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Film

The best Harrison Ford performance from each decade

@TylerGolsen

Six decades in the film industry is a remarkable feat for any actor. To sustain a career that long takes a special mix of talent and luck, but to be able to headline feature films throughout that entire time takes a special kind of movie star. Someone who needed an early start and an entire lifetime of acting experience before even getting in front of a camera for the first time.

Or someone who was a former carpenter and didn’t get his first leading role until he was nearly 40 years old. Yes, that would be the one and only Harrison Ford, the crotchety old grandpa who spent almost his entire film career playing badasses, smugglers, police officers, fugitives, and even the president of the United States.

Ford specializes in a very unique type of leading man – one that is taciturn and even a bit of a dick, but remarkably charismatic, highly intelligent, and undeniably captivating. He’s accrued a legendarily gruff reputation over his six decades on screen, but that surly demeanour has always been counteracted with moments of joy, surprise, and even a bit of goofiness every once in a while.

To celebrate his 80th birthday, we’re looking at the best Harrison Ford performances from each decade of his career. Ford has so many iconic roles that it’s not even fair to divide them by decades since that pits Indiana Jones vs. Rick Deckard and Dr. Richard Kimble vs. President James Marshall. But we’ve made the tough decisions and whittled down Ford’s career into six legendary (and sometimes less-than-legendary) performances.

The best Harrison Ford performance, decade by decade:

1960s: Journey to Shiloh

So Harrison Ford’s 1960s weren’t terribly notable. He was mostly working as a carpenter — sometimes as a roadie for The Doors — all while trying to break into Hollywood through bit parts. Part of me wanted to highlight one of his TV performances from this decade, but in the end, I decided to focus on one of his two credited roles from the ’60s.

Both films are Westerns, A Time for Killing and Journey to Shiloh, and neither gives Ford enough time on screen to really do anything. Of the two, Journey to Shiloh is the more compelling, complete with a solid lead performance from James Caan. Ford doesn’t get much to work with, but the embers of his eventual movie stardom are still there.

1970s: Star Wars

Perhaps someone with a better sense of humour would have tried to stick one of Ford’s bit parts from the decade into this slot – maybe his turns in either The Conversation or Apocalpyse Now. Ford’s small part in American Graffiti is fun and worth mentioning too, but we all knew what this entry was going to be: Han Solo from the original Star Wars.

With a surprisingly limited amount of screen time, Harrison turns the charm up to 11 and instantly becomes a superstar from the second we first meet Solo at the Mos Eisley cantina. Everything is in place, from the gruffness to the sarcasm to the wit to the undercurrent of compassion. Talking about Han Solo is fun, but watching Harrison Ford in action as Han Solo is even better.

1980s: Blade Runner

The 1980s were a fantastic time for Ford. Two more performances as Han Solo gave him major box office success, while his turn as a determined police detective in Witness gave him his one and only Oscar nomination. It will be beyond painful for me to not give this entry to Indiana Jones, my favourite of all the Ford characters, but in terms of performance, it has to be Rick Deckard in Blade Runner.

On the surface, Ford doesn’t have to do all that much in Blade Runner: mostly it’s just riffing on his established persona. But Deckard needs to both shepherd the audience through the futuristic setting and be confused enough by his surroundings to push the story’s mysterious plot forward. That’s a difficult line to toe, but Ford does it to absolute perfection, putting in a performance that ages like a replicant.

1990s: The Fugitive

After making his first mark on the genre with 1988’s Working Girl, Ford began to embrace romantic comedies as an alternative to his badass action persona in the 1990s. Still, action and thrillers were where Ford thrived, and no film of his in the ’90s was more compelling than The Fugitive.

As the framed supposed killer Richard Kimble, Ford is a man on the edge, constantly giving the slip to Tommy Lee Jones and the rest of the US Marshalls out to capture him. Ford is pure magnetism on screen, growing increasingly more riveting as Kimble grows more desperate by the minute.

2000s: K-19: The Widowmaker

I take no joy in saying this: the 2000s was the worst decade of Harrison Ford’s career. Having aged out of the romantic comedy lead roles that he excelled in during the 1990s, Ford just seemed to be on autopilot throughout most of the 2000s. He mostly snoozes his way through What Lies Beneath, and the less said about Hollywood Homicide, Firewall, and Crossing Over, the better.

In fact, the only movie that decade that Ford seems to not sleepwalk through is K-19: The Widowmaker, on which he also served as an executive producer. Although his Russian accent isn’t good enough to get passed customs, Harrison seems to truly be invested in the real-life submarine story that turns deadly.

2010s: 42

The 2010s was Ford’s time to cash in a revisit the past with two major franchise films: his return to the iconic role of Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and his reprise of Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049. We’ve already looked at those characters, so let’s revisit another blast from the past with Ford’s take on Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey.

Not only does Ford bear an uncanny resemblance to Rickey, but he also brings 50 years of unwavering brusqueness to the man who signed Jackie Robinson to compelling effect. Sure, the performance and the film itself can be a bit hacky, but Ford seems to be having a ball telling the story of one of baseball’s most forward-thinking figures.

2020s: The Call of the Wild

This is more a default choice than anything else. Harrison Ford has so far starred in just a single film in the 2020s and it’s The Call of the Wild, Chris Sanders’ adaptation of the 1903 Jack London novel that I, along with numerous other kids in the American public education system, read sometime in middle school.

Ford isn’t actually the central character of the story: that honour belongs to the CGI animated dog Buck, which is a bit of an eyesore to look at for two hours. Nevertheless, Ford is the main draw of the film, and he brings an amicable gruffness that fits the role. It might not be his best performance, but until we see Indiana Jones 4 this decade, it’s still his best performance of the 2020s.