Kosovo 1999: everything orange flames and black wreckage in this city under siege. Artfully fire-lit, Special Forces soldier Aaron Hallem (Benicio Del Toro) crawls through the chaos and infiltrates the moody Serbian command post. Silently, he kills the commander and escapes … to the other side of the film set.
Hard to believe that the director of “The French Connection” and the cinematographer of “The Right Stuff” could shoot such a cheesy and unconvincing action sequence. Maybe they didn’t have the budget to show much and the solution was to fill the background with fire, real and computer generated. This doesn’t, however, explain the command post, so perfectly lit as to drain away the life and verisimilitude of the film.
Oregon 2003, and Hallem is on the loose killing hunters in the forest. L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones), the man who trained him, is brought in for the capture. Lots of pretty shots of Bonham creeping through the forest, pulling at sticks and patches of earth. Apparently, they imply clues to Hallam’s trail though exactly what they indicate is rarely explicated. We’re supposed to appreciate their significance on faith — this is lazy filmmaking.
Bonham finds his trainee with relative ease – hand-to-hand ensues and Hallem is captured. Under FBI interrogation, he alludes to awful secrets that are again never explicated and have no payoff. He and Bonham have cryptic conversations about past misdeeds that ought to be the centerpieces of the film — lets watch these two great actors face off. But these encounters are too vague and lacking in context to have any resonance.
As we’re only a half hour into the film, Hallem has to get free somehow. Fortunately, Government spooks show up with an apparently very important letter that allows them to take custody of Hallem from the FBI. In close up, the letterhead looked impressive. Hallem escapes from the transport the spooks cart him off in.
What follows is more poking and sniffing by Bonham – I was unfortunately reminded of the moments in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers where Legolas the Elf would walk to the camera sniffing, sensing then nodding: “Hmm, Orcs are near.” “The Hunted” plunges into fantasyland as Bonham survives a jump into a raging waterfall that should crush him. What works in “The Fugitive” undermines a movie that aims toward realism.
Ted Kotcheff’s “First Blood” told a similar story with Sylvester Stallone as a Vietnam veteran unable to fit in with society, and an excellent Richard Crenna as his trainer, Colonel Trautman. That film, more real, more exciting in every way, also made its theme quite cogent. We felt a soldier’s frustration in a society that created him, but that now has no place for him. There is nothing in “The Hunted” remotely as succinct as Trautman’s line, “God didn’t make Rambo, I did.” These notions are so obliquely addressed in “The Hunted” that they play as non-sequitors.
Perhaps the real shocker in comparing the films is the superiority of “First Blood”’s suspense sequences. Few handicappers would pick Ted Kotcheff over William Friedkin as an action director. Equally few would pick Stallone over Del Toro in very similar roles, but his John Rambo (in “First Blood,” not the cartoonish sequels) emerges as a complex and physically believable character in a way Aaron Hallem never does in “The Hunted.”
The movie appears brutally cut which might explain its inability to develop a thought, much less any narrative momentum. This does not, however, explain the sub par efforts both behind and in front of the camera. One imagines that when the last ‘Cut!’ was finally yelled, everybody left without a word, hoping that their checks, at least, were good.