“It’s a wilderness,” mutters FBI master tracker and knife fighter L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones), dolefully gazing at downtown Portland sidewalks from a courthouse window. It’s one of the most knowing lines in The Hunted (2003), in which Bonham tails a fugitive Benicio del Toro through our cityscape as though it were a forest.
It’s also a line of import coming from a filmmaker, William Friedkin, whose fame originated with one of the greatest concrete-jungle pursuits ever: The French Connection (1971).
“For Friedkin, the chase is the essence of cinema,” says Steve Choe, associate professor of critical studies at San Francisco State University’s School of Cinema and author of ReFocus: The Films of William Friedkin, which considers his filmography from stone-cold classics (The Exorcist) to gradually appreciated masterpieces (Sorcerer) to late-career cap feathers (Killer Joe).
In The Hunted, which is 20 years old this month, Bonham is conscripted to apprehend a wayward super-soldier and former trainee (del Toro) who’s afflicted with such pervasive PTSD that he’s taken to living outdoors and ritually murdering Oregon hunters.
Their first encounter, filmed at Silver Falls State Park, is the cat-and-cat thriller at its best. Behold two men, reduced to the shape of their violence, saying next to nothing and trying to dice each other into pieces with the Filipino blade-wielding art of Sayoc Kali.
While the fights are intricately and brutally choreographed, the Portland-set second act was more or less improvised in the spirit of The French Connection’s famous permit-free car chase.
Indeed, the script contained no scene involving the Hawthorne Bridge until Friedkin laid eyes on the “imposing piece of architecture.” Soon, and without storyboarding (according to Friedkin’s account from a making-of featurette), del Toro was climbing the bridge lattice while Jones ran down a MAX train on foot.
“[Friedkin] kind of knows where things are going but then will create scenes based on what he sees—like a tracker in a way,” Choe says. “This is the kind of filmmaking he likes: immediate, almost instinctual.”
That improvisation also guided KOIN newscaster Jeff Gianola’s appearance in The Hunted. After noticing Gianola’s face all over MAX decals, the production asked him to “report” on an overturned prisoner transport truck outside Northwest Portland’s Cornell tunnels. The four-decade stalwart of Portland journalism remembers Friedkin as gregarious, encouraging Gianola to riff freely about the film’s crash site.
“I was thrilled to be in William Friedkin’s presence,” Gianola says. “He puts his arm around my shoulder and says, ‘Jeff, do these lines. But after that, just go, baby!’”
During on-set downtime, Gianola remembers delighting the director with his imitation of Regan’s backward demon wailing from The Exorcist—something the anchor had memorized as a San Diego Cinerama doorman in 1974.
Despite a 3.5-star rave from Roger Ebert, The Hunted failed to break even, was drubbed as a Rambo rip-off, and faded all but immediately. Except maybe in Gianola’s household, where he still gets 12-cent residual checks from Paramount and his family passes around a photo of del Toro next to Gianola’s KOIN advertisement as a Christmas gag gift.
A proper reclamation seems unlikely, but The Hunted still retains levels of resonance. For one, it’s a true-blue Oregon movie. The images of the ferns and moss of Silver Falls offer arguably the most vibrant and immersive portrait of Oregon nature on the big screen—enfolding the meanness and leanness of the men who realize their true purpose only when consumed by their environment.
Even more, Choe views The Hunted, with its tested faith, fateful violence and masculine obsession, as a thematically faithful distillation of a storied American film career.
“The film is this collection, sometimes awkwardly put together, of [Friedkin’s] obsessions, themes and how these themes have developed over the last 30 years,” says Choe, who interviewed the filmmaker in 2017 and found the now-87-year-old director vocally proud of The Hunted.
Does the film lack the atmosphere or intensity to even sniff The French Connection? Sure, but all that falls away when Jones and del Toro commence carving and Friedkin’s intentions are made manifest with unflinching precision.
Beyond the realm of reason, characters and artists alike gravitate toward expertise. They’ll forge both knives and films out of found material. In that act, life has meaning. All else is wilderness.
SEE IT: The Hunted, rated R, streams on AMC+.