Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) is a successful Chicago-based vascular surgeon who returns home from an emergency late night surgery to find an intruder in his house. His wife, Helen Kimble (Sela Ward), has been fatally injured after being shot and having her skull fractured. Kimble fights with the attacker, a mysterious one-armed man who manages to escape. During the police investigation no evidence of a break-in is found, and numerous pieces of circumstantial evidence lead the police to charge Kimble as the murderer.
During his trial, a tape of Helen Kimble's 911 call is played. Hearing Richard arrive home while she is being attacked, she weakly mumbles Kimble's name trying to call out to him. The prosecutors convince the jury that she is naming Kimble as her attacker. Kimble is convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection.
While being transported to death row by bus, the other inmates in the bus attempt an escape, leaving several of them dead. After the driver is accidentally shot, the bus crashes through a guardrail, rolls down a hill, and lands on a set of train tracks on which a train is approaching. The surviving inmate and uninjured guard flee the wreckage of the bus. Kimble manages to pull himself and a wounded guard to safety just before the train crashes into the bus and is derailed. The other surviving inmate has found the keys to the handcuffs and frees Kimble from his chains; they flee the scene separately on foot. As a fugitive, Kimble becomes the quarry of Deputy United States Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), who leads a team from the US Marshals Service.
Although injured and on the run, Kimble is determined to prove his innocence. He is able to steal overalls from an unlocked pickup, and he sneaks into a hospital room where he is able to shave his beard and sew up his wounds. As he leaves the hospital, two medics are pulling the guard Kimble saved out of an ambulance. The guard is too weak to alert the medics, and Kimble steals the ambulance and escapes. In the hospital, the guard is able to communicate that he saw Kimble outside; the police tie that to the stolen ambulance and set up a roadblock at the end of a tunnel. Kimble abandons the van in the tunnel and is chased through a storm drain system. Gerard catches him just as Kimble reaches the spillway of a dam hundreds of feet above a river. As Gerard orders him to turn around with his hands in air, Kimble, out of other options, dives from the spillway. Gerard orders a search to find his body. Kimble, however, miraculously survives the fall and manages to evade capture.
Realizing that he will always be on the run until he can either prove his innocence or be recaptured, Kimble embarks on a mission to find the murderer. Kimble returns to Chicago where he makes contact with several of his former associates, including Dr. Charles Nichols (Jeroen Krabbé). Using money Nichols gives him, Kimble is able to rent an apartment. He forges an ID and begins working as a janitor at Cook County Hospital (the primary prosthetic clinic in the city) in order to gain access to patient records that could help him track down the murderer.
The son of Kimble's landlady is arrested on drug charges, and he cuts a deal by alerting the police to Kimble's whereabouts. Kimble accesses the hospital's database and finds several potential leads, including a one-armed man in jail. A suspicious emergency room doctor (Julianne Moore, in one of her first roles) calls security after seeing Kimble looking at a little boy's X-rays and correcting the written diagnosis, sending the boy to surgery. Kimble manages to leave before security comes. Gerard comes and questions the doctor about Kimble; she reveals that the chart correction saved the boy's life. Gerard and his associates wonder why Kimble would risk coming to the hospital, until they see a man walking by with a prosthetic arm. Realizing that Kimble may be searching the hospital records for the one-armed man, Gerard orders a cross-check of the database to check for any persons who had prosthetic arms and criminal records. One of the possibilities is a man named Clyde Driscoll, who was arrested for armed robbery. Gerard and 2 of his deputies go to check on Driscoll, not realizing that Kimble is also on his way to see him. Kimble goes to visit the prisoner, but realizes it is the wrong man. As he leaves, he is seen by Gerard who chases Kimble from the building out into the streets. Kimble is barely able to escape into the crowds at Chicago's St. Patrick's Day parade. Kimble is eventually able to track down the correct one-armed man, an ex-cop named Frederick Sykes (Andreas Katsulas). Kimble breaks into Sykes' apartment and discovers that Sykes has ties to Devlin MacGregor, a pharmaceutical company that hosted an event Kimble was attending the night his wife was murdered. Kimble calls the Marshals, briefly speaking with Gerard before setting the phone on the table and fleeing. Gerard traces the number to Sykes' address and searches the apartment. They find the same evidence that Kimble did and begin to suspect Sykes as the real murderer.
Meanwhile, Kimble is able to convince a former colleague to help him do some lab tests, and he discovers that Nichols, who also has ties to Devlin MacGregor, had inserted false liver samples from a test subject who was taking Provasic, a drug developed by Devlin MacGregor that was on the verge of being approved by the FDA. Nichols stands to benefit financially and professionally from the drug's release, and Kimble was on the verge of presenting evidence that Provasic caused serious liver damage. Realising that Kimble would destroy any chances the drug had of being approved, Nichols was determined to eliminate Kimble. He hired Sykes as a hitman and gave him the key to Kimble's house (which is why the police found no evidence of a break-in). However, Kimble was unexpectedly called away to perform surgery, leaving Helen the only one home when Sykes attacked.
