Near the halfway point of Jonathan Mostow’s The Hunter’s Prayer, Lucas (Sam Worthington), a hired assassin, sits down for a bite to eat with Ella (Odeya Rush), the teenage girl whose life he spared in a moment of weakness and compassion when she reminded him of his own estranged daughter. Finally, a potential breather, as the film follows an opening murder scene with a shootout and an extended car chase that has hitmen intent, and incentivized, on seeing Lucas and Ella dead. Aside from a brief glimpse of the adverse effects of Lucas’s PTSD from his time in the military, both characters are still mysteries, having barely uttered a word to one another. Yet right before the two have a chance to dig into the expository tête-à-tête that the setup of this diner scene initially promises, Lucas lifts his drink to his lips only to have it shattered by a bullet. And the chase begins once again.
That’s an unexpectedly humorous moment that also functions as a prime example of the film’s tendency to speak with action rather than words, and to prioritize the intricacies of its visual rather than narrative movement. Leaving behind the sci-fi trappings and bloated budgets that weighed down his previous two films, Surrogates and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Mostow returns to the stripped-down action of his lean and mean Breakdown. The Hunter’s Prayer packs its brisk 85 minutes with an impressive array of car chases, gun fights, hand-to-hand combat, and foot pursuits, all cut with a precision and an economy that heightens the impact of every hit. Its overarching story, involving a British magnate, Richard Addison (Allen Leach), who goes to over-the-top lengths to have Ella killed as punishment for her father’s disloyalty to him, is trite, but Mostow is intent on pushing story and dialogue as far to the fringes as possible in favor of luxuriating in the pure surface pleasures of the film’s many taut, formally dynamic action sequences.
The Hunter’s Prayer is steadfastly concise and efficient, foregrounding action above expositional groundwork. Eventually, as the machinations of Lucas and Ella’s emotionally unstable dynamic and Richard’s master plan do come to the forefront, the flimsiness of John Brancato and Michael Ferris’s screenplay fully reveals itself. In spite of that, Mostow delivers an appropriately brutal, gripping finale amid the dark chambers of Richard’s underground lair—a poor man’s version of John Wick: Chapter 2’s Catacombs sequence to be sure, but an effective set piece nonetheless. The brief, redemptive scenes tacked on at the end may stink of studio interference, as the film would have been better served had it ended a few minutes prior on the ambiguous note between Lucas and Ella, but despite the intermittent flashes of recycled genre tropes, The Hunter’s Prayer provides the sort of cogent and compact visceral thrills that are in short supply in recent American action cinema.