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Cinema Signal:

Knife Self-Defense for Combat

. "The Hunted"

In a film very much about combat planning and strategy, the dramatic ammunition turns out to be a misfire. And, coming from a veteran filmmaker like John Franhenheimer, there's little excuse for getting the formula wrong. We're just simply misled about who to root for, ambushed by misplaced sympathy.

We also get the impression that this film exists because someone thought it would be boxoffice dynamite to see Tommy Lee Jones tracking a bad guy after doing it with such admirable relentlessness in "The Fugitive" and "U.S. Marshalls." That might have proven true if director John Frankenheimer and writers David and Peter Griffiths, had gotten their dramatic requirements right.

It starts out fine, showing Aaron Hallam, a decorated CIA assassin of exemplary skill, going alone into a fortified Bosnia command center to cut up the military leader who is in charge of ethnically cleansing the defenseless citizens in a town. For a mission like this, we're certainly on his side. Forget that he's a laconic killing machine, we're rooting for the guy.

As though to cement that audience bond, we next see him as a civilian, tracking and killing a pair of hunters who are either hunting a deer with high-powered rifles or they're really after Hallam. They get theirs at the hands of our hero, whose skills with a knife and killer instincts are enough to chill a samurai. The doubt about the hunters' intentions seem to be cleared up when we learn that the FBI considers Hallan a rogue soldier. They want him out, disposed of.

So much so, that agent Abby Durrell (Connie Nielsen) recruits L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones) to get him. Since Bonham trained Hallam, he would seem to be the only man who stands a chance against the wit and success of his unstoppable student. Of course, the student has developed beyond the master, so the assignment could prove difficult for the ageing toughguy.

In the course of the cat and mouse game between Bonham and Hallam, the latter kills some innocents and becomes, in our eyes, little more than a meaningless butcher. No longer is he the man with a mission that we can admire. All his capital as a principled avenger is spent, and the letdown to our expectations proves terminal. The tired and relentless Bonham doesn't take up the mantle of respect or sympathy despite some soft spots in a prickly personality, which leaves us in an emotional quandary. Who to root for. Who to give a damn about.

As the tracked and the tracker move through the scenery of British Columbia and Oregon forests, we're observing with limited interest in the people and too much in the settings. Within these refreshing landscapes, the choreography is stale and stagy and, in that final, inevitable knife match between the combatants the outcome is entirely arbitrary and difficult to swallow.

In an attempt to set up the movie with some higher meaning, singer Johnny Cash is enlisted to, first, read a biblically oriented narration about Abraham and Isaac over the opening credits and, then, for two songs in his gravel voice eloquence. Fans of his will appreciate the contributions.

On the other hand, fans of Del Toro ("Traffic") who've been hungering for a new role to fulfill his special qualities will need to wait for something more satisfying down the line.

One of our favorite underutilized actresses, Connie Nielsen ("One Hour Photo", "Gladiator"!) interacts well with Jones, but it's a wayward inpulse on Frankenheimer's part to allow the suggestion that there is an attraction between the romantically mismatched pair. Erase that element and you have a bit of class in her contribution, though the part, as written, is a struggle for something unique. A challenge not quite met -- like the movie, itself.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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