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The Hunted (William Friedkin, 2003)


    Unlike most action movies, when the characters in William Friedkinís The Hunted bleed, sweat, and scar, one canít help but notice. Thereís an emphasis on the physicality of the actors here that elevates some of the scenes above the filmís generally uninspiring intentions. Essentially an excuse to stage an extended chase scene, the plot finds a retired wilderness tracker named Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones) brought back into the fold by the FBI in order to capture Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro), a professional assassin he trained personally. Apparently, ďirreversible battle stressĒ has turned Hallam into a killing machine, but the film insists on fleshing out his character past the point of usefulness so it can set up rather moribund father / son and teacher / protťgť parallels. For some reason, Friedkin also feels it necessary to introduce us to Hallamís ex-girlfriend and have characters offer several theories on his insanity. Since the threat of a fall into madness matching Hallamís never seems to exist in Bonham, these rudimentary explanations of Hallamís progression into psychosis donít serve much purpose in helping to understand the dynamic between the two lead characters.


    Fortunately, the filmís centerpieces, the two mano-a-mano confrontations between Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro, are stunning. The scenes leading up to the first, which follow Bonham as he tracks through the woods, observing the ďcluesĒ that Hallam has left behind, are of the most exciting type of movie detective work. When the hunter and hunted finally meet, their dialogue is delivered in the midst of a remarkably tense bout of grappling. The violence is brutal, and to make it have even more impact, Friedkin adds CGI-enhanced arterial sprays when blood starts spurting. The actors internalize a lot of their performances throughout, but when they tussle, they express everything they havenít been saying. Their muscles bulge, they make exhausted grunts, and the soundtrack becomes an ambient electronic buzz. Their final confrontation, staged near a waterfall, is not nearly as exciting as their first meeting, but it still shines. Additionally, thereís a great vivisection training flashback that had me squirming in my seat despite a lack of bloodshed.


    When the movie isn't playing Best Supporting Actor Oscar Winner Deathmatch, however, it's more of a snooze. The chase scenes are a long buildup to the confrontational payoffs, and the dialogue-filled expositional sequences seem worse here than in your average action flick since the action here manages to be so intermittently astounding. Connie Nielsen has no place here as a gun-toting FBI agent, and as much as thatís the thematic point of her inclusion, thereís no escaping the fact that her character exists mostly to pad out the running time. I was entirely impatient with the jurisdictional dick-measuring contest that went on between the various local and federal agencies just as the explanation of Hallamís motive generally bored me. Most of the chase scenes arenít especially exciting either, since Hallam leaves a lot of clues and acts fairly stupidly for a trained expert focused entirely on his imaginary mission. The downtown Portland tracking sequence is ridiculous no matter how many times Friedkin tries to convince us that the city is an extension of nature because it relies on such sloppiness in the prey.


    Technically, The Hunted features some commendable work. The great cinematography manipulates environmental lighting to enhance our impression of the characters. Perhaps my favorite shots in the movie occur at the end of an extended flashback that is filmed in high contrast. At the end of the sequence, during a close-up of Hallamís face, the lighting scheme shifts to that of the ďpresentĒ, which is shown in the next shot with a close-up of Bonham remembering the events shown. These two shots visually demonstrate a connection between the two characters that unfortunately isnít expressed elsewhere so elegantly. Itís far preferable to any of the psychobabble that the film offers in helping to convey their relationship. The impressive landscapes are possibly more vividly shown than either of the leads, with both the white snow of the Canadian wilderness and the bright orange of a hunting jacket in the green forests of Oregon looking equally stunning. The editing is nearly as impressive. Besides maintaining a consistent rhythm, even during the dialogue sequences, the cutting makes Hallam move faster than is humanly possible and helps to highlight the excellent stunt work. The most impressive moment occurs when Friedkin holds a shot long enough so we can see Bonham leaping off of the front porch of a house. Itís only a fall of twelve feet or so, but since the camera isnít ostentatiously trying to amp the moment up in any way, the danger of the leap is more than apparent. The only bit of action that looks less than convincing is an awful sequence in which an obvious CGI Tommy Lee Jones is seen falling down a waterfall. Otherwise, the filmís focus on the actorsí physicality pays off.


    Still, it can be said that several of Friedkinís attempts to incorporate deeper themes donít pay off. At first, his simple metaphors seem well designed. An introductory scene in which Bonham tracks a wounded wolf through the woods might be obvious, but itís consistent with the movieís tone. As the film progresses, however, such continued simplicity becomes frustrating. When Friedkin shows a group of children playing hide and go seek or has characters discuss a cat thatís tracking its prey, the subtext doesnít tell us anything that the text already hasnít. By the time the film features a montage in which its hero and villain each forge a knife before their final face-off (presumably in an attempt to demonstrate the primal nature of their struggle), the inane symbolism seems to be overtaking the logic of the film. Since The Hunted isnít especially hung up on logistical concerns, this doesnít keep the film from succeeding entirely. One canít help but wish the savagery and economy expressed in the fight scenes spilled over into the rest of the movie.


* * * 


Jeremy Heilman