In William Friedkin's new thriller, "The Hunted," Tommy Lee Jones plays weathered survivalist tracker L.T. Bonham, a woodsman who is obliged to hunt down the soldier, Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro), whom he trained to be a special forces assassin. L.T. seems to be a part tailor-made for T.L. Jones, just as the movie - with its grimly realistic backgrounds and escalating series of wild chases - seems to be an ideal fit for director Friedkin.
Jones gives the part something genuinely chilling. He imbues L.T. with the detached confidence of an old pro and death-dealer who's sick of the game but still plays it better than anyone. It's an enjoyable star turn in an enjoyable movie that keeps hinting at something deeper that it doesn't deliver.
"The Hunted" is an outwardly simple and schematic chase thriller, shamelessly derived from 1994's "The Fugitive" (and every manhunt movie back to 1932's "The Most Dangerous Game"), about a teacher hunting down the star pupil whom he's taught too well to kill. In this case, the teacher is L.T., the tracker who briefly taught special services ops, and the student is Aaron, the pensive killer who, after dispatching butchers in Bosnia, is now roaming the woods, taunting, slaying and gutting rich deer hunters.
The movie begins in Kosovo during the Bosnian war, with Aaron stalking and knifing a vicious Serbian officer in his corpse-strewn headquarters. It's a virtuoso scene, but also a strange one. What is this officer doing alone in a dark empty building, while a picturesque war orphan wanders in the rubble? Friedkin spies on Aaron's catlike pursuit of the officer and then of two heavily armed and callous hunters in the Oregon woods. In both cases, he torments and kills them with unnerving ease. There's something darkly seductive in Aaron's eyes and something winning in his murderous skill, even as he gets progressively scarier.
When L.T. is brought in on the case, he recognizes his pupil's signature, just as he can instantly read breaks in the grass or movements in a crowded street. The movie becomes one of those symbolic melodramas on the soul-bonding of hunter and hunted. Friedkin and the scriptwriters keep driving together pursuer and prey for chases and unusually bloody knife fights, even though we can tell that the emotion binding them is love rather than hate.
Jones is one of the smartest and most physically deft actors in American movies - a cum laude Harvard literature graduate who also was an all-conference football player - and he has a field day with L.T. There are bits here of "Fugitive" character Marshall Gerard, the part that won Jones an Oscar. But there's a loneliness and gravity that elevates the portrayal of L.T. and makes it special. His leathery, baggy-eyed face and abrupt spiky eloquence, the way he lithely slides into his scenes - all speak volumes even when L.T.'s dialogue is sparse.
The film itself, in a way, is a model of modern big-studio action cinema. There's a glossy knockout perfectionism in nearly every scene and shot. That comes from Friedkin, reprising his specialties from "The French Connection" and "To Live and Die in L.A." He's a master of pursuit scenes, and this movie is full of them - chases on foot, on bicycle, on train and in cars, roaring down sidewalks or locked in a traffic jam - each staged with a wicked pace and bravura. Friedkin's camera is always searching out the significant detail, the oddball moment. And in "The Hunted," he has a bonus. His lighting cinematographer is Caleb Deschanel, that master of landscapes whose lyrical outdoor work in "The Black Stallion" and "The Right Stuff" is matched here by the way he and Friedkin turn the forests into great, breathing backdrops, alive with beauty and threat. It's this skill that makes "The Hunted" so watchable.
But it also sets us up for a disappointment. "The Hunted" is full of incidental pleasures, including the opening "Highway 61 Revisited" Dylan recitation and closing-credits song by Johnny Cash. But the script isn't as well-written as "L.A." Nor is it as good as the one Steven Gaghan ("Traffic") wrote for Friedkin's last Jones movie, "Rules of Engagement" - nor within miles of his best '90s work, the Reginald Rose-scripted TV remake of "12 Angry Men."
"The Hunted" was written, seemingly to order, by Englishmen David and Peter Griffiths. But the success of "The Hunted" seems to come less from the writers than from the actors and Friedkin, who modeled L.T. on his friend, tracker and Delta Force trainer Tom Brown Jr.
Few other directors and casts could have transcended this script as well as Friedkin, Jones and Del Toro - but it's a script that needs transcending. It's a much better, more involving show than recent action movies like "Tears of the Sun." But there's still something shallow at its heart, and something strained about Del Toro's character. One believes every second of Jones' performance, even when he's tumbling down rapids or dropping through elevated train roofs. But one really wonders why Aaron is so exercised about the slaughter of deer that he goes on a killing spree. (Couldn't he have just trussed up and humiliated these macho-creepo hunters without killing them?)
Good as they all are - and surprisingly effective as Connie Nielsen is, playing an initially unlikely FBI agent - they can't always disguise the Griffiths' short cuts. This movie stretches everyone physically rather than emotionally, which is too bad, because at the end, "The Hunted" reaches something near-operatic. Engrossing as it is, "The Hunted" is more a showcase for formidable talent than anything else. It's a brainy, exciting but shallow show - an expert's action movie that almost runs out of breath.
3 stars (out of 4) "The Hunted"
Directed by William Friedkin; written by David and Peter Griffiths; photographed by Caleb Deschanel; edited by Augie Hess; production designed by William Cruse; music by Brian Tyler; produced by Ricardo Mestres, James Jacks. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday, March 14. 1:34. MPAA rating: R (for strong bloody violence and some language).
L. T. Bonham - Tommy Lee Jones
Aaron Hallam - Benicio Del Toro
Abby Durrell - Connie Nielsen
Loretta Kravitz - Jenna Boyd
Michael Kennerly - Bobby Preston Crumley - Robert Blanche
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun