the hunted (2003)


director: william friedkin

tommy lee jones, benicio del toro, connie nielsen

You'd think that Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo had left deep scars on America's political conscience by the way they keep appearing in film. Behind Enemy Lines was a chase film set in Bosnia's war zone, and Tears of the Sun is a "what if", imagining that America stepped in and took sides in an African ethnic massacre. Anyone long accustomed to cynicism when regarding Hollywood's motivations might dismiss all of this as looting history for plot and motivation, but perhaps something deeper lurks behind all this anguished battle.

There's no such speculation aroused by the opening scene of William Friedkin's The Hunted, where we meet Benicio Del Toro as a special ops assassin working behind Serbian lines in Kosovo, slipping through the excruciatingly vivid, even beautiful, nightmare of an "ethnic cleansing" to gut the paramilitary strongman leading the massacre. He gets the Silver Star, but when his commander praises his efforts in the service of peace, Friedkin cuts to one of his fellow soldiers suppressing a smirk. Cue the night sweats and bad dreams, and we're introduced to Del Toro as the trained killer on the verge of snapping, a venerable figure in the rogue's gallery of villains-as-victims.

Another cut, and we meet Tommy Lee Jones as L.T. Bonham, tracking something that's running and bleeding through the snowy forests of British Columbia. His quarry is an arctic wolf, apparently a thousand or so miles away from its home above the tree line, whose paw has been caught in a snare. Unarmed and unafraid, he corners it, frees the snare, and patches its wound. A scene or two later, we learn that L.T. trained Del Toro's character, Aaron Hallam, who's gone lethally astray from the special ops fold, and has to be tracked down.

We've seen Jones do this sort of scary, hypercompetent zen macho lone wolf before, both seriously (The Fugitive) and as parody (Men in Black). Graying and grizzled, he might be close to retiring the character, but there's a weird joy in watching him confound the bureaucratic straights with his freaky skills and contemptuous knowledge. The film actually pauses during the extended chase scene that is, essentially, the whole film, to watch Jones and Del Toro fashion killing knives out of scrap metal and rocks for their final duel.

The Hunted has a strange, minimal purity about it, effortlessly shrugging off the Kosovo set piece along with hints of cover-ups and conspiracy, black ops and teams of sinister "sweepers" hot on Del Toro's trail. It's all about a father/son duel to the death, invoked with Old Testament gravity by Johnny Cash himself, in a voiceover at the beginning of the film, recalling God's demand that Abraham kill his own son, captured in verse via a vintage Bob Dylan lyric. It's a crazy kind of peg to hang a whole film on, and while hardly satisfying, it has a mad, pure logic all its own.