period performance is actually good but our bias is clouding our view—making an actor’s work seem egregious and farcical. Is Pacino’s egomaniacal, washed-up film director in Simone, for example, a logical progression from Michael Corleone? Is Ford’s chillingly unemotional, bowl-cutted Colonel Hyrum Graff in the aesthetically ghastly 2013 Ender’s Game adaptation actually his best sci-fi role? When I die and access the objective aesthetic truth of the world from the afterlife, I hope to resolve ambiguities like these immediately.

When it comes to quality of performance, it is perhaps hardest to judge Ford while he is reprising iconic characters he originated more than 30 years earlier. In the recent Star Wars trilogy, he showed up to play a part he could do just by appearing onscreen in the right costume: Han Solo. As part of the obsessively crowd-sourced Rube Goldberg machine that is a Disney-produced Star Wars movie, he is a walking, talking piece of script with a clear context and purpose. (As for how much Ford is concerned with the product, just this week he told USA Today, “I have no fucking idea what a Force ghost is. And I don’t care.”) Productions like this eliminate room for outright error, or for any acting that’s too striking. His reprise of Blade Runner’s Deckard felt like a similarly fail-safe enterprise. Nearly two glacial hours of film are rolled out like a red carpet for him and then all he has to do is just be Harrison Ford—ripped and decrepit in sepia-toned light, not talking much, every motion and angle staunchly choreographed—and once again, he is our favorite dystopian-noir protagonist.

His Obama-era Indiana Jones, I will say, is something a bit different and significantly less up to code. The Indiana Jones of 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull recalls a child dressed up in an ill-fitting Indiana Jones costume. Looking more like Tom Sawyer or an extra from The Indian in the Cupboard than a swashbuckling archeologist, he is rendered charmless and depressingly functional by Steven Spielberg’s tedious and fan-service-filled script, which works overtime to lull fans into complacency as the whole CGI-ant-drenched enterprise gradually reveals itself to be creatively bankrupt.

It is more instructive, but definitely way more psychologically taxing, to study Ford’s post-9/11 non-franchise films. These dismal ranks include now-obscure offerings such as 2009’s unwatchable post-Crash illegal immigration drama Crossing Over and 2011’s surprisingly humorless Jon Favreau flick Cowboys & Aliens. But it was 2013’s Paranoia, an undead techno-thriller starring Liam Hemsworth as an unwilling corporate spy, that truly left me feeling shivering and alone in the void. It would be easy to deem Ford’s role as a buzz-cut, blood-thristy surveillance-tech guru Jock Goddard (we are forced to stan the name) as the most egregious example of Ford phoning it in. Distractingly, though, Gary Oldman—a man who truly knows how to use a changed appearance to give the impression he is making brave acting choices—is always there next to him, giving Ford a run for his money as a rival blood-thristy surveillance-tech guru. Onscreen together, the two of them are like dark clouds, chasing each other and hoving over some alien planet—one very much like our own, but where Liam Hemsworth is a successful film star—and bathing it in eternal darkness. When Ford roared “I fed you piss and vinegar and told you it was champagne and you lapped it up,” I heard my bones rattle.

Paranoia may be the most objectively inept Ford film I watched, but as an overall experience, it is Rashomon compared to the movie I would argue properly inaugurated the post-acting era of Ford’s career: 2003’s Hollywood Homicide, a deeply dysfunctional attempt at putting a whimsical twist on the buddy-cop formula. It takes a lot to ruin a movie in which Martin Landau, Harrison Ford, and Master P share a lengthy scene together, but Hollywood Homicide manages to do it, mostly on Ford’s watch. Ford plays a homicide detective who is attempting to land a cushy real-estate deal on the side, and Josh Hartnett plays his partner, an aspiring actor practicing for a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Onscreen, the two are like magnets repelling; apparently, they hated each other in real life, too. Ford’s blasé characterization and wooden line readings—he seems to be trying only when he is forced to run—leaves Hartnett exposed: a glaringly bad actor playing a character who is neither clearly comic or clearly serious, and also supposed to be a bad actor. I have seen relatively few ostensibly comedic movies as devoid of jokes as this, and I’m a guy who’s seen The Love Guru more than once.

