The Best Movie You Never Saw: The Hunted (1995)
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time or has aged like a fine wine.
While on a business trip in Japan, an American businessman (Christopher Lambert) has a one-night stand with a beautiful woman (Joan Chen), which inadvertently puts him in the web of a centuries old blood feud between a clan of ninjas (led by John Lone) and order of samurai (led by Yoshio Harada), forcing him to go on the run, but with an inevitable confrontation waiting on the horizon.
J.F. Lawton (PRETTY WOMAN, UNDER SIEGE) wrote the THE HUNTED, which was his first venture as director. Christopher Lambert (HIGHLANDER) was cast as the American, Paul Racine. John Lone (YEAR OF THE DRAGON) was cast as the ruthless ninja clan leader, Kinjo, while Joan Chen portrays the mysterious woman who haunts Lambert’s character throughout the film. Veteran Japanese actor Yoshio Harada plays the deadly samurai warrior Takeda and Yôko Shimada as his wife.
"Time does not die. Only people." -Takeda (Yosio Harada)
THE HUNTED was shot in Japan and British Columbia/Vancouver/Canada. It was released in February 1995, scraping up a paltry final gross of $6.6 million and getting mostly middling reviews. It was a blink-and-you-missed-it release that most regarded as yet another Christopher Lambert low-budget sword actioner destined for residence on a dusty Blockbuster shelf. The film has slowly made the rounds and developed an appreciation by genre fans, especially for the violent swordplay, warrior code tropes, and clever set pieces.
WHY IT’S GREAT:
THE HUNTED is not the best movie it could be. It is flawed in many areas, but where it shines, it gleams brightly. Lambert cast as an American businessman is ironically comedic, but it’s a much different role for the actor and one that doesn’t attempt to make him into an otherworldly hero, but rather a very unexpected one. He's by no means a badass and it's a refreshing direction.
That said, the movie isn’t really about Lambert, but the two groups of ninjas and samurai who use him as live bait to end their 200-year-old blood feud. The real stars are Yoshio Harada and John Lone, who represent the heads of both warring groups, both hell bent on honor, tradition, and sacrifice. Their deep-seated focus on the ancient ways of their clans shows two men conflicted with honor as the struggle becomes about how much of it they’re willing to give up to get what they want.
"How much blood must I bathe in to get clean?" -Kinjo (John Lone)
Lambert, for his part, acts as an intermediary to these two men. He is THE HUNTED, which makes him the one thing necessary for both clans to fulfill their honor, but he's otherwise insignificant to them. It's a great dynamic to see the "protagonist" used in this way and Lambert makes good use of it, even when he's relegated to one-liners. The film is ripe with the lore of both samurai and ninja, from poisoned ninja stars, custom made swords, mystical connections, etc., but is presented in a way that’s less cheesy and more practical in its approach.
Aesthetically, the film is plain, almost like a TV show, but it works so inexplicitly well that I have to wonder if it was done on purpose. There’s a scene where Lambert is watching an old Japanese TV show in the hospital and it almost feels like it was an allusion to the film itself. But, don’t let the aesthetic fool you. There are some rousing, violent, and bloody sequences throughout the film, with decapitations, disembowelments, and even a self-face removal via katana.
It’s worth watching THE HUNTED for the bullet train sequence alone, which sees a cool and calm Takeda battling a group of ninjas from car to car in a flurry of bloody clashes. It’s tightly edited and filled with subtle nuances that you’d never expect from a low-rent ninja movie. It’s the scene that changed my entire perception of the film and is driven by the Taiko drum induced score by Motofumi Yamaguchi and Kodo, which is another excellent addition.
Yoshio Harada, in my mind, is the real star of THE HUNTED. The late actor (he died in 2011) plays Takeda with a graceful power. You never expect him to reach the level of deadly force he portrays, but when he does you’re left with the feeling that he really is a modern day samurai. The subtle moments and dialogue he uses throughout display a man so driven by honor that he’s been corrupted by it. By contrast, John Lone’s Kinjo, the ninja clan leader, comes off as a ruthless force of evil conflicted by his own profession. The dynamic between the two opposing men is tremendous, leading to a bloody rain-soaked clash on the samurai’s home turf.
THE HUNTED has a bit of an identity crisis going on, but it has so much going for it in terms of sheer coolness that it's missteps can be forgiven quite easily. It’s not as refined as something like THE LAST SAMURAI or one of Kurosawa’s many classics, but it has such a tremendous hold on the material and presents it with panache, intelligence, and bloody fun that it can’t be ignored.
MEMORABLE SCENE: The bullet train battle is THE sequence to see in the film. It’s the first reveal of just how damned formidable Takeda is and ups the stakes of the story, which come into play later. It's also one of my favorite action sequences of all time. It's not loud and boisterous and explosive. It's sharp, violent, thrilling, and flawed, which makes it a beautiful conundrum.
"Be grateful you live in a more forgiving time." -Takeda (Yoshio Harada)
|Extra Tidbit:||Ironically, the William Friedkin film of the same name, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro is another strong contender for this column.|