To advertise the ballsy bloodsport The Hunted as the product of an Academy Award-winning director (William Friedkin) and two Academy Award-winning actors (Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro) is to be accurate but also to tempt skepticism. Certainly, The Hunted is an unabashed, primal "guy movie," which would sooner indulge a knife-fight than a speech. Still, with its thematic overtones of natural selection, the hunt, and the most dangerous game, The Hunted takes the action-thriller into classically archetypal territory.
A seemingly revitalized Friedkin--along with writers David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths, and Art Monterastelli--plunges us into a striking, fiery nightmare-scape of 1999 Kosovo, where Special Forces soldier Aaron Hallam (Del Toro) demonstrates his surgical strike capability on a Serbian commander. This man, Friedkin tells us, is who we have wrought to do our dirty work. Shifting to British Columbia, Friedkin introduces us to the man who trained him in the killing arts: L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones). With graphic novel efficiency (or perhaps the terseness of noir), Friedkin establishes Bonham as a man of the "heroic code," putting honor before all else. Friedkin's symbolic earnestness borders on silly (L.T.'s "lone wolf" saves an ensnared wolf), but he uses the ambiguity of the premise to distinct advantage; one can as easily see Hallam as the empathetic anti-hero as Bonham. As one character puts it, "You can't tell the sharks from the guppies anymore."
Friedkin wastes no time pitting these two men of preternatural ability against each other. After Hallam slays two deer hunters he claims are assassins (we never get a definitive answer), Bonham quickly tracks him, triggering a series of escapes, chases, and showdowns. Friedkin displays visual panache in the crisp, cool chase scenes, but also to locate the provinces of the hunt: wolves, deer, cats, and--in an early tableau which amuses L.T.--kids playing hide-and-seek. The film's most audacious metaphor is its opening allusion--by way of Johnny Cash's intonation of "Highway 61 Revisited"--to the Bible's ultimate paternal test ("God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son.'").
Friedkin chose his team wisely. The always no-nonsense Tommy Lee Jones is in especially fine form here, which goes a long way toward selling the material; he also makes a surprisingly charming flirt, in contrast to his grim, fidgety, trenchant approach to his work. Del Toro's edgy blankness befits the character of Hallam, while a tenacious Nielsen is firmly brushed to the sidelines. Moreover, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel is the right man to frame the imposing natural and urban vistas of this noir Fugitive.
Clearly, The Hunted isn't for everyone. Most critics abhorred it. They have a strong case, considering the film's blithe plot gaps. After one elaborate city chase resolves in Hallam's escape, Bonham inexplicably finds Hallam in the wilderness, and Bonham's undesired backup inexplicably finds the both of them. Worse, Friedkin definitively goes too far with a ludicrous killer-boy-scout montage that finds both men fashioning weapons from rocks in the middle of a time-sensitive pursuit (Jones refuses, on principle, to carry a firearm).
But I responded to this roiling potboiler. The Hunted offers tart humor, tight action, and, in particular, a couple of exceptionally choreographed, down-and-bloody fight scenes devoid (at last!) of unearthly kung fu. The Hunted may smell a bit gamy, but it hasn't quite gone bad.