I’m not sure what to say about an action thriller that starts with Johnny Cash gravely intoning the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” I admit that I was at first startled, but that soon gave way to a mild bafflement, which in turn gave way to a sense that I was in the presence of director William Friedkin having an attack of obscure pretentiousness. Then I remembered the clever way he set the tone for The Boys in the Band with the Harper’s Bazaar version of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” and his use of preexisting music on the soundtrack of The Exorcist. But there was a difference in those cases — the music actually fit and expanded on the films in question.
This Dylan poetry recital is as far removed from those other musical introductions as Friedkin is from the Oscar he won 32 years ago for The French Connection — you know, the Oscar they keep touting in the advertising for The Hunted, while ignoring Friedkin’s generally less-than-stellar body of work in the intervening years. A case can be made for the lyrics’ pertinence concerning the relationship between the principle characters and their ultimate fates – and if you really want to dig, it’s even possible to get a whiff of a theological concern going on, but then things get a little murky. The real problem, however, is that the Dylan song is just an intriguing idea that doesn’t really work — not in the least because it’s stuck in a movie that is very short on ideas.
I was once assigned to review a book on Friedkin’s films back in the early ’90s. It wasn’t so much a book as it was a series of excuses for why this or that film didn’t work. Should the author ever update the book, he’ll have his work cut out with The Hunted — and that’s saying something since he’s already apologized for The Guardian, one of the most unintentionally funny horror movies ever made. But if you want to look for where this strained, faux-artistic Rambo rip-off — which Friedkin approaches as if he had his hands on another French Connection — went wrong, the screenplay by Peter and David Griffiths is an excellent starting point. The Brothers Griffith have one other movie credit — the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Collateral Damage. And that speaks volumes right there.
I’ll admit that their Hunted script isn’t quite as outlandishly bad as the one for Collateral Damage, but it’s very much in the same mould. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that The Hunter was penned with more traditional action stars than Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro in mind; indeed, it’s not hard to envision this with Der Arnold in the Tommy Lee role of retired special-ops instructor L.T. Bonham. I’m not sure who I see in the Benicio part, but it’s unlikely it would have hurt matters much, considering the almost somnambulistic approach he takes to the character.
Whether or not The Hunted was originally intended as less weighty than what Friedkin attempted is beside the point, since it would still be a pretty awful rehash of First Blood no matter what. Here’s the entire setup: Bonham has left the world of training special operatives and now devotes his time to helping out the odd wolf caught in an animal snare somewhere in the frozen north. In the meantime, one of his proteges, Aaron Hallam (Del Toro), is suffering from an extreme case of post-traumatic stress — due to the highly stylized (and stylishly shot) atrocities he witnessed in Serbia. So extremely around the bend is Hallam that he has taken to gruesomely murdering hunters, whose high-tech methods offend him. So the FBI brings in Bonham, who immediately recognizes that the crimes have been committed by one of his “boys.” The only surprise is that they catch Hallam almost immediately.
Ah, but, you see, he escapes — oh, he escapes several times during the course of the film — and Bonham spends the next 70 minutes chasing him. That’s about all the plot there is. There are some twists and turns — like the fact that although Bonham’s trained all these men to kill, he’s never actually killed anyone himself (now, where do you suppose this is going?) — and more than a few moments so outrageous that they topple over into the risible. I especially like the fact that Bonham and Hallam — quite independently — stop in their chase long enough so that they can handcraft knives for their Big Showdown.
I suspect the appeal of the project for Friedkin lay in the idea that maybe he could spin the 70-minute chase-and-showdown part of the movie into an extended variant on the chase from The French Connection. It fails, but it’s impossible to deny that the man tried his damndest to make it work — and he did end up with a handful of effective moments and some truly disturbing images (the film is frequently brutally violent). But, as is so often the case with Friedkin, it’s just these momentary effects that succeed, and the film as a whole falls apart around them.