Perhaps it is in moments of righteous passion when Ford truly shines, I thought; let’s look there. This type of Ford performance is best illustrated, of course, by his Desperate Man, or his Man Fights for His Family roles. These include what might be his greatest role outside of sci-fi and fantasy—Richard Kimble in 1993’s The Fugitive—as well as his turns in 1985’s Witness, which earned him a Oscar nomination, and 1997’s Air Force One. There has arguably been only one Ford movie of this vintage in the past 20 years: 2006’s Firewall. Indeed, the movie is so much in line with Ford’s previous work in the Desperate Man idiom that it seems hard to believe it wasn’t made in the ’90s, with its less-than-cogent hacking plotline, implausible blackmail conspiracy, and overbaked ominous foreign thug (Paul Bettany). Looking square and diminutive as an empty cipher of a businessman character, Ford’s brow seems frozen in a dull furrow, incapable of registering the requisite emotional contours even to convincingly hasten along a dense plot.

So I moved on, looking for a good Ford in sadder and more muted moments, offering glimpses of the softie behind the Scrooge-like facade. These characterizations can feel boilerplate within the context of the not-great films when he uses them—take the 2013 Jackie Robinson biopic 42—but at other points, they can be legitimately effective. 2015’s The Age of Adaline is a conceptually absurd and sentimental magical-realist drama with a dreamy, elderly-friendly patina that comfortably splits the difference between The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Legend of Bagger Vance, and it stars Blake Lively as a woman navigating the emotional and logistical difficulties of being unable to age. Despite all that, it contains one of the best performances of Ford’s challenging late period.

At first, one has the sneaking suspicion his character’s goatee and dignified spectacles are doing all the work, disguising Ford enough to banish the ghosts of other past Fords. But as his time onscreen wears on, it becomes clear he is fully steeped in his role, portraying a man haunted by lost love and shaken by the gradual realization that something beyond explanation has returned it to him. At points, Ford makes the thoroughly implausible concept of the film feel real and embodied. For once, he actually smooths over the movie’s unintentional moments of ludicrousness instead of hammering them home.

But goddamn it—why now, Harrison? Why for 30 minutes in the middle of Age of Adaline? What is the matter with you? In a recent interview explaining how he coaxed Ford back for his dramatic turn in The Rise of Skywalker. J.J. Abrams offered a glimpse into the process of convincing Ford to sign onto a film. “Harrison, who is one of the great people ever, and incredibly thoughtful about everything that he does, all he ever wants is to understand the utility of the character,” Abrams explained. “‘What is my role?’ It was about sitting with him and explaining what our intention was … He got it, and of course, as you can see, he was wonderful.”

Forgive me for being infuriated that I could not be a fly on the wall for these explanatory conversations about Ford’s other films—the one about how he would double-cross both Hemsworth and Oldman through the power of advanced GPS technology, or how a bolt of lightning hitting Adaline’s car after her second car crash would make her able to age again, or why the plotline of him selling a house to Master P is just as important as the one when he solves the murder of the rap group. I long for answers I may never have.

For much of the first half-hour of the 2010 medical drama Extraordinary Measures—the “I ALREADY WORK AROUND THE CLOCK” movie, if that helps—Brendan Fraser’s character John Crowley chases Harrison Ford’s Robert Stonehill, a flaky medical researcher who has the knowledge to create an enzyme that could potentially cure Crowley’s ailing daughters. Crowley attempts to call Stonehill on his office landline repeatedly, but Stonehill can’t work the phone, so then Crowley travels to Nebraska to wait outside Stonehill’s office for hours, only to miss Ford’s character speeding out the door. After attempting to flag Stonehill down and running after his car, Crowley follows him to a dive bar to corner him. It might be my favorite part of any Ford movie made during the past 17 years, partially because it feels like an apt metaphor for the experience of watching any of the movies he made during that time.

“You deal with it, Jersey, I’m going fishing,” Stonehill says at one point, refusing to help Crowley (that’s “Jersey”) prepare a crucial presentation for possible investors in their pharmaceutical startup. Fishing cap askew, Ford’s character lurches his rusty pickup into motion, and speeds away in a cloud of dust. That many hours into watching 21st-century Ford, I felt like I was there with Fraser’s character on the rickety front porch, staring after Ford dumbfounded, with my hands full of incomprehensible notes to sift through, abandoned and hopeless.

Winston Cook-Wilson is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Grantland, and The Guardian.