Thursday, May 22, 2014

Special War

"Rebuke the company of spearmen; scatter thou the people that delight in war." Psalms 68:30

Combat remains the only place where murder is permissible.(1) After tasting the life of a conventional soldier for a few years, and experiencing all the aspects of warfare that most of my comrades and I found inconvenient and uncomfortable, like the long deployments away from home and a nice warm wife, living in the open with other men who had only a tentative concept of hygiene, all the day to day little hardships from which civilization is supposed to redeem us, I thought that it's an excellent idea that warfare be left to people who delight in it, who seem to enjoy everything I hated about it.

Having met a few Navy SEALS and Army Green Berets, and been told by one - an officer - that he got a "rush" from killing, I can say that they are an extraordinary breed of men, and that I am happy that there are not - by definition - very many of them. They may serve an important purpose, but their humanity has been put on hold. They are human beings deliberately gone feral, and I wouldn't trust one of them any further than he could throw me. Many of them have problems adjusting to life under ordinary circumstances, among ordinary men and women.

One of the strangest permutations in popular taste is the current vogue, probably generated by computer gaming, for members of military elite special forces - the unconventional commandos who undergo extreme training for extremely unconventional warfare. A skillfully made counter-argument to this special forces vogue is William Friedkin's The Hunted (2013). It's an remarkably cool film about a heated subject.(2) After four deer hunters are found gutted and dismembered in the states of Washington and Oregon, a retired outdoorsman named L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones) is called in to help track down the perpetrator. Accompanied by an FBI team led by Abby Durrell, played by the beautiful - and highly unlikely - Connie Nielsen, L.T.,  as everyone calls him, examines the traces of the murderer in the Oregon woods and, with the assistance of the FBI agents, captures a man he recognizes as a former student, Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro). When they take Hallam to Portland for questioning, L.T. explains to Durrell how he trained Hallam, and many more like him for the U.S. Army, how to survive and to kill with extreme skill and a minimum of means - sticks and stones. Hallam, whom L.T. takes to calling "my boy," was a talented student who, upon learning how to kill by direction, finds that he can't turn it off. A flashback shows us L.T. lecturing a group of Army recruits. "Once you make it past killing someone mentally," he tells them, "the physical part is easy. The hard part is learning how to turn it off."

Three men representing some secret operations authority shows up to take charge of Hallam. One of them explains to the FBI director that Hallam is officially "missing in action" after suffering "severe battle stress" in the Kosovo war. Hallam is no ordinary psychopath, but a military-trained psychopath who is used like a surgical instrument. Despite the objections of the FBI chief, the three men take custody of Hallam, but when they try to kill Hallam while transporting him in a van, he manages to wreck the vehicle and escape. The rest of the film is a frenetic, though entirely predictable, chase sequence.

The film gets into enough hand-to-hand action to earn its bonafides. Benicio Del Toro, who plays Hallam with total conviction, brought in a Filipino martial arts expert to choreograph the training and fight scenes. But the film fails to do more than merely touch on the almost mystical relationship these men must have with the natural, only-the-strong-survive, kill-or-be-killed, world. The film ends with L.T. back in his snowy wilderness, watching a wolf running in the woods. But spending more time on the theme would probably have threatened the film's status as an action thriller. There is one risible moment in which Hallam lights a fire and forges a piece of iron into a knife. Forging metals requires considerably more heat than a campfire can produce. Aside from this (minor) slip, and the eye-candy provided by Connie Nielsen, The Hunted has bite and a compelling grasp of its serious subject. 73-year-old William Friedkin, who made The French Connection and The Exorcist forty years ago, proves he still has some craft in him.

A Bob Dylan song, sung by Johnny Cash, ends the film. "And God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son.'"

(1) Unless you count the state-sanctioned murder of capital punishment.
(2) The script is derived from a book by Tom Brown, Jr., The Files of The Tracker. Brown also served as technical adviser for the film.

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