Aggressive and unrelenting, "The Hunted" is an indelible chase picture that doesn't shy away from the realism of its situations. Directed by William Friedkin, best known for 1971's "The French Connection" and 1973's "The Exorcist" before falling on hard times in recent years, there is a sharp-eyed clarity he brings to the action set-pieces that is quite invigorating. And the violence, some of which is very bloody and in-your-face, is not merely sensationalistic for mainstream audience, but actually has a purpose.
In 1999, U.S. Army recruit Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro) went to Kosovo to dutifully fight in a war, but came away severely scarred, his mind warped from the unshakable horrors he witnessed. In the present day, Aaron is a rogue animal activist who has brutally slaughtered four hunters in Oregon and Washington because they were carrying telescopic sights on their rifles. To aid in his capture, L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones), a past civilian employee for the Army who once taught Aaron how to stalk, trek, hunt and kill prey, is called in. Once Aaron is successfully caught, however, he manages to escape again, leading Bonham and FBI field officer Abby Durrell (Connie Nielsen) on a wild goose chase across the Oregon landscape to stop him before he kills again.
"The Hunted" is an enthralling, taut thriller that rarely lets up, eager to throw some rather ghastly surprises upon the viewer around every corner. In a thought provoking jolt of originality, the film begins and ends with narration from Johnny Cash's "Highway 61," paralleling his biblical retelling with the story at hand. Further metaphors for the act of hunting, as when Bonham witnesses an innocent children's game of hide-and-seek in an airport cafe, or when he frees a wounded wolf from a hunter's trap, lend the central premise an added measure of dread and atmosphere.
Unfortunately, it is that very main storyline that is given the short thrift by screenwriters David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths, and Art Monterastelli and director Friedkin. Judging from its startlingly grim prologue set in Kosovo, the film clearly longs to bring heavier topics and a stronger purpose to its proceedings than the average chase picture. But, at 90 minutes, the intriguing characters of Aaron Hallam and L.T. Bonham are not given enough room to breathe as three-dimensional figures. Hallam's life-changing experiences in Kosovo and Bonham's regret in his previous military teachings are meant to be the heart and darkness of the story, but their treatment is undernourished at best, washed over in favor of the next chase scene.
Fortunately, the action and knife combat fight sequences are superbly shot and edited, refusing to shy away from the pain, dirt, and overall violence they lead to. The two knife fights between Hallam and Bonham are choreographed with a wince-inducing urgency that is not easily forgotten, and all of the blood, sweat, and physical exhaustion they lead to is powerfully felt. The cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (2000's "The Patriot
") is a star in and of itself, capturing the Oregon cities and forests with palpably felt plausibility.
Tommy Lee Jones (2002's "Men in Black II
") brings his usual no-nonsense determination and naturalism to the role of L.T. Bonham, a man willing to risk his life to bring Hallam in because he feels partially responsible for his former student's downfall. As Aaron Hallam, Benicio Del Toro (2000's "Traffic
") matches his co-star's intensity stride for stride. Hallam is the villain of the piece, to be sure, but he is not a heartless monster, his actions stemming from what the war has irretrievably done to his own mind. Because of this, Del Toro is not necessarily unlikable, causing some confusion in the second half as to who the viewer should be rooting for and why we should want Hallam dead. Had Hallam's predicament, as well as his relationship with his estranged girlfriend, Irene (Leslie Stefanson), been developed more, it would have added more weight to his character. Finally, Connie Nielsen (2002's "One Hour Photo
") is effective as FBI officer Abby Durrell, but, as with everyone else, more could have been done with her character.
As an action-thriller that spends most of its time depicting the high-stakes chase between Bonham and Hallam, "The Hunted" is crackerjack entertainment. The minimalist dialogue (most of the characters are learned about through their actions rather than through spoken words) has an economical effect that works well within this genre, but occasionally clashes with the picture's loftier failed aspirations. As suspenseful and competently made as "The Hunted" is in its final form, one cannot help but walk away sensing that more could have been done with the premise, and probably was before the studio's editing shears set out to turn it into little more than a one-note exercise in chase scenarios.