The Client – Review

5 May

Even if you’ve never read one of his books, chances are you still know the name John Grisham. Many of his stories have been turned into feature films, with my favorite being the 1996 courtroom drama, A Time to Kill. While that’s my own personal opinion, there are a lot of people who say that the best adaptation of a Grisham novel is the 1994 film, The Client. I remember watching this movie on t.v. when I was really young, and something about it really struck a cord in my brain making me remember it to this day. It’s finally time I revisited it and see if it’s held up after all these years.

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Mark Sway (Brad Renfro) and his little brother Ricky (David Speck) live a simple life in a trailer park by the woods. After sneaking in there to have cigarettes behind their mother’s (Mary-Louise Parker) back, the two boys witness the suicide by a mafia lawyer named Jerome “Romey” Clifford (Walter Olkewicz), but not before spilling the beans about his murderous client, Barry “The Blade” Muldanno (Anthony LaPaglia). This information makes the fame hungry federal attorney Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones) anxious to get his hands on what the kid knows and lock Muldanno up for life, even if it means putting Sway in the sights of numerous mafia hitmen. This prompts him to get a lawyer of his own, the inexperienced Reggie Love (Susan Sarandon), who treats Sway’s case with a special kind of attention and won’t stop until he is protected from both Foltrigg and Muldanno.

This movie really has a recipe for success. Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon are enough of an acting force to push any story forward, but it also helps having a Grisham story and Joel Schumacher backing them up. Before anyone says anything, I realize Schumacher is responsible for Batman and Robin, but he’s also responsible for some great films like Phonebooth and Falling Down. This is a very well constructed and acted movie from everyone involved. Sarandon was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, but Tommy Lee Jones also has a lot of great scenes that showcases how smarmy his character really is. This is also the debut of Brad Renfro who stands up very well to his acting superiors, which makes it more unfortunate his career was cut short when he died at the age of 28.

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With all of these talents mixing together, I’m quite surprised that The Client isn’t as exciting or thrilling as it should have been. I went into this wanting to see a lot more of the legal procedures and the mafia getting involved, but there’s only one court room scene and the mafia villains are completely laughable. For someone nick named “The Blade,” I was surprised to see how much of a cartoon character he was. It got to the point where it was hard to be threatened by these Looney Toon mafiosos. One of the reasons I love A Time to Kill so much is because there are great courtroom scenes. The one in The Client works fine, but there just isn’t enough there to make it really exciting. The film instead seems to want to focus on the relationship between Reggie Love and Mark Sway.

Since the attention is put on Brad Renfro’s and Susan Sarandon’s character, it’s important that they succeed in making their relationship interesting. At times, I feel like that’s the real crux of the movie. Sarandon’s character wants to have a connection with her estranged kids and Brad Renfro’s character wants to have a parent that can actually protect him. That’s where these two characters meet and find a special bond that makes their relationship interesting. There are times where this theme of needing some sort of connection is beat over the head, but it still works well enough and adds an extra layer to the movie.

I had a bit of a hard time writing this review because I don’t really have a whole lot to say about The Client. The opening scene is one of the most intense and memorable intros to a movie I’ve ever seen, but from there it gets a little less than thrilling. What holds the movie up is the unique characters and an especially unique murder mystery that a child has now gotten mixed up in. If more attention was spent to actually making an exciting court drama with a touch of gangsters that weren’t cartoons, The Client would have certainly been a better movie. As it is, it’s a hard movie to talk about because it really is just ok.

Elvis & Nixon – Review

3 May

Of all the historic photographs held in the National Archives, you might be surprised that the most requested picture of all time is of Elvis Presley shaking Richard Nixon’s hand in the Oval Office. The King of Rock n Roll and one of the most notorious presidents in American history sure make quite the duo. What’s even stranger is that there are no records to give the reason why these two American icons met in the first place. That brings us to Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon, a pretty absurd comedy that offers a pretty hilarious fictionalized account and possibly reason behind the whole meeting. What I really love about this movie is that it knows what it is, and it also gives leaves some time between the absurdity to offer some interesting themes surrounding celebrity and a person’s real identity.

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In 1970, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) still has his status as one of the biggest superstars in the world, even though his impact on the entertainment industry has declined since his earlier days. Meanwhile, President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) has held the presidential office for a little over a year and has his sights set on re-election. After seeing the troubles plaguing the youth of the nation, Elvis decides that he hasn’t been doing enough to make the next generations of Americans safe and prosperous. This line of thinking leads to his decision that it’s time for him to be given a federal badge and be appointed a “federal agent at large.” Armed with his golden pistols and trusty entourage (Jerry Schilling and Johnny Knoxville), Presley makes his way to Washington D.C. for what he believes will be a monumental meeting with the president of the United States.

