The Hunted is an American production starring a well-known American actor, but if you thought it was an American movie, you’re mistaken. There is absolutely nothing even remotely “American” about The Hunted. The film concerns an American businessman (Lambert) in Tokyo, who witnesses the execution of a Japanese woman by a ninja assassin whose face has never been seen. Unfortunately for the assassin and for Lambert, the assassin took his mask off at the request of his victim just before killing her, thus exposing his face to Lambert, who had been hiding out during the killing.
So begins the hunt for Lambert through the streets, the trains, and the oceans of Japan for businessman Lambert as he flees through a foreign country for his life, never sure of who to trust, or who to avoid. Also unfortunate for Lambert is that the only man he can trust, a Japanese swordfighting instructor who also happens to be the assassin’s arch nemesis, and has been waiting for so long to kill the assassin that he’ll use anything and everything to get his chance — even throwing Lambert to the wolves to get it.
And thus The Hunted flows. The most surprisingly thing about The Hunted is not how good it is, or how much I enjoyed watching it. Lawton wrote and directed The Hunted and it’s quite a miracle how good the movie is given the man’s track record. Without knowing the background behind the movie and Lawton’s involvement, one might guess that this is Lawton’s Citizen Kane — meaning, of course, that this is Lawton’s one and only masterpiece, the movie that he will be unable to duplicate ever again, the way Orson Welles was unable to duplicate the genius of Citizen Kane. Of course, I could be dead wrong, and Lawton could have banged the script out in one day and shot it the next.
Still, I must give credit where credit is due, since Lawton has gone to great lengths to give his movie authenticity. Everything from the characters to the city life to its portrayal of Japanese customs, from the cops to the Chinko addicts to every Japanese character, rings true to life. I could almost believe that this was actually a Japanese movie written and directed by a Japanese person immerse and intimately familiar with Japanese culture. Lawton has done a very, very good job.
Whatever the history behind The Hunted, I’m glad to have been able to watch it. I saw it once 7 years ago when the movie first came out, and was surprised and delighted by its brutal treatment of the ninja and the stringent codes of the samurai. John Lone plays the ninja, Kinjo, and Yoshio Harada plays the modern-day samurai, Takeda, who has pledged his life to killing Lone. The two’s respective families have been at odds for centuries, and now, in the 20th century, their shared history is about to come to fruition in a final duel.
Lone plays his master ninja with cold fury, one that believes in Gods and spirits, and is completely detached from the modern world on his own secret island. Lone also manages to show Kinjo in an odd like, as the master assassin begins to wonder why he was sent to kill Joan Chen’s character. In a way, the assassin became so fascinated with his prey, that he backtracks her life to fully understand her more. It’s not something you’d expect an assassin like Kinjo to do, but because he does it, because he feels the way he does about Chen, his character seems more flesh and blood and less bogeyman — which is the danger of many ninja-themed movies, where the villain is almost always in the shadows. The bluntness with which we see Lone in the daylight and without his mask gives him a personality, and most of all, makes him human even as he does these despicable and bloody deeds.
With a movie like The Hunted and its themes and ninja and samurai characters, the movie has the potential to be cheesy and even ridiculous. Imagine men in black tights and swords running around the skyscrapers of 20th century Tokyo! In fact, the movie doesn’t run away from this potential trouble, and actually faces it head-on. For instance, even the cops doubt the existence of ninja assassins; they laugh it off.
Lambert’s character, Racine, also doubts the samurai’s assertions that because Racine has seen Kinjo’s face, he is now marked for death. After all, in the modern world, who dresses up in black tights and goes around throwing metal throwing stars and cutting people with swords? The movie quickly and smartly deals with this trouble spot, and it adds to the movie’s realism. Another smart move is the characters in the movie calling Kinjo’s ninja clan a “cult,” since they are really just a cult led by a powerful and charismatic man, Kinjo. Dismissing the ninjas and their followers as brainwashed lunatics works, since what kind of sane man would dress up in black and attack people with swords?
One of the movie’s plus is its brutal portrayal of the swordfighting and the wanton bloody mess of men cutting each other with swords. Lawton has decided to make the sword wounds as gruesome and the sword strikes as realistic as possible. For instance, you can almost feel each sword as they impact their targets. There isn’t a “swishhhh” sound as the sword skewers flesh like in stylized samurai films. The sword impacts of The Hunted are blunt sounds, the kind of sounds that you would expect to hear as a blade chops into human flesh. Lawton also takes great care to film the swordfights in flashes of brief brutality. Men with swords who face off and know how to use the weapon don’t take hours to kill each other. They also don’t take minutes. Death comes in quick and bloody flourishes.
Did I mention how good Christopher Lambert is in this movie? For the first time since I’ve seen a Lambert movie, I was genuinely impressed with the acting. Lambert shows tremendous range, going from a depressed businessman in a foreign city to a hunted fugitive in a foreign city. The movie also has humor, which works in-between the bloody ninja scenes. For sheer bodycount, the scene in the bullet train is one for the record books.
While The Hunted won’t be remembered for much, that scene in the bullet train deserves recognition. If Saving Private Ryan re-invented the World War II movie by showing the brutality of war, then The Hunted re-invented the ninja movie by showing the sheer brutality that comes with men hacking each other with swords the length of their body. There are no ninjas climbing walls or scaling the sides of skyscrapers. In fact, there is nothing that the ninja in The Hunted does that a normal person, if properly trained and conditioned, can’t do. In this way, the movie stays grounded in reality, and its seriousness remains intact.
The Hunted is a great movie that has been ignored for way too long.
J.F. Lawton (director) / J.F. Lawton (screenplay)
CAST: Christopher Lambert …. Paul Racine
John Lone …. Kinjo
Joan Chen …. Kirina
Yoshio Harada …. Takeda
Yoko Shimada …. Mieko
Mari Natsuki …. Junko