Tommy Lee Jones puts on his tracker shoes again in “The Hunted,” an unpleasant action suspenser more dedicated to hurtling relentlessly forward than to vesting audience interest. Director William Friedkin does pull off a couple of intense, in-tight-and-personal knife fights between Jones, playing a retired trainer of military killers, and Benicio Del Toro, essaying his brilliant disciple now gone bonkers. But otherwise, this is routine, superficial manhunt stuff that looks to score a decent opening based on star power and the lure of macho action, but then tail off in short order.
Handsomely mounted pic is framed by some words from singer Johnny Cash that create an intriguing but spurious spiritual context for the feeble script penned by David and Peter Griffiths, creators of last year’s inimitable “Collateral Damage,” and first-time scenarist Art Monterastelli. In a prologue, the raspy-voiced country great intones lyrics from Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” referencing God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice his son, while end credits are graced by Cash’s great song from last year, the ominous “The Man Comes Around.”
Unfortunately, the tunes raise issues that don’t arise in this connect-the-dots story of a teacher forced to put his star student out of business. Violent eight-minute curtain raiser has Del Toro’s Aaron Hallam as a U.S. Special Forces soldier stealthily witnessing atrocities in Kosovo, 1999, then carving up the Serbian officer who ordered the mass killings of ethnic Albanians. Fiery, chaotic nocturnal scene triggers unnerving premonitions, given that all the mayhem takes place in a community dominated by a mosque.
Four years and many nightmares later, Aaron has gone over to the other side; a knife expert who shuns the use of guns, he has taken to murdering hunters he believes don’t play fair due to their use of ultra-powerful scopes. He signs his kills by drawing and quartering his prey, which is where Jones’ L.T. Bonham comes in, as the only man who can track down the killing machine he trained all too well.
Seeking to differentiate this guy from other relentless pursuers he’s portrayed, from “The Fugitive” to “U.S. Marshals” and “Double Jeopardy,” Jones makes L.T. into something of a cranky loner with an unusual gait who would rather help injured animals than consort with human beings. But once he’s engaged in the effort to capture Aaron, he’s forced to run the straight and narrow, with only the rare human or character-illuminating moment allowed.
In fact, Aaron is reeled in fairly quickly, after the first brutal mano a mano duel between the two men. But after Special Forces ops take custody of him because, officially, “he doesn’t exist,” Aaron stages a spectacular escape, whereupon L.T. and a local FBI official (Connie Nielsen, looking far more comfortable in her tight jeans than as a hard-bitten federal agent) resume the chase, which takes them across the most ruggedly scenic Pacific Northwest locations Friedkin could find and lenser Caleb Deschanel could squeeze into a non-anamorphic frame.
After thankfully aborting yet another puzzling attempt (after “Jade”) at an automobile chase in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Friedkin moves the pursuit onto a Portland trolley car, to the top of a bridge, and finally to some river rapids — next to which the second, and notably bloody, knife fights takes place. Director’s attention to detail in these face-offs is notable, and the Filipino-bred Sayoc Kali combat style is unusual. Film also dwells on the men’s ability to forge their own weapons out of raw materials when they need to.
Otherwise, this heavily masculine affair has a grimly oppressive air that mitigates against any exhilaration its devotion to pure action might have generated. In addition to its lack of interest in dimensional characterization (or secondary characters worth mentioning), script is glumly humorless and lacking in surprises or twists as it hotfoots its way to a preordained conclusion. At 94 minutes, pic doesn’t end a moment too soon.
Del Toro’s character proves elusive not only to his pursuers but to the audience and, perhaps, to himself, as he lends his physical presence but little else to this performance. Aaron’s military-inspired torments are shopworn cliches, and nothing interesting is revealed about the man’s past or inner nature.
Production values are strong.