I’ve explained this movie to some people who haven’t heard of it, and the looks on their faces as I’m talking makes me feel like I have three heads. Elvis & Nixon is, without a doubt, completely absurd. That being said, however, a lot of the events surrounding these two cultural icons are even more absurd than most of the things in this movie. There’s a part of me that believes their secret meeting might have gone a little something like it does in the movie because we all live in such a crazy world anyway. This is where I give a lot of credit to the screenwriters (one of whom happens to be the Dread Pirate Roberts, himself, Cary Elwes). The story that they’ve constructed is very silly, but there is a lot of really snappy dialogue and an understated, yet very present, grounding in reality.

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When Elvis & Nixon takes a break from the over the top scenarios and barrage of witty banter, there is time to look at the characters for who they truly are. That, I believe, is the real point to this movie. What we have are two people that couldn’t have been different from each other, and having never met one another have their own judgmental opinions of the other. It’s interesting to see the interaction when they finally do meet and the real people behind what the media has created for them is revealed. There’s one excellent scene in the movie where Elvis says when regular people walk into a room they are recognized for who they are, but when he walks into a room he is only recognized by the preconceived notions and memories that his fame created. This idea of separating a celebrity from their works to see them as a person is a pretty timeless theme and it’s handled surprisingly intelligently in this film.

Besides the premise, the two main actors were the big reason why I was excited about this movie and they did not disappoint. Michael Shannon may not look a lot like Elvis, but he seems to have mastered all of the movements and swagger of the King, and even sounds a lot like him at times. The best part of Shannon’s performance is that he never makes it over the top. He brings a subtlety to the performance that feels real, and it reminds me why he is one of my favorite actors. Speaking of my favorite actors, Kevin Spacey is hilarious as Richard Nixon. He has all the same subtlety as Shannon, and never turns Nixon into a caricature. I was concerned that Spacey would just come across as Frank Underwood from House of Cards, but he really does step away from that president and become Nixon.

What’s great about Elvis & Nixon is that it never tries to come across as more than it is. What this film is is a sometimes over the top satire of a time period, celebrity, and even politics, but done so in the most unpretentious of ways. There’s some real humanity amongst all of the jokes and absurdity, and the actors play their roles with real skill. Elvis & Nixon won’t go down as a classic or even a movie that’s going to be really remembered and discussed, but that’s ok. This is still a really good and fun movie that is well worth anyone’s time.

Child 44 – Review

28 Apr

There are a handful of times throughout history that I just would never want to be a part of, and Stalinist Russia could very easily be in the top 10. It was a time where no one was safe, no matter what age, sex, or creed, and everything that you said or did could potentially be used against you. These ideas are explored to great length in the film Child 44, a 205 film based off of a novel by Tom Rob Smith. I was initially intrigued by this movie after looking at the premise and the fact that it starred Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, and Noomi Rapace. To make things more interesting, I had to see how such a star studded historical drama could be such a major box office flop.

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After raising the Soviet flag on the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945, Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) quickly became a hero and symbol of his country. Jump to 1953 and Demidov has found himself a beautiful wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace), and has the position of Captain in the Russian intelligence agency, the MGB. After a child is found murdered by the train tracks, the government tries to cover it up and deny that there is a child murderer walking the streets. As Demidov continues his investigation, he and his wife are exiled to a small town where Leo is stripped of his rank and finds a low level job under General Neserov (Gary Oldman). After a lot of effort and more murdered children are discovered, Demidov convinces Nesterov that this is a serious problem, which leads to them both continuing the investigation behind the government’s back, a mission that could easily put them in front of a firing squad.

Something that Child 44 does better than anything else is create a sort of realism that really had to happen if they were going to create a movie that takes place in the early 1950s in the Soviet Union. The costume and set design made it feel like I was taking a glimpse at history. The black trains with the red star were so ominous and powerful looking and very memorable to look at. Of course all of this realism would be for nothing if the performances weren’t grounded in this sense of reality. Hardy, Rapace, and Oldman all give great performances and are reason enough to see this movie. One scene in particular involved a fight on a train, which was bone crunchingly real that it really stands out.

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I love murder mysteries of every shape and size. There’s a sense of danger and time that weave their way through the best mysteries. The hero is always racing against time to find the killer before anyone else gets hurt, which makes for some very exciting storytelling. A murder mystery that takes place in the middle of Stalin’s reign of terror just adds a whole new variable to the equation which makes for some even more intensity and suspense. Like I said before, no one was safe in this period of time and you had to be careful with whatever you said and whoever you talked to. Child 44 creates this overwhelming sense of paranoia with all of the twists and reveals. I’ve never quite seen a mystery like this before and that is definitely a compliment.

