Benicio Del Toro goes Rambo in the Oregon wilderness and tracker/father figure Tommy Lee Jones is drafted to hunt him down in William Friedkin’s lean, mean manhunt thriller The Hunted (2003).
Del Toro is Aaron Hallam, a soldier forged in the brutality of morally questionable missions in the heat of 1999 Kosavo. This isn’t war, its ethnic cleansing, and Aaron is the demon released to take out a monster. When he goes off the reservation, the military calls on L.T. Bonham (Jones), another veteran who has taken refuge off the grid. Bonham is the man who trained Aaron to become an efficient, unstoppable killer and he’s the man sent to bring him in.
Once Hollywood’s golden boy, “Hurricane Billy” Friedkin remains a sharp action craftsman with a love of compromised heroes and assignments complicated by ambiguity, though he was saddled with scripts long on high concept gimmicks and short on dimension through much of his late career. This isn’t necessarily better material, but the basic situation gives Friedkin room to do what he does best. Beautifully photographed and tightly engineered, it’s all about the action.
The ferocity falters in the first battle between the L.T. and Aaron. It’s the guilt-ridden mentor taking on the gifted disciple he turned into a possibly insane master assassin and it bristles with drama but the veteran Jones is simply unequipped to match the younger Del Toro, who moves like a jungle cat, in that kind of physical combat. But set him on the hunt, tracking his quarry through the wilds and slipping through the forest like he was born to it, and he convinces you that L.T. is indeed a warrior guru.
Friedkin brings it into close-up and pares the film to essentials: primal landscapes, mano a mano combat, almost ritualistic preparations for battle. Explanations are left vague and ambiguous, as if there may be more to the conspiracy theories and covert killing missions than the government claims. Are the hunters in the opening scenes really just out for deer or, as Aaron believes, assassins sent to silence him? Why does the government refuse to let Aaron be arrested in public, let alone tried in open court? The suggestions hang over the action, as if there’s another, untold story beneath the narrative.
The Hunted is all about warriors, driven by paranoia and guilt and animated by fierce survival skills, and Friedkin challenges the antiseptic spectacle and fantasy flamboyance of computer-enhanced blockbusters with a lean, mean manhunt thriller and gritty, hard-edged style. In the process he also suggests that the military is very good at creating monsters and a lot less concerned with teaching them how to be human beings in society once they’ve served their purpose.
Connie Nielsen is the Oregon cop leading the manhunt before the military steps in and Leslie Stefanson, John Finn, Jose Zuniga, Ron Canada, and Mark Pellegrino costar.
The Blu-ray and DVD releases feature commentary by director William Friedkin, deleted scenes, and featurettes.