So once again we have survived.

The Hunted (2003)

Not to be confused with THE HUNTED (starring Christopher Lambert) or BENJI THE HUNTED (starring Benji)

Early in William Friedkin’s THE HUNTED we are introduced to its hero, L.T. Bonham (Steven Seagal), an expert in tracking, knife fighting and wilderness survival who used to train special ops soldiers in these skills. As he learned that the guys he was training were being sent to assassinate people for purely political purposes he grew disillusioned and quit. So now he’s in the BC wilderness where we see him track an injured wolf through the snowy woods, get the trap off of his paw, chew up a root and rub it on the wound as a homeopathic healing agent. Then he tracks the responsible poacher down at a tavern, bangs his head against a table and tells him never to do it again.

Oh wait, did I say Steven Seagal? Actually L.T. Bonham is played by Tommy Lee Jones. I was surprised how much of this movie reminded me of Seagal, though. The story is about a special ops badass (Seagal– er, I mean Benicio Del Toro) who comes back from Kosovo totally wacked out and kills some guys, and Tommy Lee Jones (UNDER SIEGE) is the guy who trained him so he has to help catch him. So I thought it was gonna be like FIRST BLOOD meets THE FUGITIVE. Not Steven Seagal meets Steven Seagal.

The HuntedUnlike FIRST BLOOD there’s not alot of build to this guy snapping, not alot of pushing him too far. There aren’t circumstances back home that make him go crazy, it just happens because Kosovo was so bad. Friedkin pretty much depicts Kosovo as Hell, the whole place lit orange from flames. It’s kind of a surreal opening because it starts with Johnny Cash’s voice reciting a poem about God and Abraham. And it throws you off balance when some action movie starts out narrated by Johnny Cash. He could be the voice of God, or of the movie’s narrator, or of Uncle Jesse from DUKES OF HAZZARD. Whatever he is he’s a weird person to welcome you to an action movie. But he’s Johnny Cash, so you trust him.

When Benicio gets back stateside he of course hides a Bible in a tree and lives in the woods and then slaughters a bunch of heavily armed killers using only a knife and maybe some mud or leaves or something. Friedkin cleverly leaves it up to you to decide whether the dudes were actually government “sweepers” there to take him out, as Benicio swears, or innocent deer hunters with overly powerful weapons, as the FBI will later claim. At any rate the FBI guilts Tommy Lee into going after him because he’s the world’s best tracker. He’s the best guy for the job even before he figures out that the killer was one of his students. He taught him this wilderness survival shit, he taught him stealth and tracking, and worst of all he taught him some badass knife fighting techniques where you kill a guy like 9 different ways in five seconds.

And I wasn’t joking about that wolf tracking scene. You tell me that’s not a Steven Seagal character. It could be William Lansing, Seagal’s character from OUT OF REACH, who is retired from the game, disillusioned, and tracks an injured bird through the woods. But that was a year after THE HUNTED so instead I will cite the precedent of Dr. Wesley McClaren of THE PATRIOT, which came out 5 years before THE HUNTED. McClaren is retired from the game, disillusioned, helping animals and people in Montana. In the opening he tracks a sick pony and gives it homeopathic medicine.

And I love that followup where he confronts the poachers. When the guy’s buddies jump up for a fight Tommy Lee holds out one finger so commandingly that they all back down. And you don’t blame them. I mean, if you digitally put Seagal’s face onto Tommy Lee, you could take this scene and put it anywhere in ON DEADLY GROUND and it would seem right at home. It’s also vaguely reminiscent of the end of OUT FOR JUSTICE, where Seagal tracks down the guy who threw a dog out of a car and kicks him in the nuts.

Del Toro’s character has some Seagal in him too. He’s like THE GLIMMER MAN, trained to be deadly and invisible, considered to be “off the reservation,” framed and hunted by the agency that created him because he knows too much, has a relationship with a woman and a little girl. That’s about the only thing that keeps it from being a Seagal movie is that you have two of these type of characters, evenly matched, facing off for the entire movie. Seagal has to have the pyramid structure where he works his way through many bad guys and gets to the top. He doesn’t do a one-on-one. If it was a Seagal movie he’d be forced to play both characters, they would have to rewrite it so they’re twins or something.

I wonder if anybody told the Oscar winning director and the two Oscar winning stars that they were making a Steven Seagal movie? Even stylistically, early on, it has a bit of the feel of those European espionage DTV movies Seagal does. And Del Toro does a couple weird things that are easy to imagine in a Seagal movie. For example when the sweepers/hunters are confronting him in the woods he hides somewhere and loudly whispers “If you kill with your bare hands there is a reverence” as if some spirit in the woods is reciting warrior cliches.