So far, everything I’ve said about this movie is pretty good. It would seem that I have no problem with it. This, however, is simply not the case. I felt like I was tripping over the pacing of this movie, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever said before… Interesting. Anyway, the layout of this movie is really, really weird. The first 45 minutes to an hour is just set up, then after that the movie picks up a lot of speed only to be jolted to a halt and then go from 0 to 60 in 5 seconds. It made for some awkward moments. The first cut of this movie was over 5 hours long, which makes a lot of sense because there is an absurd amount crammed into this movie which clocks in at a little under two and a half hours. This is one of those instances where this should’ve been a mini series.

The most important part of film is being able to coherently tell a story in the best possible way, and this is where Child 44 really slips and falls on its sickle. The story, itself, is very intriguing and full of paranoia and great performances. It’s also a beautifully shot film that prides itself on the realism that it creates. Unfortunately, the pacing and amount of information jammed into its run time makes it sort of an awkward viewing experience. This movie receives a lot of unwarranted negativity. I actually quite enjoyed this movie and would recommend it, but just be sure you’re ready for pacing from hell.

Bug – Review

26 Apr

I seem to be in a William Friedkin kind of mood recently having just reviewed his movie The Hunted and now coming back to review his 2006 film Bug. I actually remember when this movie first came out and how intrigued I was by the whole idea, but unfortunately it was 10 years ago and 10 years ago I would never be able to get into a theater to see it. I’m actually glad I waited so long, because now I’m a lot more familiar with the works of William Friedkin and his screenwriting collaborator, Tracy Letts. Bug is actually based off of Letts’ stage play, as was a later Friedkin film Killer Joe, which is now one of my top favorite movies. Like Killer JoeBug tells a nightmarish story of the south with very troubled human characters engaging in some very strange behavior.

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Agnes White (Ashley Judd) is a waitress living in a shady motel on the side of a seemingly desert road. She’s in such a secluded location so as to stay hidden from her abusive husband, Jerry Goss (Harry Connick, Jr.), who is getting released from prison any day now. On a night like any other, Agnes meets a drifter named Peter (Michael Shannon), a quiet but caring man who only seems to care about Agnes’ best interests. As their relationship begins to build, Jerry returns and starts to harass Agnes, but Agnes is far too busy with learning about Peter and Peter’s strange beliefs that the government implanted millions of bugs into his skin and blood, and that they are now beginning to escape and make themselves known.

This is a very, very strange movie and definitely not what I expected it was going to be. It’s easy to see how this is a stage play since most of the action occurs in Agnes’ motel. Sometimes the characters go outside or are in a bar, but that’s really only for a couple scenes out of the movie. I love when stories happen in closed in spaces. It creates the feeling of claustrophobia and injects the fear of not escaping the horrors that will surface. What really threw me off is the pacing of Bug. I don’t want to say that it’s bad, it’s just weird. The first 45 minutes play as a straightforward drama with a lingering sense of unease. Then after these 45 minutes, the movie shoots forward into insanity. It jumps through time so strangely, that you can’t really know how much time has passed, which was jarring while watching the movie but after thinking about it, it was a clever way to tell the story.

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There’s no doubt in my mind that Bug features the best performances of both Ashley Judd’s and Michael Shannon’s careers. I always looked at Ashley Judd as an overall unimpressive actress, but after seeing her in this movie my attitude’s changed. I think with the write screenplay and direction, she can really deliver a powerhouse performances. Now, Michael Shannon’s history with Bug goes pretty deep. For years, Shannon has played the role of Peter off Broadway in both London and America. This role is so ingrained in his mind he seems to literally transform into Peter. It’s an amazing performance and I just assume that this movie was too weird to get any Oscar attention for both actors.

Over the years, Bug has torn critics and audiences into a couple different and completely polarizing categories. On one side are the people that absolutely hated the movie claiming that it doesn’t make any logical sense and that it’s the stupidest thing in the world. On the other side are all of the people who look down on the plebeians claiming that the movie is stupid and just rubbing it in that they “just don’t get it.” I honestly can completely understand how someone can both love and hate this movie. It’s really bizarre and often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that’s sort of the point. The movie is designed to make the audience feel more distanced, confused, and paranoid as the story progresses which forces Bug to go through some jarring changes. I, personally, respect the hell out of this movie.

