I think of Harrison Ford much in the same way that I think of Paul Newman. They both play the brash, bold, smart alec characters that we adore as audiences. They make the perfect action adventure heroes but are not always respected as actors which is a shame. For Ford, his reputation hinges on a number of great characters from Han Solo, to Indiana Jones, to Rick Deckard. They all are magnificently memorable action heroes. Ironically it is the plain, seemingly everyday cop, John Book that allows Ford to truly show off his acting chops like I have never seen him do before.
The film begins when a young Amish boy named Samuel gets to take his first adventure into the big city with his mother, as they head to see some relatives in Philadelphia. Little Samuel has a pair of dark brown, wonderfully inquisitive eyes in which to take in this world that is so foreign to him. That is, in fact, one of the major themes of Witness, the colliding of two worlds that are at odds.
But anyhow, when he ventures into the restroom to use the toilet, he unwittingly sees a violent murder committed and he is able to hide in the stalls, but he also gets a look at one of the perpetrators. And so, just like that, this little boy who never spent a day in the real world is a key witness to a murder investigation.
That’s when steady, straight-arrow cop John Book comes into the picture. He’s not a bad man by any means, and he wants to wrap up the case quickly so he can let Samuel and his mother go as soon as possible. You can see he finds their customs strange, and Book feels a trifle awkward being around them, but he does his job the best way he knows how, by confiding in his superiors and having his partner watch his back.
Everything blows up in his face. He gets shot and he must make a mad dash with Samuel and his mother to their quaint Amish home. Now the roles are shifted as he must wait it out building up his strength as his pursuers try and locate him. His world of cops and guns seems to have no place in this farm community of peaceful people. But as a former carpenter and a decent individual, Book is able to adapt rather well. Rachael Lapp soon finds herself enjoying his presence around their home since she is a widower and her father-in-law Eli reluctantly allows him to stay.
Book learns how to milk a cow and helps in a barn raising, all the while building a rapport with Rachael, but others seem to be wary of the presence of such a man.
As would be expected, we have our final showdown between Book and his pursuers who are a lot closer to home than he would ever expect. When it’s all resolved he leaves the country peaceful once more, but not without some intense memories.
Peter Weir’s film has a rather interesting pacing for a thriller, starting out slowly, but we know it must be building up to some impending doom so I would reserve from calling it boring. When that moment comes, it becomes a breakneck thriller before quieting down once more in the Amish town. Then the last 20 minutes are that of a dynamic action film. However, it is in these more tranquil moments that Harrison Ford gets to show off his humanity, whether it is talking about guns with young Samuel or dancing to a car radio with Rachael. There’s no doubt that you have not seen Ford like this before, and it’s definitely worth seeing him in this gripping ’80s thriller.
Great writeup, although I must confess it’d never have crossed my mind to think of any part of Witness as boring: I’ve always found it completely mesmerizing from start to finish.
A great performance by Lukas Haas is part of that, of course. It’s surprising that his career has never really taken off.
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