William Friedkin’s The Hunted is littered with the crumbs of false hope that belie the promise of a whole cake. Tommy Lee Jones’ survival guru, L.T. Bonham, is a man worth knowing more about, a tracker expertly versed in the basic skills that have kept humankind humming along since the dawn of the race. He’s compassionate, loyal and willing to do what’s necessary for the greater good. But despite L.T.’s best efforts, The Hunted is flawed, beginning with its brief explanation of what causes Army assassin Aaron Hallam to run, right down to its eerie similarity to the 1987 children’s film, Benji the Hunted.
Seriously. The Hunted stars Benicio Del Toro. Benji the Hunted stars Benji the dog. The Hunted: Benicio runs around the dense foliage of the Pacific Northwest. Benji the Hunted: Benji runs around the dense foliage of the Pacific Northwest. The Hunted: All Benicio really wants to do is go home and live a normal life. Benji the Hunted: All Benji really wants to do is go home and eat Alpo. To top it off, the John Travolta vehicle, Basic, which opens in a few weeks, appears to have almost the same elite-soldier-gone-bad plot as The Hunted — and features Hunted co-star Connie Nielsen. Not so good when your movie needs all the help it can get.
Our film opens in 1999 Kosovo as a secret team of Army super-assassins hunts down a Serbian warlord. Hallam has the privilege of slitting the guy’s throat while ominously whispering that, though his own kills are honorable and righteous, the Serb’s murders lack the proper “reverence.” It’s an opinion that nests at the core of Hallam’s being, and the thing that pushes him over the edge. A few years later, he’s back in the States suffering from flashbacks of the horrors he witnessed in Europe. He murders a couple of innocent deer hunters just for the sport of it, or as punishment, again whispering that what they do is wrong. He’s a man with the strange moral code that one expects of those a country asks to do its dirty work.
Hallam, whom L.T. trained, assumes that the best way to draw out his mentor is to give him a tracking challenge he can’t refuse. But L.T.’s actions don’t imply that his work is a game to him, contrary to what Hallam suspects. At no time does he glean any enjoyment from chasing Hallam. Instead he seems saddened by what’s become of his pupil and the misuse of the knowledge he shared with him.
Friedkin’s direction is in the neighborhood of terrific, and it’s a shame that he’s ultimately let down by a script that he himself commissioned — and by his own habits, however hard they might be to break. The Hunted has the right tone, but it lacks the answer to its unasked central question. In what ends up being a throwaway moment, Hallam is accused of going too far in one of his government-sanctioned killings; he protests that he did the right thing, and then the matter is dropped. Yet it seems from this brief mention of a Macguffin that there are mitigating circumstances surrounding Hallam’s trip over the edge, events worth investigating that nobody is much concerned with. What is right, and how far right can you go before you come back around to wrong? The movie comes up maddeningly short of an answer to this question.
The more serious problem with The Hunted is that it’s really just one long chase sequence with a few brief bathroom breaks of deep-thinking ethical quandaries, a sort of 21st century military version of Friedkin’s The French Connection. He hasn’t lost his cat-and-mouse touch — The Hunted sprints through caves, sewers, dams, houses, cars, rivers, bridge struts and high-speed public transit before coming to rest in an obvious mano-a-mano finale, and much of the time the suspense even works. But there comes a point where you have to wonder if it’s ever going to end, and if it does, that it’s going to end satisfyingly.
Here’s a hint: L.T. doesn’t look very happy when he dusts his hands off after another successful trek through the moral wilderness.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.