In 1827, on a large sandbar near the town of Natchez by the Mississippi River, an organised duel devolved into a brawl between several participants. The initial duel took place as a result of ongoing feuds between various wealthy local families. Specifically the duel was between Samuel L. Wells III and Dr. Thomas H. Maddox. By the time it was over a total of twelve people had become directly involved, including James “Jim” Bowie, a supporter of Samuel Wells. Two men were killed and two, including Bowie, were badly injured. Bowie had initially been shot in the hip. Regaining his feet he’d drawn a knife and ran at his attacker who broke the empty pistol over Bowie’s head knocking him to the ground. His attacker then impaled him using a sword cane. Bowie, the sword protruding from his chest, disembowelled his attacker before being again forced to the ground, again shot and again stabbed. He survived.
According to legend, Bowie had defended himself during the fight using a butcher knife measuring nine and a quarter inches (23.5 cm) long and one and a half inches (3.8 cm) wide. This would become the prototype of the legendary ‘Bowie Knife’. You can see a version of it being wielded by Richard Widmark in the movie The Alamo (1960) – a Technicolor epic directed by and starring John Wayne. The fantasy heroism of Wayne’s version stands in contrast to the 2004 version of The Alamo, which is a much more complex and realistic depiction of those historical events. In this version, Jason Patric effectively plays Jim Bowie with a knife almost as big as he is. It had became fashionable to carry (or at least own) a version of the Bowie Knife after its infamous use by John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) in the film First Blood (1982). Ignoring the cartoon character which Rambo would become in later movies, First Blood is a complex and beautifully directed action thriller about an emotionally-scarred Vietnam War veteran who can’t leave the war behind him. An idea which William Friedkin would revisit with the 2003 film The Hunted.
Why start with a knife fighting story? Well, knife fighting has often been an uncomfortable inclusion in movies. It is something which is difficult to depict realistically without finishing up with a dismembered hero, a shredded villain and lots of claret on the floor. When it does show up it is often either highly sanitised or used to illustrate the insanity of the character wielding the blade. Think of how closely we associate knives with Hannibal Lector, Michael Myers or the Ghost-Faced Killer from the Scream movies. In each of these cases a knife is used to demonstrate the characters willingness to dispatch the hero’s friends in the most direct and gory way possible. And that’s the problem. It would have been a lot harder to sympathise with John Rambo in First Blood if he’d cut the sheriff’s deputies to bloody ribbons by the end of act one. Knives make for uncomfortable viewing because they make the violence close, gory, personal and, yes, even intimate. That is, unless you’re in the sanitised world of the Hollywood action movie.
Think back to John Wayne in Hondo (1953). Wayne manages to overcome an Apache warrior in a ritualised knife fight and hardly drops one drop of red on the dust. Nothing much changes in the 80s. The knife fight at the climax of Commando (1985) is almost bloodless. Similarly, the dance/knife fight on the beach in The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), the “stick around” gag in Predator (1987), and the ‘patty cake’ knife fight at the end of Under Siege (1992). These are all bloodless encounters where the hero is reluctantly forced by the villain to put down their firearm and pick up cutlery. As we all know, action cinema changed around the start of the 2000s. It split into gritty realism such as The Bourne Identity (2002) and soon-to-be bat-shit insanity like The Fast and the Furious (2001). In the post-Bourne world we get suburban knife fighting in Kill Bill (2003), naked Viggo Mortensen and a linoleum knife in Eastern Promises (2007) and the wine-drenched finale of The Raid 2 (2014). But then we have The Hunted, which is like First Blood for the post-Bourne world.
There are three reasons you should watch The Hunted – Benicio del Toro, Tommy Lee Jones and William Friedkin. Depending on how you view the world, Benicio del Toro’s character, Aaron Hallam, is both the hero and the villain of the story. A deeply troubled ex-Special Forces soldier who has been unable to acclimatise to civilian life after the horrors he has both witnessed and perpetrated in the service of his country. We know this because the movie’s prologue puts him in the thick of combat in Eastern Europe. We are witness to both his skill but also to the brutality with which he is forced to kill the enemy. The real story of the movie begins when Hallam is being hunted through the Oregon wilderness by two government operatives. He dispatches them in a Rambo-esque way and that prompts the FBI to employ Tommy Lee Jones, playing L.T. Bonham, to track down and capture Hallam.
Bonham is an experienced tracker and survival expert, who had previously been recruited to train Special Forces operatives including, at one time, Hallam. And so the movie results somewhere between First Blood and The Fugitive (1993). Tommy Lee Jones is a quieter but more active version of Colonel Trautman with just a little bit of Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard thrown in, because why not? Jones is always watchable and manages to subtly embody the guilt his character experiences whilst chasing the monster he has created. Del Toro plays Hallam as a complex mixture between Rambo, Hawkeye (Last of the Mohicans not Avengers) and Hannibal Lector. A genuinely intelligent, sensitive and capable man who has been psychological broken by the things he has seen and done. Despite the fact that this is an action thriller, the movie does not present easy answers. Hallam has been misused, abused and abandoned by his country but he is also too dangerous to be left alive. None of the characters are able to escape the story without blame.
Director William Friedkin really should not need any recommendation but in case a reminder is needed: his resume, when he was directing The Hunted, included: The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973), Sorcerer (1977) and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). Here was a director with more than three decades of experience and several iconic movies under his belt. The Hunted is competently directed with a few creative flourishes. The dreamlike opening fight in Oregon is pretty memorable as is the escape sequence when Friedkin answers the question, “what if a movie car chase ran into traffic?”
One thing which is surprisingly memorable are the fight scenes. This again brings us back to the subject of knives in movies. The knife fighting is based around the Kali-style of Filipino Martial Arts similar to the fighting style in the Bourne movies. Thomas Kier and Rafael Kayanan choreographed the fighting for the film and despite the actors’ lack of fighting experience, the fight scenes all have a kind of slick realism. Why is this important? The story portrayed in The Hunted is inspired by a story told by Tom Brown, Jr. in one chapter of his book Case Files Of The Tracker. Brown also designed the knives used in the movie. The chapter is called My Frankenstein because in it, Brown is forced to track and fight a Special Forces veteran whom he trained. The title alone suggests the responsibility he felt toward his pupil. Because the knife fighting in The Hunted is realistic, gory, intimate and uncomfortable the audience is forced to confront not only the reality of what del Toro’s character has done but also the cost of stopping him. This, if anything, is what sets The Hunted apart. It deals visually and stylistically with the psychological scarring borne by its central character. Beyond that it is a decent action thriller with good leads and good direction. Basically, it’s alright for a Saturday afternoon.