Because it’s a Friedkin movie though it’s inspired by a real guy who really has that job, who worked as a consultant on the movie. So the tracking scenes are pretty cool. Friedkin does it the old fashioned way, using pictures to show things in a movie instead of the new way where you wave the camera around and make sure you can’t tell what is happening but then maybe somebody explains verbally what’s happening. With this one Tommy Lee will be in a woman’s house, she claims Benicio is not there, Tommy Lee looks at the sink and there is a closeup of a little bit of soap with hairs in it from shaving. (don’t worry, it appears to be stubble, not pubes)

Unfortunately, because they do it this way they have to exaggerate it so that we non-master-trackers know what we’re looking at, and this is one of the movie’s weaknesses. Benicio is so obsessed with tracking that he teaches a little girl how to read squirrel tracks, and he knows he is being chased by the world’s best tracker, the guy who taught him. And yet he leaves perfect muddy shoeprints on the kitchen floor of the place he’s hiding out at. When he climbs out of a manhole he not only leaves the lid open, he throws his construction helmet on the sidewalk, showing which direction he went. Can’t even be bothered to throw the helmet into a garbage can or across the street where he’s not going.

Del Toro is a brilliant actor and a lovable weirdo. He’s pretty convincing both at being a deadly knife fighter and at being crazy. But something about him here, I don’t know. He’s so weird and distant it’s hard to really empathize with him, but he’s not evil so you don’t want to root against him. Tommy Lee is much more sympathetic, an interesting character somewhere in the middle between the blowhards he used to play and the quiet guys he plays now. When he’s tracking he’s kind of a hunched over weirdo scurrying around like a man-sized mouse, looking for clues. Then when he’s threatened his entire physicality changes and you believe he could stab a guy to death even if he forgot his knife.

Which brings me to the knife fights in this movie, which are classics. There are a couple different fight scenes and they are topnotch, especially considering how much of it Jones and Del Toro seem to really do themselves. Catching up with this movie four years later I’m surprised to realize it’s one of the best action movies of the 2000s. That doesn’t mean it’s a classic, because the competition ain’t that fierce, but it’s a pretty good one. There are some interesting characters and ideas here but even if you don’t like them you will love the action. There’s even a William Freakin’ Friedkin car chase to add to the list with FRENCH CONNECTION and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. Okay, it’s not on the same scale as those two but it’s got a great gimmick where he gets stuck in gridlock and has to ram his way out.

So don’t write off Friedkin yet, and don’t write off action movies. THE HUNTED may not be perfect but it’s something more important: hard evidence that good old fashioned action movies are still possible in the 21st century. No CGI, no Avid farts, no jokin around and muggin. Just a couple interesting characters chasing each other and trying to stab each other, just like it oughta be.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Saturday, December 8th, 2007 at 2:40 pm and is filed under Action, Drama, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Responses to “The Hunted (2003)”

  1. I thought I’d just mention there was some CGI in the hunted, in the form of CGI knives and one scene where Tommy Lee Jones CGI’s his way down a waterfall; however, it doesn’t detract from the momentum of the movie, nor does it look that ridiculous.

  2. to change the dressings and wounds regularly…

    to keep them dry. notify your doctor if the wounds weep for a period beyond the first 24 hours.ice application:be sure to apply ice to the affected area for at least 20 minutes per day for the first few days after…

  3. Good movie, this is. I come back to it often. For the clearly staged and beautifully edited 1 on 1 knife fights. For the vacant weirdness and sincererity of Del Toro’s performance. For the salty swagger of Tommy Lee Jones’s tracker. I like the urgency in Jones’ dialogue. His delivery is rapid fire and to the point, answering questions almost before they’re finished. And he’s real twitchy around Connie Nielsens cop, like there’s a deficit in his attention span.

    Near the beginning, when Jones attends to the injured wolf (Seagal style – if only Friedkin had directed Seagal in a few movies, bring him back to the Silver era for a temporary high), I was thinking this was meant to be the motif for Del Toro’s battle scarred fugitive. It was probly written that way, but they never really made Del Toro that tragic. And Jones trained him to kill, but he states to Nielsen that he himself has never killed anyone before. So he was probly nervous about going up against Del Toro. Explains his twitchiness.

    Final knife fight is awesome.

    As far as Friedkin films go, this is the most aesthetically pleasing to me of his canon, though I have a weakness for his Ezterhas scripted sleazefest JADE. Still haven’t seen SORCERER. Must get on that one.

  4. Darren – I love this movie too – Not only are there incredible fight scenes, but it’s lean and mean, packing in a cool plot and great characters in 90 minutes. There’s no fat here, and more movies should be like this. Did you listen to it with Friedkin’s commentary? It’s great, especially because it explains Jones’ last scene where we see he received all those letters but didn’t write back, not because he was being an asshole, but because despite teaching men to kill, he simply was not equipped to provide answers or advice to help them live with it. Adds and extra layer of sadness to the whole movie.

