Wednesday, July 22, 2015

(Not)Love Actually: The Hunted

I remember seeing the trailer for 2003's The Hunted in a theater back in the early 2000's. The story of a special forces operator having trouble dealing with society and going on a surprise violent rampage elicited an immediate "Rambo for the new millennium" from someone in the crowd. A few Sunday's ago I found myself inexplicably watching the William Friedkin directed, somewhat forgotten man to man, hand to hand mini-classic starring Benicio Del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones . When I first saw the flick, I was semi-obsessed with it and devoured the DVD special features and commentary. Tweeting to the director that it was underrated, Friedkin and several dozen others agreed.

The film opens in Kosovo where Special Forces soldier Aaron Hallam (Del Toro) is knee deep into a violent mission to take out some bad guys. Years later we find him challenging two hunters in the woods of Oregon and killing them with a knife. Hallam's teacher and deep woods tracker L.T. Bonham (Jones) is called in to assist with the investigation. Being trained in the arts of stealth, self sufficiency in nature and the production and use of edged weapons, Hallam makes for an excellent soldier. But the stress of battle has him seemingly coming off the hinges and unable to hold a job or maintain healthy relationships back in the world. With the threat of confidential military affairs going public, Hallam is targeted for assassination by some of his former teammates turned government agents. But Hallam escapes and the chase is on with Bonham, agent Abby Durrell (Connie Nielsen) and half the city's police in pursuit. It all leads to a final confrontation between former teacher and student where only one will leave alive.

Based on a script by David and Peter Griffiths along with Art Monterastelli, at face value The Hunted treads familiar ground as Stallone's 1984 breakout hit First Blood where a returning Vietnam veteran butts heads with a small town sheriff and wreaks havoc when they won't leave him alone. But The Hunted tells it's own story in a very unique way in a fast paced, educational and violent style as we see flashes of Hallam's intense training designed to take a person's life quickly and efficiently. Then we have Tommy Lee Jones' Bonham feeling partially responsible for Hallam's actions and stepping up to deal with the issue and save civilian lives. At a brisk and simple 94 minutes, The Hunted is a genre film elevated by it's cast and crew. Director Friedkin films everything practically so we get expansive woods, chases through crowded streets, cars crashing, trucks flipping, high falls and impressive hand to hand and knife to knife fights with a brutal showdown on the side of a waterfall. The amount of research displayed is great from Hallam's training to each using their tracking prowess to find the other and the final confrontation where one makes a knife out of scrap metal and the other chisels an over sized arrowhead from a piece of rock. Del Toro is calm, cool and reserved here with a hint of instability while Jones is his usual solid, strong and weary self.

Released in March of 2003, The Hunted was meant to be Benicio Del Toro's leading man follow up to his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2000's Traffic. Jones was coming off consecutive hits like Men in Black II, Space Cowboys, Double Jeopardy and Friedkin collaboration Rules of Engagement. While the director had boffo box office success with The Exorcist and The French Connection in the 70's, Friedkin struggled in the 80's and 90's, giving us among others the awesomely stylistic secret service saga and Dammaged Goods favorite To Live and Die In L.A. and long delayed death penalty drama Rampage starring Michael Biehn. Both films are high on my list but along with the likes of Cruising, The Guardian and Blue Chips failed to find a wide audience. Some would argue that his hiring for 1995's big budget thriller Jade came from being married to the head of Paramount. After Jade flopped, Friedkin was entrusted with another expensive film there, 2000's military themed Rules of Engagement starring Samuel L. Jackson and Jones. The financial success of Engagement lead to The Hunted but during shooting, star Del Toro broke his wrist and delayed filming for four months.

Once finished, The Hunted opened on March 14th to a so-so $13.4 million bucks and weak reviews. Although Roger Ebert did give it a glowing 3.5 out of 4 stars, commending it's simple story but superb execution of a chase movie. Going on to gross $34.2 million in the states at a supposed $55 million budget, The Hunted could hardly be called a hit and would rank 85th for the year. Friedkin would follow up with 2006's Bug, an independent horror film with 1/10th the budget of Hunted before bouncing back critically with 2011's offbeat Killer Joe. Del Toro's leading man career would never take off as supporting roles in Sin City and 21 Grams would be lauded while the big budget, two part bio-pic Che barely saw theatrical release. 2010's enjoyable if uneven passion project The Wolfman would lose it's original director shortly before filming and suffer cost overruns before disappointing at the box office. Still in high demand, Del Toro was sought out for the villain role in 2009's Star Trek, ended up in 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy and is rumored to be up for a baddie in an upcoming Star Wars spin-off. Jones would continue to work in films big and small like The Missing and Lincoln, directing The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada while popping up in Oscar winner No Country For Old Men along with the crowd pleasing, money making Captain America and Men in Black 3.

While The Hunted remains a film few have seen, it still holds up as an exciting, violent, educational and strangely hypnotic entry in the rare one on one, hand to hand combat, knife fighting, chase thriller genre. A decade plus removed and it's safe to say they don't make'em like that anymore.

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