The Hunted

March, 2003, Thriller

Directed by:William Friedkin

Starring:Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio del Toro, and Connie Nielsen

Thrillers, like high-wire acts at the circus, must walk a fine line. To generate excitement, they need to tend toward exaggeration, but to be credible they must engage the audience with at least minimal plausibility. The improbable is acceptable; the preposterous is not. These demands are never more important than in the subcategory of the chase movie; the hunter and his pursuer have to be equally obsessed; one with flight, the other with capture, each bound to the other by some tie that makes the action build to an increasingly tense climax. The formula requires a director who knows how to build suspense proportionate to the storyline, actors who can create that elusive aura of credibility in often bizarre circumstances, and a script which allows the audience to be drawn into the plot so they come to care about the outcome. Under these demanding circumstances, two out of three just ain't good enough.

Director William Friedkin certainly qualifies; on the basis of The French Connection alone, he's demonstrated the qualities one hopes for in this genre. Add the always interesting Tommy Lee Jones as the pursuer to the brooding intensity of Benicio Del Toro as the target, and you have a superb pair of protagonists. Alas, this talented trio must labor here with a script, (written by a committee of three) which produces a painful disappointment.

Successful chase films can begin slowly and build to an exquisitely nerve-wracking climax; in  Lonely Are The Brave, a laconic Walter Matthew pursues washed-up cowboy Kirk Douglas in a movie that builds inexorably to it's perfectly paced end. Conversly, it can slam the audience into the chase in the opening minutes of the first reel by grabbing the audience by the collar and dragging it into the action, as Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones did in The Fugitive

In The Hunted, the script provides opening vignettes which purport to supply the protagonists with their respective motivations; Del Toro as a trained killer in uniform, and Jones as a reclusive naturalist with a troubled past which evidences itself in a fidgety restlessness that forms the best part of his character. Unfortunately, the story then jumps inexplicably to the Pacific Northwest where Del Toro stalks, kills and mutilates a couple of park rangers and a pair of caricatured deer hunters. It develops that Jones was a civilian survivalist trainer for the U.S. military; he's brought out of an isolated section of British Columbia, (where he's working for an environmental group) to track the killer, who of course turns out to be one of his former students. 

Del Toro's capture and temporary incarnation in Portland Oregon, along with the escape and chase which ensue, never generate any real excitement however, because the audience isn't given enough information about the motivations of these two Rambo-types to sympathize with either of them. Jones, who embellishes his character with nervous tics and an off centered way of engaging in conversations with the F.B.I. personnel in charge of the case fares better than Del Toro, whose narcotized manner is meant to convey a madness born of combat-induced stress syndrome but which only succeeds in making this usually intriguing actor look dopey. The supporting members of the case are ciphers, uniformly employed to simply move the action along.

By the time the climatic portion of the chase begins, the audience has little sympathy for anyone but themselves; the action presents Portland in a favorable light, but not the characters dashingly madly through it. The scene then switches inexplicably back into an adjacent wilderness where the opponents stop running long enough to fashion crude knives for themselves which they subsequently use to turn each other into human sieves. Who wins? Who cares?

Audiences forced to pay $7.50 or so for their tickets, (and sit through an annoyingly long set of commercials) deserve better than this made-for-T.V. effort. Jones and Del Toro will survive and go on to better things, but after this hoary exercise, Friedkin's career may well descend into B-grade Hollywood hell. For the man who directed The Exorcist, that would be a nightmare worthy of Dante himself.    

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