U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Aaron Hallam (Benicio del Toro), a former United States clandestine operator, has spent much of his career performing covert assassinations in service to the government. These missions leave the sensitive and intelligent Hallam conflicted and it is implied that he was either set up, or that the government became dissatisfied with the results of his more recent assignments.
In the wilderness of Silver Falls State Park, Oregon, Hallam tracks two deer hunters equipped with expensive scoped rifles. Hallam tells them they are not true hunters and dispatches the two using his knife, and proceeds to ritualistically clean and butcher the bodies.
L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones), a civilian instructor of military survival and combat training, is approached and asked to help apprehend Hallam, one of his former students. According to the authorities, Hallam has gone renegade after suffering severe battle stress from his time in the Kosovo War.
Bonham agrees and is assisted in the manhunt by an FBI task force, led by Assistant Special Agent in Charge Abby Durrell (Connie Nielsen). Bonham locates Hallam after tracking him and finding his personal effects within a hollow tree trunk deep in the woods. After a blistering hand-to-hand fight, in which the much older Bonham is nearly beaten unconscious, Hallam is captured by the arriving FBI agents.
During interrogation, Hallam expresses a passion for wildlife preservation, much like that of his mentor Bonham. He also mentions military operations in which he had participated; Bonham cuts him off for his own safety. The FBI is unsure of how to treat their would-be murder suspect, and Hallam is soon in the custody of his former Special Forces colleagues, who tell the FBI that Hallam cannot stand trial due to the secret operations he was part of.
While being transported, the operatives indicate that they intend to kill Hallam. However, Hallam manages to kill all the operatives and escape. Alerted to the incident, Bonham and the FBI team track Hallam across the city and back into the wilderness, but Hallam consistently evades them. In the process, he crafts an improvised knife by making a fire and reforging pieces of scrap metal. Realizing that the FBI's tactics aren't working, Bonham strikes out on his own, crafting a knife himself, and the search quickly becomes a personal contest between teacher and student.
In a vicious knife fight beside a waterfall, Bonham is severely wounded but manages to stab Hallam to death with his own knife. The FBI arrives too late, and Bonham walks away without saying a word. Returning to his home in British Columbia, Bonham starts to burn the letters he got from Hallam, in which Hallam expressed his concerns over the things he had done as a government assassin.Tommy Lee Jones as L.T. Bonham
Benicio del Toro as Aaron Hallam
Connie Nielsen as FBI Special Agent Abby Durrell
Leslie Stefanson as Irene Kravitz
John Finn as Ted Chenoweth
José Zúñiga as FBI Special Agent Bobby Moret
Ron Canada as FBI Special Agent Harry Van Zandt
Mark Pellegrino as Dale Hewitt
Jenna Boyd as Loretta Kravitz
Aaron DeCone as Stokes (as Aaron Brounstein)
Carrick O'Quinn as Kohler
Lonny Chapman as Zander
Rex Linn as Powell
Eddie Velez as Richards
Alexander MacKenzie as Sheriff
Bobby Preston as Boy at Airport
Johnny Cash as the Narrator (uncredited)
The film was partially filmed in and around Portland, Oregon and Silver Falls State Park. Portland scenes were filmed in Oxbow Park, the South Park Blocks, and Tom McCall Waterfront Park. The technical adviser for the film was Tom Brown, Jr., an American outdoorsman and wilderness survival expert. The story is partially inspired by a real-life incident involving Brown, who was asked to track down a former pupil and Special Forces sergeant who had evaded capture by authorities. This story is told in Tom's book, Case Files Of The Tracker.
The unusually realistic, brutal hand-to-hand combat and knife fighting in the film featured Filipino Martial Arts. Thomas Kier and Rafael Kayanan of Sayoc Kali were brought in by Benicio del Toro. They were credited as knife fight choreographers for the film.
The box office for the film was less than its reported production budget of $55 million. The Hunted opened on March 14, 2003 at #3 in 2,516 theaters across North America and grossed $13.48 million during its opening weekend. It went on to gross $34,244,097 in North America and $11,252,437 internationally markets for a worldwide total of $45,496,534.
The overall critical reaction to the movie was negative. It scored a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 146 reviews.
Many reviewers noted striking similarities to First Blood, which this film was unfavorably compared to. Rolling Stone called it "Just a Rambo rehash." While there was some praise for the cinematography and the action scenes, much criticism was directed at the thin plot and characterization, and the general implausibility. Rex Reed of the New York Observer called it a "Ludicrous, plotless, ho-hum tale of lurid confrontation." The UK magazine, Total Film said the film was "scarcely exciting to watch."
However, the film also received praise from other high profile critics, particularly for the fact it kept the special effects and stunts restrained. For example, Roger Ebert said, "We've seen so many fancy high-tech computer-assisted fight scenes in recent movies that we assume the fighters can fly. They live in a world of gravity-free speed-up. Not so with Friedkin's characters." He reviewed the film on his own site and scored it 3 and 1/2 stars out of four. Time Out London was also positive saying, "Friedkin's lean, mean thriller shows itself more interested in process than context, subtlety and character development pared away in favour of headlong momentum and crunching set pieces."