Kimble leaves the hospital and heads towards a hotel where Nichols will be making a presentation on Provasic. On the L Train, Kimble is recognized by a person sitting across the aisle from him. As the individual leaves the car to alert an officer one car away, Sykes gets up from a nearby seat and pulls a gun on Kimble. Sykes is about to shoot him when the policeman enters the car. Sykes shoots the policeman, allowing Kimble a chance to pull the emergency brake on the train. Kimble and Sykes fight, and Kimble is able to overpower Sykes and handcuff him to a pole in the car. Kimble gets off the train and heads for the hotel, pursued by the Chicago Police who think that he shot the officer on the train, and are now intending to shoot him on sight.
Kimble enters the hotel and confronts Nichols as he gives his speech. Kimble publicly accuses Nichols of fraud, telling the audience how Nichols falsified his research. Nichols leaves the room inviting Kimble to accompany him to discuss it just as the Chicago police and Gerard track him down to the hotel. A protracted fight, carried through different parts of the hotel, starts between the two; Gerard calls off the police and the three-way chase eventually leads to the hotel laundry room where, while searching for Kimble, Gerard explains out loud the reasons why he knows Kimble is innocent, in an attempt to bring him into safe custody. Nichols reveals himself and attempts to shoot Gerard, but Kimble hits Nichols in the back of the knee with a lead pipe, then knocks him unconscious via a blow to the head, saving Gerard's life.
Kimble is escorted out of the building by Gerard as Sykes is arrested. They pass the same two police detectives who misled the court during the murder trial, now being berated for their "mistake" by the press since Sykes, a one-armed man, is now under arrest. Kimble is then finally freed of his handcuffs by Gerard, who hands him an ice bag as they drive off. The film ends with Kimble telling Gerard "I thought you didn't care," to which Gerard (jokingly) replies "I don't. Don't tell anybody, okay?"
Police lieutenant Philip Gerard from the series becomes U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard in the movie. Theoretically, this solves the plot hole of how Gerard's authority always managed to cross state borders, although this proves a moot point as the movie is set entirely in Illinois. While Gerard was always dependent on local law enforcement in the series, in the movie he is aided by a team of subordinate federal marshals.
The mysterious one-armed man, a drifter known by many names in the series, but whose primary alias (and possible real name) was Fred Johnson, becomes Frederick Sykes, a former police officer who now works in private security. The one-armed man's motive for murdering Helen is also notably different, involving a conspiracy / cover-up in the movie, while in the series, the murder occurred because of a botched burglary.
It was nominated for seven Academy Awards; Jones took the award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The other Oscars it was nominated for were Best Picture; Best Cinematography; Sound Effects Editing; Film Editing; Original Music Score; and Sound. Jones also received numerous other awards for his role, including the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture. Director Andrew Davis also received "Best Director" nominations at that year's Golden Globe and Director's Guild of America Awards (but was not honored with a similar nomination at the Academy Awards).
It also received largely enthusiastic reviews from film critics. It is widely considered to be one of the best films adapted from a television series. , it received a 94% score and has been certified "Fresh" on RottenTomatoes.com. Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars, calling it "one of the year's best films".
South Indian film director Sangeeth Sivan remade this film in the regional language Malayalam in the name Nirnayam, starring the Malayalam actor Mohanlal.
The rest of the movie was filmed in Chicago, Illinois, including some of the dam scene, which were filmed in the remains of the Chicago Freight Tunnels (and also at Deals Gap, North Carolina). The "one-armed man" lived in the historic Pullman neighborhood of Chicago (see Pullman, Chicago). Harrison Ford used the pay phone in the local bar (the Pullman Pub), at which point he climbs a ladder and runs down the roofline of the historic rowhomes towards the one-armed man's house. There are several other scenes that show the rowhouses of the historic neighborhood George Pullman built in the 1870s for his factory workers. During the St Patrick's Day Parade chase scene, Mayor Richard M. Daley and then Illinois Attorney General Roland W. Burris are briefly, but prominently, shown as participants in the parade. One night scene under the "L" tracks, showed Kimble exiting an alley by 130 N. Wells St., with "Chicago Memorial" covering the then Illinois Bell Building sign.
A purported alternate ending to the film's script featured Kimble sitting in a bar at the end of the film unscrewing his false arm, suggesting Kimble had actually killed his wife and must have carried mental problems that caused him to imagine the events that took place on the night of his wife's murder. However, this ending was purported to be too confusing and contradictory to the events which took place throughout the film and was thus not used in the film.