Tommy Lee Jones has more or less built his career around roles as authority figures—when he’s not playing the psycho villain, he’s usually a cop, a lawyer, a soldier, or involved in a profession of similar authority. In The Hunted, the intermittently gripping new thriller from William Friedkin, Jones is back on familiar turf as L.T. Bonham, an expert tracker and former instructor of Navy SEALs who is called in to investigate a double-homicide that turns out to be the work of Aaron Hallam (Benicio del Toro), one of his trainees from several years back. Hallam is prodigious when killing by knife—the film’s opening set piece shows him creeping into a mosque during the late-’90s civil war in Kosovo and executing a high-level Serbian general—and the years of accumulated stress have broken down his mind to the point where he can no longer separate the battlefield from the home front. “Killing’s easy,” Bonham presciently warns his pupils in a flashback. “Turning it off is the hard part.”
The Hunted is a no-frills chase movie, muscular and lean at a well-paced and barely indulgent 90 minutes. Once Bonham becomes involved with assisting the Feds (led by Connie Nielsen, an unneeded, almost distracting feminine presence) in bringing Hallam to justice, the film begins slowly boiling away the excess fat of plot and character to their eventual knifepoint duel. To that end, The Hunted is often most effective when its characters are in motion. The film showcases two exceptional fights between Bonham and Hallam; both achieve an incendiary artlessness of movement and ferocity that is infrequently seen in over-the-top, patently stagy movie combat. There’s also an outstanding chase sequence, no surprise from the filmmaker who redefined the movie chase in his two best efforts, The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A. The surprise is that this time around the chase is conducted on foot instead of in automobiles; here, the ghostly Hallam urgently tries to evade Bonham’s skills as a tracker through the streets and parks of Portland, Oregon. If the car chase in L.A. was a masterpiece of no-punches-pulled chaos, it is the delicacy and composure of this sequence in The Hunted that makes it so satisfying.
Friedkin is a director who has taken his share of critical lumps over the years, many deservedly so. But lost in the shuffle has been his ability to tap into a purely physical consideration of masculinity, a conceit at the forefront of The Hunted. Despite the film’s generic plot and characters, it makes a lot of smart choices when handling the familiarity of its trappings. Instead of rehashing the mentor/prodigal son archetype in the bond between Bonham and Hallam, the film suggests that the two were never close beyond a familiar teacher/student relationship, which ultimately emphasizes the abstract nature of their combat and characterizes basic human impulses to fight, defend, and kill. The film cuts out all suggestions of romantic softness—which would have been a crime in a story this brutal—and better yet, it never attempts to justify or explain away Hallam’s state of mind and subsequent violence, preferring to let his brutality speak unapologetically for itself. This lends the film its definitive primal element; the characters and their ensuing actions are conveyed in a language that resides below the understanding and rationalization of conventional communication, living in the fury of one’s eyes or the flick of one’s knife blade.
The film’s prevalent achievement is that it places Jones in a familiar context but finds a different character for him to play. L.T. Bonham might be after his fugitive, but he’s no Sam Gerard. Jones’s performance here is a masterpiece of vulnerability, especially so when placed in such a swift, grisly movie. The actor is a pro at playing no-nonsense tough guys, but here he’s gentle, almost timid; he even twists many of the groan-worthy scenes he finds himself in (mostly throwaway character bits opposite Nielsen) to serve as exploration of Bonham’s hesitancy and lifelong regrets through body language and subtly revealing dialogue. Playing off of del Toro, an actor who prefers to do most of his talking without ever using his mouth, might have been the key to his performance. Jones opens up and the character’s compelling jumble of intensity and frailty shines through even though it exists primarily as background shading.
The Hunted, alas, doesn’t quite make it to Jones’s level—there’s a lack of stability in the film as Friedkin alternates between borderline-brilliant machismo and soapy filler. But in its handful of principal moments the film compares favorably with the perceptive lyricism of Walter Hill and Michael Mann, whose own brands of masculine inquiry are usually encased in the action/adventure genre. The final scene in the film achieves a commanding emotional dignity not only for its implications about violence and human nature but also because of its beautiful economy—told in only a few shots, it sums up more than most films do in an hour. In these sporadically poetic glimpses, The Hunted is a thrillingly vital movie.