Originally created 03/14/03

At the Movies: 'The Hunted'



Tommy Lee Jones has a great walk: short, forceful strides, shoulders hunched slightly forward, eyes hard-wired to the ground ahead of him. There's no wasted motion; it's the walk of a man who knows what he's after.

In "The Hunted," a crisp and intense action movie, Jones plays a professional tracker, and director William Friedkin ties the momentum of the film to Jones' feet. They never stop moving.

If "The Hunted" had time for wit, it would make a running gag out of the fact that Jones on foot is always getting to the scene of the action faster than FBI agents in cars and helicopters. But nobody quips in this movie; they're in a hurry to catch a killer who's no ordinary criminal.

"The Hunted" begins in 1999 in Kosovo, where Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro) is serving with an Army Special Forces unit trying to halt the massacre of ethnic Albanians. He slips behind enemy lines and slits the throat of a Serbian officer, but not before dozens of civilians are shot before his eyes. Afterward, the trauma doesn't fade; it renews itself constantly in his mind.

Quickly (the editing, by Augie Hess, keeps you on your toes), we're transported to present-day British Columbia, home of L.T. Bonham (Jones), the tracker and survival expert who trained Hallam to kill. His introduction is crude action-movie symbolism at its best: He rescues a lone wolf whose paw has been caught in a trap.

Then, on to the forests of Silver Falls, Ore., where the now-AWOL Hallam torments and then kills a couple of deer hunters because he's offended by the huge, powerful scopes on their rifles. The FBI (Connie Nielsen gets the thankless role of the agent in charge) brings in Bonham to find the killer, and he quickly apprehends his former pupil, setting the stage for an hour of nearly nonstop action.

Friedkin and Hess are restless in the best way; they allow for quiet moments but don't let them hang there, always intercutting with something more kinetic. As the action moves to Portland, Friedkin, through his nimble handling of actual locations (a strength of his from "The French Connection" onward), shows Hallam's proficiency at evasion and survival - and Bonham's skill at pursuit - in any environment.

The great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel makes an invaluable contribution. His images are so vivid, his forest greens so deep and light-soaked, that you feel you've slipped into a primal jungle - the world of men who exist only to track and kill. Deschanel lets you experience the world with their heightened perceptions; he enhances your vision.

While Jones - spare, intuitive, elegant - is in top form, Del Toro's Method acting is not quite in tune with Friedkin's lightning pacing. He puts those haunted eyes to great use, but you feel like he wants more time to burrow into Hallam's soul.

Hallam is conceived as a son abandoned by his father figure - Bonham has refused, over the years, to answer his letters - yet he's not quite the tragic figure he should be. While the military made Hallam what he is, the fact remains that he's a killing machine, pure and simple. He'll waste anyone who has him cornered, and given that no one except Bonham really poses a danger to him, his body count runs high.

"The Hunted," then, doesn't conjure that rare and wonderful equilibrium of "The Fugitive," in which you rooted equally for Jones and the man he was pursuing. But the movie satisfies the need for the teacher and the student to face each other in man-to-man combat. The fight scenes really cook: Del Toro and Jones are convincing as knife experts who know every way imaginable to disable the human body.

The professionalism on display in every aspect of "The Hunted" is admirable; more so is the way it coheres into a singular vision. It's a lone-wolf movie, lean and hungry.

"The Hunted," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R for strong, bloody violence and some language. Running time: 94 minutes. Three stars out of four.