Movie review by Greg Carlson
Every now and again, highly respected, laurel-wreathed actors will indulge in some goofy antics that make little sense to paying customers. Even when these sorts of movies are directed by grand old veterans like William Friedkin, who made at least two of the best films of the 1970s in “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection,” the mystery remains: do actors read the script before they sign on to do the movie, or do they simply take their agent’s word for it?
Recently minted Academy Award winner Benicio Del Toro, whose performance in “Traffic” was both electrifying and genuinely worthy of its accolades, has not been immune to appearing in questionable fare (see: “Excess Baggage”), but in “The Hunted” he cuts loose with some of the silliest dialogue he is likely to ever encounter, including a speech about the injustices suffered by poultry. Playing a battle-stressed soldier who saw vicious action in Kosovo, Del Toro is Aaron Hallam, a Rambo-esque survivalist who knows exactly how to kill a man with a few quick strokes of a knife, or if need be, his bare hands.
War does strange things to men, and Aaron passes his time tracking down deer and elk hunters who unfairly use huge scopes on high-powered rifles. Aaron sees this as supremely unfair, and pays the hunters back by gutting and dressing them just like their intended prey. Aaron’s bloody activities quickly draw the attention of the FBI, who discover that they are going to need the help of Aaron’s old teacher, L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones), a former civilian employee of the U.S. military who is both a preternaturally gifted outdoor tracker and an expert in brutal hand to hand combat. A hilarious flashback featuring a handlebar-mustachioed Jones fills in some of the blanks: this is the kind of guy who makes his recruits literally forge their own knives on the way to becoming killing machines.
Friedkin does not shy away from dishing it out as heavily as possible (i.e. Jones portentously freeing a white wolf from a snare, Johnny Cash’s ominous cover of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” on the soundtrack, etc.) but if “The Hunted” has anything going for it, the taut pacing is the leading candidate. Like “The Fugitive,” “The Hunted” works best when it is locked into the relentless pursuit mode that allows for nimble editing and swift camera moves. Friedkin breathlessly moves the action between urban settings and dense forest locales with ease, greatly abetted by superb cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. And if you can see the faces of the stuntmen standing in for Del Toro and Jones now and then, well, at least the action isn’t computer generated.
In the end, though, there isn’t much movie there, and we never get close to understanding how Aaron strayed so far from rationality. Instead, a thoroughly predictable confrontation, featuring more grunts than a match at Wimbledon, pits the student and the master against one another. The screenplay, by David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths, and Art Monterastelli, assumes it is making sound use of some tried and true representative anecdotes, but unfortunately the scribes forget to relate any insight into Aaron’s motivations other than the basic post-traumatic stress disorder that has fueled the plots of so many similar movies.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/17/03.