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THE HUNTED

DISPOSABLE HEROES

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A brief smirk reveals something interesting about William Friedkin's new action picture The Hunted. A U.S. soldier whom we've just watched brutally take out a warlord in the slaughterhouse of Kosovo is receiving a medal for it. The officer bestowing the decoration says it symbolizes Sgt. Aaron Hallam's commitment to "peace and democracy," but at least one of the handful of soldiers watching the ceremony in a secret, darkened room sees things differently: He purses his lips sardonically -- curtly foreshadowing not only Hallam's own soon-to-be-psychopathic derangement but also Friedkin's ambivalence about what happens when we unleash the dogs of war.

It's an early and fleeting moment in a movie that works pretty well as a no-frills, stick-and-move B flick but can also be something more, if you prefer.

Hallam (Benicio Del Toro) is a soldier, long gone covert, to whom killing was taught as casually as the butchering of a deer. It's only when he starts murdering the wrong people -- ones his superiors haven't chosen for him -- that his pathology is deemed unacceptable. The person recruited to stop him is the guy who taught him how to kill, a now-former instructor named L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones).

Friedkin, the one-time wunderkind who long ago directed The French Connection and The Exorcist, makes the most of The Hunted's ruthlessly streamlined plot, structured as one long chase punctuated by a series of face-to-face encounters between Hallam and Bonham. The two share more than a student-teacher bond, and more temperament than is first apparent. Bonham lives in a log cabin, where he rescues wolves from traps and chews out the hunters who set them; Hallam, driven by sympathy for prey, perversely makes hunters his own unfortunate victims.

On one level, Friedkin puckishly suggests, this is just an elaborate game of hide-and-seek between a compassionate, guilt-ridden mentor and his student, who's 20 years younger and a whole lot crazier. Jones and Del Toro realize their roles with minimal fuss; the hand-to-hand combat is proficient and the chases, while perhaps not up to French Connection standards, are smartly executed.

But Friedkin also weaves in some barely oblique political commentary. In Hallam's plight there's a whiff of post-9/11 paranoia: As an unofficial MIA, he's off the books and untouchable by regular civilian authorities, yet also a target of secret justice -- a crypto-Ashcroftian poster boy who at times also suggests the "freedom fighters" America trained in the '80s and who later reappeared to us as terrorists.

That conceit is deepened by explicit references to the Old Testament story in which God, as a test of faith, demanded that Abraham kill his beloved son Isaac. The comparison seems ponderous at first, but roll with it: Casting a fickle government as a jealous god gives this taciturn thriller a surprising emotional resonance. * * *

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