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The Hunted By Matt Singer
I was surprised by how much I liked The Hunted and how much I was disappointed by it at the same time. I approached it expecting what the ads promised: a blatant First Blood rip off. Those elements are certainly present; battle-scarred vets, loyal teachers, brutal battles set against the beauty of nature, and fetishistic affection for knives are among the most obvious similarities. But it has to be said that The Hunted, directed by William Friedkin, works within its boundaries when it is able to pare things down to the intense struggle between its two stars, Benicio Del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones.
Del Toroís character, Aaron Hallam, deserves to be combat shocked - we only see a hint of his intense tours of duty, but his brutal mission in Kosovo is presented as such a bombed-out nightmare that one could mistake its rubble and explosions for a battlefield from Terminator 3. Four years after the mission that earns him the Silver Star, Hallam is hunting hunters in the forrests of Oregon, and the authorities ask L.T. Bonham (Jones), the man who trained Hallam in the ways of survival and killing, to catch him.
When Jones and Del Toro fight, there is a refreshing absense of digital trickery or wire-aided stunt work. The two really smack each other around, throwing their knives and bodies at each other with grunting intensity (Not surprisingly, Del Toro broke his wrist during one of these fights, shutting down production for months). Friedkinís staging of the fights and chases are brutally violent, the resultant knowledge of the dangers our heroes face increases the on-screen tension. And credit Del Toro for making Hallam a likable but terrifying freak. First Blood tried to make Sylvester Stalloneís John Rambo some sort of folk hero, teaching our fractured nation to heal by feeling his pain. Within two movies, Rambo was winning wars for the United States single-handedlly. Hallamís life is a tragedy, but heís by no means a hero; thereís even something dirty and unclean about the killing he does in the name of his country. With snakey eyes and a calm demeanor, heís like the impossibly complex traps he sets in the forrest; coiled and ready to strike at any moment.
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Friedkin, whose impressive resume includes The French Connection and The Exorcist, brings an efficient, almost minimalist approach to the material. The Hunted is ninety-four minutes with, by my guess, eighty minutes of chase. We are shown tantalizing glimpses of the potential depth of the material, including a woman and child who appear briefly as a suggestion of the life Hallam has lost, but it gets lots in the shuffle of the running and knife wielding. The flashback to Hallamís training is fascinating and, in a weird way, eerily reminiscent of Bill the Butcher instructing Amsterdam in Gangs of New York. We later learn that Bonham, who has spent his life training people to kill others, is not the sort of person we think he is, something which could have had even bigger and more interesting implications on the plot, had the film had the time or interest to explore them.
In the end, even the chases seem to get away from Friedkin, when things get a little too outlandish (how could Hallam, on the run from the best tracker in the world, have time to created a trap with two huge logs swinging together on ropes?) and the finale is probably more intense than it has to be. I understand these men fight with knives, but their final duel is photographed as such a soggy, bloody mess, that Friedkin seems to be making a cautionary tale against knife violence - even though heís spent the entire movie making this style of killing seem somehow pure or even holy, and, really, who needs to be told not to fight with knives? What is this, West Side Story?
If The Hunted is a success, and I would call it a small one, it is one of talent over material. Most of what we see has been done before, in fine movies that did need to be remade. The stars and the way in which they are filmed make this particular retelling worth watching. But they also make you long for a little bit more.