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Knife Work If You Can Get It: Tommy Lee Jones attempts to disarm Benicio Del Toro in William Friedkin's cutting-edge actioner 'The Hunted.'

Knifed in the Water

'The Hunted' is as simple (and boring) as its title

By Richard von Busack

USING THE ULTIMATE in state-of-the art knifeware to slice the same old baloney, director William Friedkin (working from a script credited to three writers) proposes a surrogate father-and-son drama of conflict in The Hunted. The film is vaguely antiwar but drunk over violence. It laments the cost of transforming a man into a killer, but it's happy to refer to the killer as a "machine," so we won't feel sorry when he gets what's coming to him.

The mishandled themes are unveiled with a few citations of the story of Abraham and Isaac. There's an idea here somewhere: Wilfred Owen's World War I poem "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young" used the single most horrible of Bible tales as an allusion to the wantonness of the Great War. Since a dreadful war is looming, you'd think The Hunted could find some resonance, but it's just a standard action movie, as empty as a gourd.

Tommy Lee Jones plays L.T., a retired hermit who lives in the British Columbia snows and heals wolves with his bare hands. He is called back--just when he thinks he's out, they pull him back in--to help the FBI with a lunatic who has been mangling hunters in the forest. Since we saw the beginning, we know that the knife wielder is Aaron, a cuckoo Benicio Del Toro, whose performance is bad--and only worse when he tries to add some black comedy to this portentous actioner. Aaron lost his marbles working as an off-the-book U.S. Army commando in Kosovo, and the opening scenes of his breakdown couldn't be more like Apocalypse Now if they had the Doors on the soundtrack. L.T., who trained Aaron to kill, must come back to chase him through the sights of Portland, Ore., before a mano a mano showdown at knife point.

Supposedly, the film is based on the work of an actual military commando trainer. The lone moment of sense comes in the scene most directly relating to training for killing. In a flashback, L.T. teaches a class the proper method of stabbing a man to death. He shows which arteries and ligaments to sever, how to turn a wounded arm away so you can get at the lungs. I had just read a quote by the ominous actor Lawrence Tierney in Eddie Mueller's book The Art of Film Noir: "Never get into a fight with a man who knows how to handle a knife." L.T.'s matter-of-fact lesson on how to slice and when to stab is skin-crawling stuff; the material and Jones' quiet authority provide the grounded moments in a film inflated with hooey.

Absurdly, The Hunted insists on the grit of Portland--"It's a wilderness," Jones murmurs, looking at a city that pretty much everybody would move to if they could get a job there. And Connie Nielsen doesn't wake the picture up as a garden-variety FBI agent, despite a little modest flirtation by L.T. The Hunted is just another unstoppable-serial-killer movie with a finale full of only the most unfeeling violence; it's not just slick, but slick with blood.

The Hunted (R; 94 min.), directed by William Friedkin, written by David and Peter Griffiths and Art Monterastelli, photographed by Caleb Deschanel and starring Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro and Connie Nielsen, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the March 20-26, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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