The Hunted asks a question I have long wondered about but no film has ever had the bravery to address: What if the deer population rose up and disrespected you? Food for thought, right? Director William Friedkin was a wonder boy in the early 1970s with The French Connection and The Exorcist, and I hope he saved his press clippings because there is no greater proof of how far one can fall than when we realize, sort of, why the Hunter here (Tommy Lee Jones) is hunting his Hunted (Benicio Del Toro).
Del Toro is a rogue CIA agent wanted for gutting and quartering soulless deer hunters - moments of incredible violence mixed with high camp that are grounds alone for arrest. Never mind that the man is “a killing machine, with no off button,” as we're told; or that it's been a long time, too, since someone in a movie had the guts to say, “He's a killing machine” and not crack up.
Never mind as well that Del Toro's Aaron sits through police interrogations with no restraints. Before Portland, Ore., authorities can get a word in, Aaron says: “Do you know 6 million chickens will die in slaughterhouses this year?”
A noble point, sure. I'm all for animal rights, not spraying perfume in monkeys' eyes and whatnot. But what about my rights as an overtaxed audience member looking for cheap thrills? Aaron wonders aloud what would happen if the food chain reversed, if animals lost respect for us. I believed he believed this. Let's even give the movie the benefit of the doubt and pretend Friedkin is saying something about instinct, animal nature, and hypocrisy. What I didn't believe was that no one, none of the FBI or local police, rolled his eyes.
Watching The Hunted is a surreal experience; it is to forget what you're watching and to start expecting the cameraman to poke his head in front of the lens and wink. Friedkin admirably strips the story down to a series of long chases but the mistake is when he pauses and pretends there are psychological dots to connect. These dots amount to zooming cameras at the cold stares of the film's two Academy-Award winners, splashes of blood, and random dialogue about the nobility of killing with one's hands. Besides the well-handled chases and the relentless pace - which one expects from the director of those great car chases in The French Connection - the rest feels like a put-on.
The Hunted is mountain man gibberish of the highest order, and strictly for laughs. My favorite scene is when Tommy Lee Jones, as L.T. Bonham, Aaron's stony former survival instructor, now turned grizzled animal tracker with a strange gait, picks up Aaron's scent. Spurred on by an FBI agent with the strut of a supermodel (Connie Nielsen), L.T. paces around a patch of woods, poking at shrubs and laying his hands on the ground, and cocking his head to the rustling of the branches, like Doctor Doolittle with an L.L. Bean account. He spots a knife hole in a tree and, recognizing he's tracking a former student, tells the FBI he'll be back in two days and, wearing the clothes he arrived in and carrying no food, he just walks into the forest.
With little repositioning, Friedkin might have had a parody here of the pursuit movies Jones has done every few years. Wearing a thick beard and moving in an awkward, tip-toeing walk, the actor has nothing in the way of a character. We know he can talk to coyotes and we know he taught survival skills, but who taught him? The man is slumming. As for Del Toro, he's stuck with even less. He plays a wacko whose mission we don't understand. Is he a monster or a disturbed soldier with issues? When he hides out with a girlfriend and her child, is this gentleness a survival instinct or a genuine softer side? How many people has he killed? How long has he lived in the woods? And who are these people?
Friedkin has always had the bad habit of dropping in the raw, immediate shock of a knife slash or a bullet wound where he thinks poignancy, or characterization, should be. Sometimes the tautness of his movies covers up the emptiness of that method; here the trick is threadbare. Still, on the simple-minded level of a chase movie, The Hunted might have worked if you didn't notice how goofy everything gets.
But any film that sends Jones in hot pursuit of Del Toro and then gives us a scene of Jones pausing long enough to whittle a knife from a rock - they're close to downtown Portland, and have access to real weapons - is a hootenanny of chaos waiting to happen.
My best guess is The Hunted is the violent tale of a large garden gnome tracking the world's worst mealy-mouth Marlon Brando impersonator ever. Or rather, remember that famous Zapruder-ish footage of Big Foot, that short, grainy clip that supposedly shows an upright humanoid-like creature covered in fur, carefully traipsing through the Pacific Northwest? I think I've tracked down the rest of the film.