[Screen It]


(2003) (Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro) (R)

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Action/Thriller: A retired military trainer tries to track down and stop one of his former pupils who's gone on a killing spree.
L.T. Bonham (TOMMY LEE JONES) is a retired military trainer who's called back into action when one of his former students, Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Hallam (BENICIO DEL TORO), goes on a murder spree in Oregon. Having witnessed the horrors and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the expertly trained, highly resourceful and incredibly dangerous Hallam has apparently snapped, and is now accused of killing and gutting four men.

Summoned by FBI official Harry Van Zandt (RON CANADA), L.T. arrives at the latest murder scene where he meets field agent Abby Durrell (CONNIE NIELSEN) and sees scores of other agents and local police scouring the area. Preferring to work alone, L.T. then sets out to track down Hallam. After a precarious encounter with the apparently deranged soldier, L.T. and Durrell bring him in.

During a subsequent transport, however, Hallam manages to escape. Upon hearing about that, L.T. sets out once again to find his former student and bring him back in or kill him. Finding Hallam visiting Irene Kravitz (LESLIE STEFANSON) and her daughter, Loretta (JENNA BOYD), L.T. and Hallam enter into a long cat and mouse chase sequence where both men must use all of their resources in repeated attempts to outwit and outfight the other.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
One of the more memorable scenes in 1993's terrific "The Fugitive" - the tale of a federal marshal pursuing an escaped but innocent convict - was when Harrison Ford's character took a dive off an incredibly tall, manmade waterfall. He did so not only to insure that he wouldn't be captured by Tommy Lee Jones, but also to continue on his quest to prove his innocence and find the real killer.

It was the film's defining moment as it demonstrated how far he'd go and further endeared him with the viewer. There's a somewhat similar scene in "The Hunted," an action thriller where Jones, of all people, pursues an escaped prisoner. Unfortunately, but not altogether surprisingly, it's not remotely as successful either from a defining or character endearing moment.

There are various reasons for that in director William Friedkin's take on David Griffiths & Peter Griffiths ("Collateral Damage") and Art Monterastelli's (making his debut) screenplay. The first is that the material isn't remotely novel as there have been numerous films featuring cracked former soldiers on the loose stories.

Many viewers will likely be reminded of "First Blood" (the initial installment of the "Rambo" series) and Richard Crenna's efforts to find and bring in his renegade but highly resourceful former soldier (Sly Stallone) who's suffering from post traumatic stress (and more recent mistreatment).

Although few have equated any of the "Rambo" movies as deep, the first one's a subterranean well compared to this slipshod effort. An early sequence of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo is all the setup the filmmakers have deemed necessary for the backdrop for Benicio Del Toro's character.

Beyond that, some sparse mumbo-jumbo dialogue and a brief visit to a superfluous mother-daughter character combo, we know next to nothing about his character. Thus, we don't care or worry about him or really even what he might do next. Del Toro ("Traffic," "The Pledge") is a terrific actor, but he can't do much with this thinly conceived and poorly written character, and his performance suffers accordingly.

Friedkin ("Rules of Engagement," "The French Connection") and company don't seem particularly interested in that anyway. Instead, they seem intent on delivering taut and high-octane moments of mano a mano battle scenes between a military instructor and his former student. Or is that father and son?

The film opens with Johnny Cash reading a passage of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" about God telling Abraham to "kill me a son." Yet, little is done with that contrived dynamic and allegorical hooey. In fact, the plot is really just a throwaway device designed to allow the two main characters to participate in a string of fight and cat & mouse sequences.

That would have been okay and the stilted dialogue, gaping plot holes, unbelievable moments and unanswered questions somewhat forgivable if the resultant action was top-notch, but it's not. The editing and temporal continuity within and between scenes is atrocious and the logic is terribly flawed.

While we're led to believe that Del Toro's character is highly resourceful, he moves around from locale to locale in a way that would make even Superman envious. He's not alone in that regard, however, as 56-year-old Tommy Lee Jones ("Space Cowboys," the "Men in Black" films) manages to belie his age and the laws of physics time and again during the pursuit. If that weren't bad enough, he's playing the same sort of character he's done countless times before and it's starting to get old, even if his character doesn't recognize that.

That, and Friedkin's inability to build momentum and suspense in the action and chase scenes (which is surprising considering his past track record at doing just that) results in this being a boring action picture. Since that's its only saleable attribute, the film comes off as a lame mess, even in the highly touted knife battle scenes.

While it's really just a two person show, Connie Nielsen ("One Hour Photo," "Gladiator") appears as the token female supporting character in a role that would have gone to Annette Bening a few years back. Meanwhile, Leslie Stefanson ("Unbreakable," "Beautiful") and Jenna Boyd (making her feature film debut) appear in an isolated sequence that feels out of place and does nothing for the movie.

Filled with too much ineffective symbolism and a myriad of other debilitating problems, "The Hunted" retreads familiar material but does absolutely nothing new, interesting, unexpected or memorable with any of it. While it thankfully avoids some late in the battle and resolution contrivances (that I feared would appear due to everything else that's wrong with the effort), it nevertheless rates as only a generous 3 out of 10.

Reviewed March 11, 2003 / Posted March 14, 2003

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