***/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Connie Nielsen, Jenna Boyd
screenplay by David Griffiths & Peter Griffiths and Art Monterastelli
directed by William Friedkin
FRIEDKIN: FILMS OF ABERRATION, OBSESSION AND REALITY
FFC rating: 9/10
written by Thomas D. Clagett
by Walter Chaw Hot on the heels of Bruce Willis's bwana wish-fulfillment fantasy Tears of the Sun comes William Friedkin's The Hunted, a film that introduces its titular fugitive in a flashback to Kosovo at the height of the Albanian genocide. The parsing of historical atrocity functioning as shorthand for backstory to what is essentially a pretentious action movie is distasteful, the insertion into that history of elite American soldiers righting wrongs un-righted to this day a kind of unspeakable arrogance late unique of Yankee cloth. That being said, The Hunted is a cheerfully ridiculous movie that manages over the course of its running time to entertain with a series of action set-pieces that recall Friedkin's work in The French Connection. Though riddled with plot impossibilities and stunning coincidences, the picture, courtesy, perhaps, of Caleb Deschanel's magnificent cinematography, reminds of the nearness of nature and violence of John Boorman's Deliverance; of the kineticism of Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity; and of the premise and execution of a little-read Rex Miller novel called S.L.O.B.. If it also reminds of the creaky Abraham/Oedipus by way of Robert Bly wilderness dynamic of Mamet's appalling The Edge, so be it: the fun parts outweigh the infuriating ones.
Hallam (Benicio Del Toro) is a highly trained assassin in the employ of the American military who snaps after too much killing. L.T. (Tommy Lee Jones, "L.T." also being what Bruce Willis is called in Tears of the Sun) is Grizzly Adams, the bearded man responsible for training Hallam in the deadly arts--most of them involving hiding behind trees, feeling the ground, and making knives out of scrap metal and rocks. When Hallam goes predictably rogue, L.T. comes predictably out of retirement to track him while Johnny Cash reading the Abraham bits of Dylan's "Highway 61" lyrics presage The Hunted's aspirations to archetype. Along for the ride is disposable plot device FBI Agent Abby (Connie Nielsen).
In the umpteenth reiteration of his "most dangerous game" cerebral man-hunter role, Jones throws a bit of a curveball in a performance that reminds a great deal of an aging, typecast actor pretending to be a werewolf. An introduction in the snowy wilds of British Columbia even features Jones doing a little "wolf whispering"--freeing a furry brother (a white wolf that acts as one of two animal metaphors in the film) from a snare trap after sniffing him out in the middle of a forest and, subsequently, taking vengeance on the hapless trapper. It's what passes for character development in Friedkin's preposterous but bracing The Hunted, a thriller so relentlessly silly that it breaks down defenses as handily as the arnis-skrina knife fighting technique favoured by the picture's combatants. Del Toro's Hallam is introduced snaking around while innocents are slaughtered wholesale, his equivalent white wolf being a child that he declines to slaughter. Like metaphorical father, like allegorical son.
Despite its desperation to be treated seriously, The Hunted is best taken as a David Morrell novel: breathless and testosterone-bloated and best forgotten before the "hey, wait a minute" catch-up post-screening. It's wise not to over-think how Hallam manages to set up elaborate traps in exactly the right places in a matter of minutes (the trailer-spoiled spiked log trap is apparently constructed by Hallam in about five minutes, on the run, without benefit of tools), or why this master of escape and camouflage never fails to leave an abundance of muddy footprints wherever he goes.
The strength of the picture is in the rude, blunt physicality of its fight sequences (particularly its final showdown, which should endure as one of the bloodiest onscreen knife fights in history), and in an innovative tracking/chase scene set in downtown Portland, Oregon that takes L.T.'s head-slapping urban observation ("It's a wilderness") and treats it with dead earnest. The Hunted works the way that it does because everyone involved plays it above board and with a humourless reverence. It's the sort of product instantly defeated by any trace of irony and, free of that post-modern self-awareness, presents itself as something primordially masculine. The Hunted is the celluloid equivalent of men sitting in a circle around a fire, beating drums, no girls allowed (consider the two women in the film--they are almost anti-love interests). It's asinine when considered with any sort of perspective, but invigorating when not. Originally published: March 14, 2003.
