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Hunting for a better script

Few actors tell as much about their characters without saying anything as Tommy Lee Jones. One who does is Benicio Del Toro. Put those two Academy Award-winning actors center stage in the same movie, and you can guess that action will mean much more than words.

Thing is, the action in The Hunted isn't that special. True, it's a nice change to see an emphasis on hand-to-hand combat rather than gunfire, and there is a certain Zen mystique to the mayhem, doted upon with gritty style by Oscar-winning director William Friedkin (The French Connection). But the plot devised by three screenwriters never progresses beyond the hook presented in preview trailers: a manhunt in which a professional death instructor tracks down his best pupil.

Jones plays L.T. Bonham, a man who never killed anyone himself but knows plenty of ways to do it. His father was an Army tracker, so he picked up the trade without having to officially enlist. One recruit who earned high marks was Aaron Hallam (Del Toro), who learned to enjoy his military duty a little too much _ especially after a particularly violent mission in Kosovo that left scores dead and Hallam with a medal pinned to his chest.

Years later, Bonham is working in the snowy Oregon mountains as a wildlife guardian, escaping his past. The grisly murders of four deer hunters bring him out of retirement. Although the details aren't anything that would lead to speculation beyond a run-of-the-mill murderer, somehow Bonham scans the crime photos and immediately knows Hallam is guilty.

That much is described in preview trailers for The Hunted. I'll tell you that Hallam is captured early and transported back to civilization, but that doesn't lead to any special twists, either. Friedkin seems to be padding his running time, tossing in a car chase to remind us why The French Connection's auto crisis was so remarkable. We get a smidgen of Hallam's back story to make him mildly sympathetic and allow Bonham to growl an interrogatory question or two, or a passing flirtation with an FBI agent (Connie Nielsen).

The main reason for the existence of The Hunted, however, is setting up as many mano a mano confrontations as possible before someone has to die. Friedkin has been searching for new sources of tension for 20 years, since his well apparently ran dry. Caleb Deschanel's cinematography keeps the frosty surroundings interesting. Jones and Del Toro have a tougher time doing that with the script.

PREVIEW

The Hunted

Grade: C

Director: William Friedkin

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Connie Nielsen

Screenplay: Peter Griffiths, David Griffiths, Art Monterastelli

Rating: R; violence, profanity

Running time: 98 min.

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