Thursday, November 29, 2018

"The Hunted": review

2003's "The Hunted," directed by none other than William Friedkin of "The Exorcist" and "The French Connection" fame, stars Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro, and Connie Nielsen in a thriller about a government operative who snaps, goes rogue, and begins murdering people not on the US government's hit list.

The movie basically plays out as a chase, and the title "The Hunted" comes to have a fluid meaning as hunter and hunted constantly change roles. Tommy Lee Jones plays L.T. Bonham, a retired civilian attaché to the US military who used to teach soldiers stealth, tracking, wilderness-survival, and close-combat skills. Benicio Del Toro is Aaron Hallam, a decorated soldier and student of Bonham who suffers from PTSD after a particularly bloody mission in Kosovo. As Hallam felt his mind falling apart, he began writing Bonham letters about his mental state, but Bonham never replied to this correspondence, a fact that may have helped push the fragile Hallam over the edge in his moment of greatest need. FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Abby Durrell (Connie Nielsen) is in charge of tracking Hallam after four supposed "hunters" are murdered in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. The putative hunters, it turns out, may have been "sweepers" sent to kill Hallam after the latter went off program. Formerly a government asset because of his killing-machine-like abilities, Hallam is now a liability because of his skills, and because he knows far too much about government black ops. Bonham, Hallam's teacher and a sort of father figure, must track his former student down and either bring him to justice or kill him.

This is one of those action movies that's so full of clichés and predictable plot lines that you must simply switch your brain off and enjoy whatever goodness the movie offers you. Director Friedkin proves generally adept at pacing the action, but not quite as assured at building and maintaining suspense. Friedkin flubs several potential jump-scare moments, giving away the surprise before a tense moment has a chance to mature. This might not be entirely his fault: the story can only end up one way, after all, with a brutal fight between teacher and student, so the only suspense is in figuring out who will win that fight.

Despite Friedkin's competent pacing, mentioned above, the director did allow for some confusion about the passage of time to creep into the movie's third act: Bonham is in hot pursuit of Hallam, who has left the city and plunged back into the nearby wilderness, and somehow, Hallam has time to construct a series of large and elaborate traps for Bonham. Friedkin is also somewhat clumsy in his portrayal of Bonham's tracking ability: when we see the footprints that Bonham is following, they're screamingly obvious prints. The same goes for blood spatters, cracked branches, and assorted scuff marks. The movie could have been a bit less insulting to the viewer's intelligence, but if you know Friedkin's work, you know the man isn't one for subtlety. The art of the tracker is much better portrayed in the deeply affecting "Wind River," reviewed here.

The movie could also have done with a bit more characterization. Hallam isn't as demonic as he appears; we see that he loves a particular family, but he's become far too dangerous a creature ever to have a quiet home life with the woman and little girl he loves. When we meet Bonham, he's leading a quiet existence out in the boonies of British Columbia, helping injured wolves and dealing with his own demons. But the central teacher/student, father/son relationship between Bonham and Hallam isn't developed nearly to the extent that it should have been. The relationship, as it stands, feels as cold as the relationship between Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo and Richard Crenna's hardass Colonel Trautman. Instead, almost every meeting between Bonham and Hallam is reduced to the feral; the men obviously have little to nothing to say to each other anymore, and all that's left is the urge to kill.

Another reason to mourn the lack of development of the father/son dynamic is the spectral presence of Johnny Cash, whose voice is commandeered to provide a sort of disembodied, bookend narration based on the Genesis story of Abraham and Isaac. If you're familiar with the story, then you know that God commands Abraham to sacrifice his boy—or as Cash sings/speaks it, "kill me a son." By the end of the movie, it could be said that Abraham has reluctantly offered up Isaac to God. But despite the theological tenor of Cash's narration, the movie's plot doesn't offer us the requisite resonant depth. The story could have shown us how the sacrifice of Isaac was as necessary as a divine commandment, but we're given little foundation for the conflict between Hallam and Bonham aside from the fact that Bonham trained Hallam, and Hallam snapped. The movie aims for profundity and misses.

Those complaints aside, "The Hunted" offers some brutal fight choreography that apparently comes to us courtesy the Filipino martial art of kali, which appears to be all forearms, elbows, wrist locks, and quick strikes to the neck and torso. Most of the movie's emotional intensity is played out in these fights, and as with many action movies, a man's connection to another man can only be expressed through violence. I enjoyed the fights; these were some of the film's best moments. The cat-and-mouse chases, however, lacked suspense, and 2003 was a bit before the era of parkour-style chase scenes, with their kinetic momentum and flow.

In all, "The Hunted" was watchable, but something of a disappointment. I didn't mind the simplicity of the story, but the movie could have given us a great deal more emotional depth as a way to make the central conflict more meaningful. Without that, the movie was just a tame version of "Apocalypto" or just another milquetoast adaptation of Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game."

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