THE DVD + THE BOOK
The Hunted looks phenomenal on Paramount's DVD. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen (fullscreen sold separately), the film's transfer is a thing of perfection: no edge-enhancement, no murkiness, strong but not overbearing colours. (The cinematography of Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, The Patriot) converts to television perversely well, considering his painterly eye.) The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is similarly far out, if compromised by a slight lisp to the dialogue--the name "L.T.," for instance, often sounds like "L.C." no matter who's saying it. Benicio Del Toro's voice bombards from all six speakers during Hallam's first attack, but the Dolby showstopper is the dam climax, which conjures jittery tension largely through the use of rear-channel effects. Kudos to Paramount for going the extra mile by mixing the six sequences found in the deleted scenes section in 5.1 (it probably helps that director William Friedkin is married to Sherry Lansing, head of the studio), although the excised material is very much extraneous; chances are slim that we'll be seeing The Hunted: The Version You've Never Seen anytime soon.
Four featurettes edited by none other than Glenn "DVD Savant" Erickson, a Friedkin familiar (he cut The French Connection DVD's extras)--"Pursuing The Hunted" (8 mins.), "Filming The Hunted" (9 mins.), "Tracking The Hunted" (4 mins.), and "The Cutting Edge" (9 mins.)--provide a healthy dose of information on the production through interviews with the inspiration for Tommy Lee Jones's character, "real-life Sherlock Holmes" Tom Brown (who says that the knife Del Toro primarily uses on-screen took seven years to sculpt), plus on-set footage of Friedkin as he gets excited about filming unscripted passages devised because a particular aspect of a given location set off ideas. As a collective, this documentary quartet is significantly more entertaining than Friedkin's feature-length commentary, wherein he concentrates his energies on filling in the sketchy film's thematic blanks, doing neither himself nor The Hunted any favours. (Friedkin's sensational yakker for The Exorcist: 25th Anniversary Edition is beginning to seem a fluke.) Trailers for The Hunted, Timeline, The Core, and the upcoming Indiana Jones Trilogy DVD round out the disc.
Now in a second edition that stops just shy of covering the span of William ("Billy") Friedkin's directing career (The Hunted is only mentioned as being in production), William Friedkin: Films of Aberration, Obsession and Reality is one of those movie books that makes you wish it were perennially reissued to catch up with its subject's filmography. Author Thomas D. Clagett, an assistant film editor who's also a part-time novelist, has written in William Friedkin... the most meticulous analysis of Friedkin's body of work to date, prefacing each individual dissection with rich and frank backstory culled from hundreds of sources (including interviews Clagett personally conducted with Friedkin), all exhaustively cited at the end of the text. No mere hagiographer, Clagett holds Friedkin to a higher standard: So appreciative is he of the director's masterpiece hat-trick of The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Sorcerer that the rest of the book is shrouded in disappointment, concluding on a self-acknowledged sour note (after a comprehensive breakdown of the ruinous changes Friedkin made to The Exorcist for its "Version You've Never Seen"--believe me when I say you do not realize the extent to which the film was altered until you've read this chapter) that's tempered by a kernel of optimism, much like the ending of the original Exorcist. ("One hopes to see in [Friedkin's] future films the talent, the ability, the passion he has visualized so masterfully in the aberrance of his images," Clagett writes.) Best of all, Clagett is witty without resorting to cheap shots, as in his dismantling of the MST3K-ready The Guardian (Friedkin's worst picture, though Clagett bestows that honour on Deal of the Century) or the verbal spanking he administers to Exorcist author William Peter Blatty (for insisting on restorations that had untold domino effects), which I suspect even Blatty himself would read nodding in agreement between self-effacing chuckles. I eagerly anticipate a third edition discussing The Hunted, a film in which Clagett should find some worth. Originally published: August 17, 2003.