The Hunted. 2003. Dir. Wiliiam Friedkin. Screenplay by David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths & Art Monterastelli.
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro, and Connie Nielsen.
18A. 94 minutes.
A beginning note: Quickly, and with massive praise, a thank you to director William Friedkin for spreading this Retrospective Review to everyone in his Twitter following a couple years ago – gentleman & legend. That’s pretty much a dream come true for me, and I wanted to acknowledge that right off the bat. It sat on his timeline for months and has generated a fair deal of traffic my way, in no small sense I consider it one of the reasons this site got off the ground.
But not only is it a great help for me, more people need to have a look back at this film in particular and reevaluate their initial opinion, so it can only help to (possibly and hopefully) change a few minds, or at least get you thinking – even if it’s only for a second.
I wanted to take an opportunity to revisit some of my favourite filmmakers films I didn’t exactly love on first watch. Sometimes you don’t always enjoy a movie right away, and it takes another viewing to get back and appreciate things.
Today I decided to re-watch the 2003 action-thriller The Hunted, and have a look at one of my favourite filmmaker’s lesser loved films.
I’ve seen a lot of reviews for William Friedkin’s The Hunted saying it’s basically a rehash of First Blood (for the uninitiated – Rambo). Not only is that an insult to both films for saying they’re essentially derivative, it also goes to show how well those fans, or critics, paid attention to either film.
These are nothing alike except for the fact there is an ex-soldier in the woods – past that, I really can’t see how people are making more solid parallels between the two. Rambo was antagonized into his situation by police. Aaron Hallam (Del Toro) went berserk because of the war in Kosovo, and started killing people in the woods of America.
I mean, I understand why people want to compare and contrast the two as being similar, but they just aren’t the same at all. There is emotional complexity to both Hallam and Rambo (I’m not a big Stallone fan, but First Blood was a superbly solid action thriller). I’ll argue there is a lot more complexity to Hallam.
Throughout The Hunted we basically get to watch a battle of wits, and skill of course, between Del Toro as Hallam and Tommy Lee Jones as L.T Bonham (actually based on technical adviser to the film, American outdoorsman and wilderness survival expert Tom Brown Jr. The story itself is loosely based on Brown’s involvement in tracking a former pupil and Special Forces soldier who was fleeing from authorities, from a book Brown wrote called Case Files of the Tracker). Also, where First Blood really was mostly filled up by action, Friedkin’s film is start to finish a psychological thriller with nice heaping portions of action peppered in to keep things taut and tense.A soldier has gone crazy and is now in the Pacific Northwest United States, living in the woods. He kills two soldiers hunting with high-powered rifles, assuming them to be ‘sweepers’ (in other words, he believed they were looking for him; hunting to kill). This triggers law enforcement to bring L.T Bonham, an expert tracker and civilian trainer for military assassins, who soon discovers the man they are hunting is Aaron Hallam; a soldier he taught earlier and trained as a killer.
This triggers a sort of cat and mouse style thriller, however, due to the nature of these men, their instincts, reflexes, and killer skills, it makes for something a little more interesting than most other films which seem similar.
I like a film that deals with flashbacks yet doesn’t rely solely on going back to the past visually to tell the story. Friedkin does a great job here balancing the past and present. Hallam experiences flashbacks which take us back to his time in Kosovo, as well as general flashback sequences Friedkin provides us with to fill out the origin of how Hallam was trained so lethally by Bonham. Friedkin could have went with sequences a lot longer diving into the past. Instead, he focuses on the present, as the plot dictates this is the most important – it isn’t about what made Hallam go insane, though of course it’s a shame his career as an assassin broke him to pieces (yet no surprise there), it’s all about what he does afterwards. L.T tells him at one point, when they have a brief face-off, he has to answer for the things he’s done, and Hallam replies: “I’ve got to live with the things I’ve done“. This perfectly exemplifies what is happening. Hallam knows he has to pay. On the other hand, the far worse crime is the fact he’s been trained and essentially manufactured to kill while also being left to fend on his own; no one else is taking responsibility for what they turned him into, so he has to live with, all by himself. He isn’t concerned about paying for anything – living with what he is has become far worse than any punishment the law might further inflict on him.
This all brings us back to an earlier line from a flashback sequence to the training Hallam underwent. L.T tells his trainees: “Once you are able to kill mentally, the physical part will be easy. The difficult part.. is learning how to turn it off.”
After awhile it becomes clear this is another case of a doctor and his Frankenstein. Bonham, paid by the military, has really created a monster. The film basically toys with the idea that Hallam was made into a killer, trained to do the job, and when he couldn’t turn it off on his own they decided all they could do was try to kill him. We aren’t mean to particularly feel bad for Hallam, but the thought is there – who takes responsibility for a human killing machine that was built and paid for by the American military? Is it an assassin’s fault that, after they were programmed to commit murder without remorse or any second thoughts, they completely went off the rails and lost their ability to control themselves? Hard pill to swallow, but The Hunted does a great job of exploring this through the eyes of an action thriller.Once again, I love the action here. From the fight choreography to the stunts. It’s all amazing. The fights are some of the best and most natural I’ve seen, especially in American films, and most certainly in regards to post-2000 action films. A lot of times action movies get caught up in unrealistic, wild action. And while that can be enjoyable at times (it’s fun to turn your brain off now and then), there’s something to be said for organic-looking fight scenes. Takes things to another level.
One of the early hand-to-hand combat scenes between Del Toro and Jones is absolutely incredible to watch. Especially considering Jones wasn’t exactly a spring chicken in 2003; he does not disappoint. Not to mention the brilliantly paced final fight between the two men; it is raw and savage, and I really think they went balls-to-the-wall.
There are really great moments where it’s quite obvious the fighting being showcased is more real than most fight scenes around. They aren’t frenetically shot. Instead Friedkin’s fights are really well composed and elaborate. The shots don’t fly around until you’re unable to tell who is fighting, who’s being hit, et cetera; Friedkin gives us long shots, so we can watch the brutality. You get to see the punches and kicks, all of it. Yes, it’s still a movie, but clearly the fight choreography was fleshed out instead of “okay throw some punches and a few kickes, blah, blah”. They really worked on these. It shows.
All in all I have to give The Hunted a 4 out of 5 stars. It isn’t a perfect film, and yes, Friedkin has better showcases of his incredible talent. I’m a huge fan of his work. That being said, this is still a really good action thriller. There isn’t a ton of CGI making The Hunted look flashy and stuffed full of filler. This is a real, gritty, human psychological story dipped into a suspenseful, tense action thriller.
Friedkin is a master at drawing out emotional complexity from the characters in his film. That’s the quality which helps The Hunted rise above the typical action thriller it seems to emulate. Sure, you can try to draw all sorts of comparisons to First Blood, or Rambo in general, but you’d be wrong to do so. This has a lot of psychological drama, stellar fighting, and the acting from both Del Toro and Jones surpasses many performances from the action genre in the past decade or more. I highly recommend this, especially when you’re looking for a tight film with a bit of action to get your thrill-on.