Despite its English-language trappings, this grisly yet often laughable actioner most closely resembles the low-budget martial arts movies that used to air, badly dubbed, on independent TV stations. Probably possessing some appeal to teens and those drawn to such fare if only by virtue of its mindless violence, Universal’s best hunting grounds — after what might be an OK opening weekend — will likely be in homevideo.
If nothing else, “The Hunted” seems destined for eventual immortality on “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” with its pretentious dialogue (by “Under Siege” writer J.F. Lawton, also making his major studio directing debut) and campy performers ripe for such skewering. Though the pic does offer some comic relief, too many of the laughs are seemingly unintentional. Lawton uses a familiar Hitchcockian formula to initiate the action, which subsequently becomes a simple martial-arts movie with lots of strutting, grunting and slashing. The choreography, however, seldom evokes the sort of “wow” response needed to justify such a dimwitted exercise.
Christopher Lambert, having played around with swords in the “Highlander” trilogy, stars as a New York businessman in Japan who happens to pick up, bed and then witness the murder of a mysterious woman (Joan Chen) by a ninja assassin, Kinjo (John Lone).
Wounded and now the target of the ninja cult, Lambert’s character finds a benefactor in a samurai (Yoshio Harada) who, it turns out, wants to use the befuddled Westerner as bait to settle a centuries-old feud.
Along for the ride is the warrior’s wife, played by Yoko Shimada, perhaps best-known to U.S. audiences from the miniseries “Shogun.”
Life is cheap in “The Hunted,” with the ninjas willing to kill a train-load of passengers, one by one, trying to get at this one guy. There’s also a sort of Tarzan riff running through the action, in that this one American proves virtually indestructible while armed Japanese guards fall by the dozen.
Lambert isn’t terribly convincing as either businessman or reluctant hero, while Lone — more effective with his recent comic-book villain turn in “The Shadow”– hams it up mercilessly here as a murderer with a conscience (he solemnly refers to his victimas “a whore with the face of a goddess”) who nevertheless engages in wholesale slaughter.
Only Chen, in a brief yet radiant perf, escapes relatively unscathed, with Harada striking a stern if at times comical stance as the obsessed samurai.
While he’s obviously trying to achieve a certain style, Lawton doesn’t help matters by laying on the cliches so thick in his script and as a director, including annoying slow-motion sequences and a convenient rainstorm that obscures parts of the climactic battle.
Tech credits are otherwise passable, with Vancouver at times standing in for the Japanese locations. The percussive score, written by Motofumi Yamaguchi and performed by Kodo, in particular establishes an initial tone of suspense, but that soon proves to be a trail “The Hunted”– with its frequent detours into silliness — just can’t follow.