THE HUNTED (1995) * 3/4. Written & directed by J.F.Lawton. Photography, Jack Conroy. Editing, Robert A. Ferretti. Production design, Phil Dagort. Music, Motofumi Yamaguchi. Cast: Christopher Lambert, John Lone, Joan Chen, Yoshio Harada, Yoko Shimada, et al. A Universal release. 110 min. Rated R (extreme, graphic violence).
Welcome all: Senora Puridad Gomez-Portillo, Mr. Milos Svankmajer, Mrs. Leonora Fini-Jones, Mr. Athanassios Sofoulis, Ms. Yu No, Monsieur Maurice Lenoir, Frau Kuchen Kirchen, Signora Vina Barbaresca, Herr Professor Heinrich Doppler, Sir Josiah Nkrumah, Captain and Mrs. Li Po, and all your children. Before you ask me, let me ask you:
What were the names of Cristoforo Colombo's ships on his first voyage? Given our multi-ethnic group, please answer in Spanish if possible.
A: (5 replies): La Nina, La Pinta y la Santa Maria.
A: (8 kids protesting): No, it is la Ninja, la Pinta y la Santa Maria!
Q: OK boys and girls. You prove my point. And what does Ninja mean?
A (by young Doppler, a dictionary-memorizer): A member of a class of 14th century Japanese mercenary agents who were trained in the martial arts and hired for covert operations such as assassination and sabotage.
Q: A plus, you wunderkind. Now how many have seen the latest Ninja movie called "The Hunted"? Don't all speak at once, please.
Q & A: I see. No one? Smart people.
Q & A: Yes, Miss? You have trouble pronouncing my name? Just call me sensei-san. Have I seen it and what it's about? Well, it starts in Nagoya, a large city in Japan. Paul Racine (Christopher Lambert) a Western computer chips salesman, and beautiful Kirina (Joan Chen) pick each other up at a hotel bar, spend a fun evening that ends in some fiery sex in her room's hot-tub. Later he witnesses her decapitation by Ninjas and sees the face of their leader Kinjo (John Lone). This, to use some purplish prose, seals his doom. Kinjo and Co. chase him, wound him, re-chase him as they leave a bloody, graphic trail of enough innocent Japanese to populate a good-size town.
Somehow, sword-and-martial-arts-master Takeda (Yoshio Harada) and his lovely wife Mieko (Yoko Shimada) who is herself an ace at the bow-and-arrow, come to Racine's help. It turns out that Takeda is a Samurai whose clan has had a centuries-old feud with the Makato Clan Ninjas, and, though friendly to Racine, he also uses him as bait for the final confrontation with Kinjo.
Q: Is all this suspenseful?
A: Up to a point, yes. At first you may suspect that Kirina herself is trying to entrap Racine , for unknown reasons. The old "Mysterious East" cliche, you know. But then it turns out that Racine is your typical movie-hero, the innocent bystander who gets involved in a total mess.
Q: This rings a bell. As in Alfred Hitchcock movies?
A: Perfect, Monsieur Lenoir! Yes, "the wrong man," like Cary Grant's Roger O. Thornhill ("George Kaplan" in the MacGuffin) in "North By Northwest," and others too. With the difference that the director of "The Hunted" (he wrote "Pretty Woman") here directing for the first time, is to Hitchcock what a doughnut is to the "Tour d'Argent" restaurant in Paris. With the difference that there's not a scintilla of humor here. With the difference that Lambert is to Grant what ... well, Lambert couldn't act his way in or out of a doggie bag. With the difference that the film is one long series of fights and atrocities.
Q: You mean that Franco-American Lambert is always bad?
A: He was fine in "Greystoke:The Legend of Tarzan Lord of the Apes." In other films he might have been played by an ape, with profit.
Q: How about Joan Chen and John Lone?
A: She has little screen time but she's sexy and appealing --and you see quite a bit of her, nudge, nudge. Lone has more screen time and is mediocre. By the way, from what I hear of Japanese hotel prices, her suite must cost at least $1,500 a day.
Q: Aren't both those actors Chinese, yet in the film they're Japanese?
A: Indeed. Looks like another one of those arbitrary Hollywood casting confusions where Swedes play Germans, Italians play Spaniards, Egyptians play Russians... Foreigners must be all alike for Tinseltown. Another silliness in a very silly, very cartoonish, very savage plot. As when many Ninjas disguised as golfers board a bullet-train and kill everyone.
A: Who knows? Kinjo wants everyone to advertise that The Ninjas Are Here. But why? Beats me.
Q: Is there nothing good about the film?
A: "Good" is a tricky word. Nagoya looks like a nice metropolis, lively but with no Tokyo-like traffic congestion. Japanese landscapes are pleasing. The bullet train and its helicopter shots tickled the American Flyer S-gauge fancier in me. The action scenes are well choreographed though unbelievable. And when Racine, taken to the Takeda training camp complains that he is just fooling around (sic) and killing time there, Takeda replies "Time does not die, only people." I liked that. Best of all is the soundtrack by the Japanese percussion group Kodo (the same as, or similar to that heard in "Rising Sun") which is rich and rousingly beautiful.
Q: There is no comic relief at all?
A: An idiotic attempt is made at the camp when master swordsmith Oshiyma, a buffoonish drunkard out of several Japanse movies, makes a super-sword for Takeda in three weeks. Racine lends a hand and, would you believe it, quickly becomes a fine swordsman. It's like getting a Ph.D. in six months, by correspondence. Things get dumber and dumber and boredom sets in in this plot-as-you-go yarn. You even get the standard gimmick of horror and action films: When you think the killer (beast, monster, vicious hombre, etc.) is killed, don't turn your back, as the bad critter will pounce back.
Q:How about the violence level?
A: Horrendous, gratuitous, disturbing and, I am sure, bad for younger people. And before you accuse me of intolerance, let me tell you this. The days after I saw this movie, I saw two violent films on TV. One was a stupid Steven King thing, "Silver Bullet," with a werewolf that was too dull for adults and too ugly for kids. The other, the HBO production "Citizen X" was about the real case of a serial killer in Russia. It was graphic, but cleverly, instead of exploiting this aspect, the movie, by stressing the ineptitude, corruption and awful politics of the Soviet regime and its apparatchiki, acquired depth and value.
Q: Yet you still rate "The Hunted" above a single star.
A: I repeat. The train and the drums did it.