William Friedkin’s 2003 film The Hunted is an exercise in expository minimalism, telling a familiar story with as little exposition and as much process and detail as possible. That alone is an admirable but not necessarily unique approach to the material, but the fact that it was financed by a major studio with the production value and stars that support brings really makes it seem like a lost relic -- although the reality is that movies like this were almost as unheard of in 2003 as they are now.

As the record has it, the script for The Hunted by David and Peter Griffiths was picked up by Paramount specifically as a vehicle for Friedkin, but it’s easy to imagine it being turned into a more conventional chase thriller a la Andrew Davis’s immensely popular The Fugitive a decade earlier. In its skeletal form, this plot about a highly trained military veteran going on the run in the US had basically already been used by Sylvester Stallone and company for their own First Blood, of which The Hunted has sometimes been referred to as a remake. But Friedkin’s signature documentary-like and detail-oriented style gives this an unrelenting, brutal energy, with none of the usual concessions to a mass audience that you would normally find in a film of this budget.

The Hunted stars (Fugitive alum) Tommy Lee Jones as LT Bonham, a “survivalist” who lives in the wilderness working for the World Wildlife Fund. But in his former days, he taught soldiers like Benicio Del Toro’s Aaron Hallam how to kill so easily and efficiently that it becomes a force of habit, a method that naturally has all of the expected consequences when Hallam starts carving up hunters on federally protected land. In a characteristic Friedkin touch, those “hunters” appear to be suspiciously well equipped, and it’s implied but never explicitly confirmed that they were actually “sweepers” sent by the government to eliminate Hallam, who had become inconvenient after years of killing on its behalf in foreign lands.

The plot and characters of The Hunted are well worn and familiar. Cliché counters can find plenty of fodder in the opening minutes, which feature Bonham being called back into the field by an old associate for one last job, tracking down his old pupil so the feds can take him in and stop his killings. But as with so many great pieces of genre cinema, the presentation and execution make all the difference, and the way The Hunted indulges and discards its generic narrative conventions with casual familiarity reminds me of a similar trick performed by Jean-Pierre Melville (a known influence on Friedkin generally) in his cycle of masterful French crime films. Only instead of film noir, gangster movies, and crime novels, The Hunted is being drawn from a well of military-tinged action adventure, if it were a paperback novel you’d find it in the “Men’s Adventure” section right next to the Mack Bolans (side-note: some of my recent internet wanderings inform me that Friedkin was once actually attached to a Mack Bolan project, that would have starred none other than Rambo himself, Sylvester Stallone. This movie never made it off the ground, but The Hunted probably gives us an idea of what such a project would have been like in Friedkin’s hands).

The third point on The Hunted’s triangle against Jones and Del Toro is Connie Nielsen as the FBI’s Abby Durrell. I’m a big Nielsen fan and she was showing absolutely incredible taste in unusual (and, unfortunately, commercially disappointing) projects from off-beat Hollywood auteur fans at this time: you could make a truly unforgettable triple feature from her performances in Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars, The Hunted, and John McTiernan’s Basic, if you’re willing to drown out the cacophony of critics and audiences telling you these movies are worthless. The best thing I can say about her performance in The Hunted is that she is essentially filling the role Tommy Lee Jones made so unforgettable in The Fugitive opposite the man himself and actually pulls it off. Her characterization isn’t as funny or showy as Jones’s in the earlier film but it does showcase her abilities in what might be considered a thankless role -- I am here, however, to thank her for it. Her scenes with Jones have a very interesting kind of anti-chemistry as he is clearly not used to talking to human beings and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t try to impose any phony love interest on their characters; there’s a scene where Bonham invites Durrell to his cabin up north that feels very true to life like an invitation both parties know will not be accepted, rather than the opportunity for romance it might serve as in a movie less preoccupied with pure, brutal carnage.

About that carnage: The Hunted is basically a chase film that is almost all chase, and the basic concept is that the teacher has to track his pupil through an urban jungle, a process that seems to be mostly interchangeable with doing it in an actual jungle. Neither man seems to have much use for guns, so they fight each other with knives and their bare hands, in action sequences that somehow boast economical spatial clarity in conjunction with near-abstract bursts of blood and bone. It’s amazing to see Friedkin’s realistic style turned towards action that would, again, seem perfectly natural in a more conventional action movie, like Jones pursuing Del Toro by climbing to the top of a light rail train at top speed and dropping into a passenger car through the roof. It’s a fascinating illustration of the principle that plausibility is not merely a matter of narrative content but the way that content is presented, and if any movie will ever make you believe that two men would ever scale the top of the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland to fight it out as police helicopters circle around them, this would be the one.

Dramatic license aside, The Hunted is said to have been somewhat inspired by real events. Professional tracker Tom Brown served as a technical advisor on the film and evidently describes a similar scenario in his book, Case Files of the Tracker, in which he had to track down an old student of his who had gone rogue. I haven’t read the book but I feel safe in assuming that the real chase wasn’t quite as perilous as the events of The Hunted, but it’s typical of Friedkin that the movie almost makes you believe all this stuff could really happen, like Del Toro’s Hallam managing to escape an armed military transport truck -- in handcuffs no less! -- with little more than his own reflexes and a strategic wag of his head.

The Hunted belongs to a long tradition of macho action movies but there’s something about the combination of Friedkin’s style and Paramount Pictures production value that makes it special. Friedkin had long learned how to subdue the more abrasive aspects of his style since his 1970s heyday, but here he had one last hurrah before they took away his keys to the kingdom, and all his directorial efforts since have been independently financed affairs with nary a car chase in sight (which is not to suggest that films like Bug and Killer Joe lack intensity on their own). Critics and audiences didn’t care, though, and The Hunted came and went, mostly staying gone except in the hearts of a few devoted faithful, and as of this writing it doesn’t even appear to have gotten a proper Blu-ray release. To paraphrase the advertising tagline for The French Connection, evidently the time was not right for an out and out thriller like this. But maybe, soon, it will be.

Joseph Gibson is transmitting his possibly over-enthusiastic opinions from Austin, TX. His pieces for NeoText focus on the work of underappreciated genre film auteurs. Turn-ons include elaborate shoot-outs, dangerous stunts, and unexpected needle drops, while some of his turn-offs are overlong streaming series, bad comic relief, and redeeming social value.