Benicio Del Toro looks appropriately haunted in The Hunted. As Aaron Hallam, a hyper-trained military assassin who loses his bearing when he slices open one too many gullets, De Toro is burdened with the film’s emotional and moral significance. And, given that Aaron is by definition a “killing machine,” he has a hard time expressing himself.
Unfortunately, Aaron’s dilemma is exacerbated by its position in a film that becomes increasingly incoherent. It might be argued that this turmoil reflects the poor guy’s internal roilings, but William Friedkin’s movie never makes that commitment. In fact, it cuts around three ways, among Aaron and two other characters, super-sober teacher of assassins L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones, survivor of Friedkin’s Rules of Engagement) and mostly-by-the-book FBI agent Abby Durrell (Connie Nielsen, about to be a survivor of John McTiernan’s Basic). But while this might allow for an intriguing ambiguity of moral ground, the film rather lapses into a soupy lack of perspective. None of the characters is particularly compelling or committed, and so, you end up not caring much what happens to any of them.
This rampant confusion may have to do with the film’s reported rush to production, due to the infamous actors’ strike that wasn’t, followed by a lengthy period on the shelf (consider that most of those non-strike fallout moves were released last year). Or it may have to do with the fact that it is a designated “prequel” to a film that has not yet been shot, also to be directed by Friedkin and star Jones, tentatively called Shooter and based on Stephen Hunter’s novel, Point of Impact. With the original project yet unmade, the disjointedness of the second (or rather, now the first), scripted by David and Peter Griffiths (who wrote Collateral Damage) might make sense. Such conjecturing is mildly intriguing, but it only leads back to the film now released. And The Hunted is a mess, no matter it got that way.
It begins in a rage, with those ominous, painfully self-important lines from Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” recited by Johnny Cash Himself (currently in brilliant resurrection in his single-and-video, a cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt”). “Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son,’” Cash intones, his gravel voice lending the proceedings a weight that will be wholly unwarranted in about ten minutes. “‘Well,’ Abe says, ‘Where do you want this killing done?’ God says, ‘Out on Highway 61!’”
As if this stroll down memory lane isn’t daunting enough, the first visuals are equally momentous, subtitled “Dakovica, Kosovo, 1996.” This recent interventionist disaster appears as a hellfire of explosions and gunfire reigns over the screen, intercut with shots of Aaron’s eyes, sunk into his camouflage face paint, darting and worrying. When one of his fellow officers helpfully notes, “This isn’t a war! It’s a massacre!” you get the idea that the Serbs aren’t fighting by whatever rules war is supposed to have. Instead, the commander hisses, “They fucked our mothers, so we will fuck theirs,” gazes reverently on a poster of Milosevic, then orders the murder of all villagers, just because he can. The sheer malevolence of this target makes it look like Aaron is doing a right thing.
Still, the sequence ends badly, as Aaron jumps on the commander, like Willard on Kurtz, all bloody ceremonial gutting and slashing. This viciousness, for which he has been so carefully trained, explains, sort of, just why Aaron steps off once he’s Stateside. By 2003, he’s hunting deer hunters in the Oregon woods, taking them out with lethal precision, using only his gift for camouflage and serrated knife. Perturbed that they’re pursuing their gentle prey with high-powered weapons, Aaron whispers at them, hoarsely, as if from nowhere (an exceedingly banal effect). “When you kill with your hands, there is a reverence. There is no reverence in what you do.” Oooohkay…
Whatever he thinks he means, it’s clear that Aaron has formidable issues. He takes these soon-whimpering orange-vested guys with a few ritualistic swipes of his knife; and for a second, you might feel inclined to believe him when he insists that they’re actually sent to hunt him, no the deer scampering through the trees. That notion is soon put to rest, however, when L.T. comes on the scene, reluctantly, of course, because heroes in such situations must always be reluctant. Retired to the snowy nether-regions of British Columbia—where he saves a stunning white wolf, wounded by a snare—L.T. is only convinced to “come back” when he learns that the shooter is likely (oh dear) “my boy.”
Thus rather tediously transformed into Colonel Trautman to Aaron’s Rambo (a relationship underscored by the Abraham reference), L.T. has to hold up under an onslaught of flashbacks detailing the training he laid on his “boy.” He feels all kinds of guilt and distress, especially as he’s never had to kill anyone, himself, only train squads of kids to do it, then send them forth into their own personal moral purgatories. He does recall, when pressed by Abby, that this particular boy had a remarkable lack of remorse (good for the U.S. military, bad for the general public). This despite the fact that he sent multiple letters to L.T., requesting help dealing with his “nightmares”: “How come you didn’t answer my letters?” he moans during one outstandingly silly encounter.
As if to stretch your patience to the absolute limit, the film includes a plot that may (or may not) have been more cogent in an earlier version of the script, wherein Aaron looks up an old girlfriend, Irene (Leslie Stefanson), with an accent designed to make her sound earnest and earthy (“I said I ain’t seen ‘im in months!”), or maybe just uninformed, so she could have been his girlfriend in the first place. The primary reason for Aaron’s visit with Irene appears to be so he can talk about squirrels and kitties and “natural” hunting with her cute little girl Loretta (Jenna Boyd), and so remind you that his expertise—as hunter and hunted—is a weird kind of fate, or maybe just bad luck. Or perhaps it’s the government’s fault: certainly, the Aryan-looking military specialists who come after him appear to deserve their own grisly ends.
This pile-on of motives and angst is increasingly bulky. Even worse is the series of stunts and images lifted from The Fugitive. While The Hunted is missing that special moment when Aaron turns to his hunter to whine, “I didn’t kill my wife!” there are plenty of other reminders of Jones’ famous role (reprised, lamely, in U.S. Marshals), including about six waterfalls of varying sizes and shapes, urban (in a park in Portland) and the boonie mountainside (where the film ends, grandly and Ramboly).
In fact, the urban chase business might have been more interesting, more like Predator 2 (if you’re going to rip off, do so from the most bizarre): one early screenplay reportedly had Aaron camouflaging himself in downtown Portland, so expertly that he could stand against a building wall and seem invisible. Unfortunately, this extravagance sounds almost sane compared to what ends up on screen in The Hunted, which is rife with impossible changes in physical location (like, L.T. is in one place, then suddenly in another, with no accounting for time spent on the road or in the air) and noticeably muddled editing.
Amid all this father-son business, Abby has precious little to do but hang out with the other minority types—her boss, Van Zandt (Ron Canada, here stuck playing the standard-issue black chief who sits behind his desk and blusters) and her partner, Bobby (José Zúñiga, playing an equally annoying stereotype, however admirably). But then, how could she possibly compete with the pandemonium of the masculine psyche, spread out, as it is here, across so vast a literal and ethical landscape? These unfortunate sons assume all the blame and brutality of the military mission, until it becomes unbearable. As corny and confused as the film is, it never loses sight of that tragedy.