Writer-director J.F. Lawton is on the verge of creating a whole new subgenre of films: action movies for people who don't really like action movies. Lawton authored the screenplay for 1992's Under Siege, which accomplished the nearly impossible feat of making Steven Seagal look good. As a Cajun chef, no less. That, my friends, is no small miracle, as Seagal's subsequent turkey, On Deadly Ground, proved. While Christopher Lambert is no Steven Seagal (who is?), Lawton's newest film, The Hunted, brings out the best in Lambert, as well.
Lambert is best known for portraying larger-than-life characters. In the Highlander trilogy he played an immortal time-traveling sword-wielding Scotsman with no sense of humor. In Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, he re-created the legendary vine-ripened swinger, also sans funnybone. Neither the kilted killer nor the king of the jungle offered much opportunity for subtle characterization. The Hunted marks a departure of sorts. Lambert plays the role of an all-too-normal businessman who gets drawn into a deadly game of spider and fly that is way over his head. Harrison Ford has built a career out of these ordinary-guy-thrust-into-extraordinary-circumstances parts. Like Ford, the gravel-voiced Lambert brings a diffident charm to the reluctant hero shtick, revealing a heretofore hidden flair for subtle, self-effacing humor.
Lawton's action-packed script makes little sense but boasts some refreshingly clever comic touches (chief among them a Falstaffian drunken swordsmith who hoodwinks Lambert's character into doing most of his manual labor). Lawton's name may not commonly be spoken in the same breath as Tarantino's anytime soon, but Hunted's inspired and perversely original samurai vs. ninja bloodbath on a bullet train is exactly the kind of gonzo set piece that would have appealed to der Pulpmeister's idol, John Woo. (Of course, Woo would have figured out a way to work in bullets A lots and lots of bullets.) Lawton's vision is perversely original. The flashy fight sequence even ends unconventionally with the red-faced and bloodied modern samurai warrior (who single-handedly has sliced and diced a few dozen attackers) forcing a queasy Lambert to review the carnage with him in hopes of identifying one of the corpses as that of Kinjo, the dreaded head ninja. One by one he rips the face masks off his fallen enemies, his frustration mounting as Lambert's character shakes his head no and does his best to keep from vomiting at the sight of so much bloodshed.
Ninja flicks are not exactly revered for their displays of bravura thespianship. To combat that image the producers of The Hunted cast John Lone and Joan Chen, who worked together in The Last Emperor, to play the ninja assassin and the beautiful-but-doomed whore he is commissioned to execute, respectively. They perform admirably. Perhaps next time, however, somebody should remind the filmmakers that Lone and Chen are of Chinese descent; this movie is set entirely in Japan. Such an oversight raises the ugly specter of they-all-look-alike typecasting.
Assuming anyone takes it that seriously, which probably won't be the case. The Hunted risks being written off sight-unseen as just another glorified ninja movie, right down to the climactic gory sword battle. (Ironically Lambert, who worked hard to master swordsmanship for his recurring Highlander gigs, reportedly encountered difficulty "unlearning" proper sword-handling techniques so that he could appear ill-at-ease brandishing one in this film.) Glossier, more stylish, and better acted than nine out of ten of its ilk, The Hunted may not qualify as high art, but it deserves a kinder fate than to be dismissed as just another mindless martial arts flick.