Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro) is a killer for the government. After serving his country in the Kosovo conflict, Aaron has returned home a decorated soldier, but, mentally, a destroyed man. He's retreated to the forests of Oregon, where the men who have tried to capture him have all been killed. Enter L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones), Aaron's former teacher of the deadly arts, and now a retired tracker, who is called out of retirement to help find the lost soul. As L.T. gets closer to Aaron, he realizes that the AWOL soldier is far more deadly than anyone could possibly imagine, relying on himself alone to bring Hallam down for good.
William Friedkin is a director still stuck in a time warp. A founding father of landmark 1970s cinema ("The Exorcist," "The French Connection"), Friedkin has had real trouble trying to connect with modern audiences ("Jade") using the same tools and cadence of his earlier work. Nothing exemplifies this more than "The Hunted" (IMDb listing). On the page, this was most likely was an exploratory journey into the heart of a contemporary solider: Overtrained for the battlefield, yet underqualified for everyday life. You can see fringes of this theme running throughout the film, yet the final product has been pared down to its core, which is now simply a chase film with occasional significance. The fact that characterizations and simple logic have been removed from the picture makes "The Hunted" all the more frustrating to watch. How could a respected visionary like Friedkin let this happen? The modern politics of the studio system have beaten Friedkin's higher-minded attempts at an action film this time, resulting in a movie that resembles a jigsaw puzzle with every other piece missing.
There are thrills to be found in "The Hunted," as Friedkin is a master of staging conflict without shying away from the gruesome details. The film is decidedly bloody, as the weapon of choice here isn't firearms, but knives. Friedkin captures every last slice, dice and plunge with all the forthrightness any self-respecting filmgoer could ask for. Since the focus of the film has been readjusted onto the action, I do give credit to the filmmaker for keeping the hand-to-hand battles authentically merciless. The rest of the picture plays like a muted version of "The Fugitive," but without the audience sympathy. We're simply watching people chase after each other, without any indication as to why, or much of a stake in how it all turns out. It's beautifully captured by Friedkin and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, but ultimately meaningless without the meat of the picture intact.
You can see the edits clearly. There is a subplot involving Aaron's return to his past love (dreadfully played by Leslie Stefanson, "The General's Daughter"), that is given no attention, yet appears to be a crucial buttress of the plot. In the final film, Aaron's ultimate motivation for murder seems to be revenge of those who overhunt, as he keeps repeating PETA-like mantras on the sin of killing animals. He also suggests a surrogate father/son relationship between L.T. and himself, but nothing is made of that. In fact, nothing Aaron does makes much sense, nor is fully explained in the long run. So, ultimately, his character is simply serving as a person for L.T. to hunt. Opening with a Johnny Cash biblical rambling, and a lengthy war flashback, I expected something far more operatic to explain Aaron's rationale and actions. Sadly, those elements have been erased.
With the attention focused on the technical side of the film, Friedkin has left his performances to slowly rot. While Tommy Lee Jones could do this role in his sleep (and there's a good argument that he might be here), it is Benicio Del Toro's oddly meandering take on post-war battle sickness that is both a detriment to the film, and a humiliation to the actor. Del Toro is awful here, seemingly making up his lines on the spot and delivering them in the sing-song cadence that I prayed was Oscar-ed out of him with his Academy-Award winning role in "Traffic." No dice. In a supporting role, Connie Nielsen ("Gladiator") is just as bad. Way out of her range as a hardened FBI captain, she acts like she doesn't even believe herself in the role.
Who knows exactly what happened to "The Hunted" in the post-production mix. We're stuck with a film that's running on fumes, and I don't see the point in paying it anymore attention when it obviously doesn't represent its original intentions.
Filmfodder Grade: D