    I’m a huge fan of Jones’ performance too – his fidgetiness and quick delivery not only shows his uncomfortableness with civilized life and having conversations in general, but really hints at a lifetime of unspoken tragedy. The Rock has a very similar performance in The Rundown that’s also one of my all-time favorites.

  5. neal2zod – I didn’t hear Friedkins commentary, but I did watch one of the making of doco’s, where he relays the similar story of Jones character feeling powerless to respond to Del Toros cry for help, saying that LT Bonham, while highly skilled and able to train these men to kill, suffered a crises of guilt and walked away from the army. He also suggested that Bonham himself was buried deep in his own wounds, making it impossible for him to help his former student.

    Yeah, tragic as hell. Especially when, after the final knife fight, **SPOILER** Jones walks over to the dying man, and puts his hand on his head to comfort him. Holy shit, Man Tears!

    It was also interesting to learn that the ending of the film was modified at the last minute, because the film crew came across that magnificent location in the forest with the cliffs and wild rapids. So they added the scene where Jones gets strung upside down over the ravine and cuts himself free, falls into the water, then ends up a few hundred meters downstream where Del Toro is waiting with a knife.

    The knife fight was exciting because we knew that both men were trained to sever major arteries, so each blow was headed for a fatality, upping the tension.

    I also like the final scene of Jones back at home, looking out into the snowy forest, and catching a glimpse of a wolf roaming free, possibly the same injured wolf that he was able to help earlier on. I like to think that would have given him some comfort.

  6. I’m surprised how much y’all like this one. Okay, it has the kind of badassery that we love and this time it’s even shown by two always watchable actors, but the way how the story unfolded and the often completely confusing and amateurish editing smells so hard like one of those “Let’s lock the director out of the editing room and remove 30-45 minutes that might be important for the story, but don’t have any action scenes” last minute post production tinkering situation, it really ruined the movie for me.

  7. CJ does have a point – a rewatch definitely reveals a ton of editing problems – of the amateurish “Why is Tommy Lee Jones talking but we don’t hear anything?” variety, and of the “wait, is this scene supposed to be here?” variety. I mean, the movie cuts away from the middle of a car chase to Jones and Nielsen, wearing entirely different clothes, going through Del Toro’s basement, then back to them joining the car chase they seemed to already be part of. Then the movie does this same thing again with Nielsen covered in blood a few minutes later (I remember the deleted scenes on the DVD showed that this shot was actually from a deleted shootout earlier in the movie but I’ve never really found it intrusive until now)

    But even despite all this, it’s still a solid, tight movie, and the vagueness and thinness that turned some people off is now one of its biggest strengths – maybe it’s because I watched this on Memorial Day, but it really does feel less like a “manhunt for evil Rambo” movie and more like a story about how awfully we treat our vets after they’ve served their purpose. For all we know, Del Toro really is a good guy set up and betrayed by his handlers and forced to go rogue (which happens in so many other spy movies his innocence SHOULD actually be the audience’s assumption, not his guilt). Up until the part where he kills the cops and the construction worker, he’s basically a more brutal Bourne or Ethan Hunt, and the movie’s ambiguity on his guilt/innocence in slaughtering innocents had me thinking about it long afterwards. I mean, why withhold that information from the audience, the one thing that would determine whether or not we root for this character? Why deny us the information to let us know if Del Toro’s defeat at the end is a triumph over evil or an incredibly unfair tragedy? It’s almost like Friedkin wants us to use movie conventions and shorthand (Del Toro’s eccentric non-leading man performance, the gory deaths of his victims, the beautiful leading lady, Jones’ underdog persona and instant likability) to assure ourselves that we can take the story at face value and the movie’s designated bad guy is really a bad guy. Justice was served and all is right in the world at the end, since the alternative reading (Del Toro was plucked from poverty, utilized to do the dirty things we don’t want to think about, betrayed by our government, targeted for assassination, and then killed by his old mentor and father figure) is just too depressing to consider. Friedkin invites us as an audience to rationalize what we’ve seen by collectively putting our heads in the sand the same way we do everyday when it comes to the way our vets are treated (or even as we do when we have no problem accepting 6 billion chickens being slaughtered a year as Del Toro curiously mentions).

    Anyway, I know there’s alot to stew about on this one and I’m reading alot into it. I might be overthinking it, but no matter your thoughts on the script, the fight sequences are still classics. It’s far from a perfect movie but a thought-provoking one and still one of the best actioners of the 2000’s.

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