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‘Three Fugitives’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 27, 1989

Francis Veber's "Three Fugitives," a heist caper, starts off with comic promise then limps all the way from the bank.

But that's just dandy with Disney's Touchstone Pictures, which assumes the French writer/director's carbon copy of his original (and highly successful) "Les Fugitifs" will allow them to laugh all the way to the box office.

"Usually a filmmaker only has one chance to put his stamp on a piece of work," declares a Touchstone press release. "But internationally-renowned director Francis Veber actually enjoyed the unusual experience of twice directing his own original story."

It's no coincidence that the "Three" in the title of this unusual experience echoes Touchstone's previous (and highly successful) Xeroxing of "Three Men and a Baby." In fact, when "Three Fugitives" performers Nick Nolte and Martin Short take Short's young, mute daughter on an extended lam from the cops, this movie becomes "Two Men and a Baby." With an even saggier diaper.

The opening sequences are "Fugitives' " best and only worthwhile parts. Minutes after he's paroled from jail (for bank robbery), tough-guy Nolte finds himself a hostage in scrawny nerd Short's inept bank robbery. His face contorted in a stocking, his nerves so jangled he can barely speak, the gifted Short pulls off the funniest mis-heist since Woody Allen's turn in "Take the Money and Run."

Veber maintains the comic momentum a little longer as jailbird Nolte tries to convince the skeptical police (led by James Earl Jones) that he's the innocent hostage and Short (who has just fainted under the strain) is the robber.

But then, the rest of the movie happens. Turns out Short robbed the bank to finance his daughter's special education. It also turns out that gruff-and-wounded Beast Nolte (shot accidentally by Short) bonds with the cute little Beauty. As Veber's plotting becomes plodding, you begin to wish theaters provided movie-sickness bags.

Adult-child encounters have been a steady source of income for Veber, who used the same formula in "La Chevre" and "Les Compères," two highly successful partner comedies involving Gerard Depardieu (France's Nick Nolte), Pierre Richard (France's Gene Wilder) and more of those endearing lugs. But Veber pulled it off better with the French duo. He simply doesn't allow that hoped-for "48 HRS." relationship between Nolte and Short to happen.

Copyright The Washington Post

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