William Friedkin and Tracy Letts are two artists that just seem to be made for each other. I felt that way after I saw Killer Joe and I feel it once again after watching Bug. This is one of the most disorienting and jarring movies I’ve ever seen, and at first it made the movie kind of hard to watch and a little questionable, but after letting it all sink in I can understand why the movie had to be made like it is. It isn’t as powerful as Killer Joe, but Bug is a powerhouse of a movie in terms of directing, acting, and writing.

 

The Jungle Book – Review

23 Apr

My childhood, along with most I would assume, was spent watching classic Disney movies on VHS. I’m sure you can remember the ones that opened like a book and had the white lining. Ahhh, the sweet smell of nostalgia. I’m all for a good, heaping dose of nostalgia from time to time, but I feel like we’ve become a generation where a large percent of the box office leans on that very same idea of hearkening back to our childhood. That’s why I was skeptical of Disney’s live action remake of The Jungle Book. It may be one of the most beloved children’s cartoons of all time, which made me think this was just another cash grab. When I say I couldn’t have been more wrong, I mean that it may be the wrongest I’ve ever been in my life. So far, I’m considering The Jungle Book one of the best movies of 2016.

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Deep in the jungle, a young boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is raised by a pack of noble wolves while also being trained in the ways of the jungle by the wise black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). During a time of peace, the vengeful tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) discovers Mowgli living with the wolves and vows that when the time of peace is over he will kill the young man cub in retaliation for the burns he received to his face by man. This forces the wolves, Bagheera, and Mowgli to decide it would be safest for Mowgli to leave the jungle and return to the human village. While on their journey Mowgli meets a lovable, but scheming bear named Baloo (Bill Murray), who joins the quest to bring Mowgli to the village. Dangers lurk around every corner though as Mowgli is threatened by elements such as the snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the megalomaniacal King Louie (Christopher Walken), and the ever lurking presence of Shere Khan.

While The Jungle Book tells a classic story that has been told time and time again, this version, directed by the great Jon Favreau, focuses mainly on retelling the 1967 animated Disney film. That makes sense, really, since this is also made by Disney. This version of the film, however, immerses you into the story, the characters, and the environment like no other telling. The CGI in this movie is mind blowing which makes it hard for me to say that this isn’t a live action movie. It feels so much like watching a completely live action film, even though 95% of it was shot over a green screen and edited into the movie. The jungle in this movie lives and breathes and becomes an essential character all its own. Meanwhile, characters we’ve known since our childhood come to life like they never have before.

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While the CGI is fantastic and the characters all look great, they wouldn’t be nearly as life like if it wasn’t for the excellent voice work. Ben Kingsley as Bagheera and Bill Murray as Baloo are so accurately casted and work very well together as two opposites working very hard towards the same goal. They have great banter and read the lines very well. The scene stealer, unsurprisingly, is Idris Elba as the terrifying Shere Khan. There were a few kids in my theater who didn’t last ten minutes once Shere Khan went onscreen, and I can’t really blame them. Elba is just fantastic. Neel Sethi is a great find to play Mowgli, and Christopher Walken sounds like he’s having the time of his life playing King Louie. The only person who I feel was underutilized was Scarlett Johansson as Kaa. She only had one scene to really do anything, and while she played the part very well she just wasn’t in it enough.

What really drives The Jungle Book into the realm of greatness is the feeling of adventure that’s present throughout the entire film. This is a story of growth and learning, heroes and villains, and most importantly it’s a whole lot of fun. There wasn’t a frame in this movie that bored me. Even if the story was slowing down a little bit, there was always something gorgeous to look at onscreen. It’s important to note that while this is a festival of CGI, the film uses the effects to tell the story instead of making the movie about the effects.

The Jungle Book is the first movie of 2016 that made me just feel really excited. This is one of those movies that reminded me why I love film so much in the first place. The effects are out of this world, and speaking of out of this world, so is the cast of voice actors. I never thought in a million years I would love this movie as much as I did, but as of right now it’s my favorite movie of 2016. Do not miss this one.

’71 – Review

21 Apr

Ireland has a very rough history with plenty of material to adapt for the silver screen. That being said, it’s very important to handle these events and people as respectfully as possible, which should really be the case with any biopic or historical film. Yann Demage’s 2014 film ’71 takes a look at the early days of the Troubles, a conflict that lasted in Ireland from 1968 to 1998. What’s interesting about this movie is that, on its surface, it tells a story of a soldier trapped behind enemy lines, but this film tells so much more than that. It’s a nearly unbiased look at a very violent time in history that also works great as an entertaining action thriller.

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In 1971, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a new recruit for the British army, is sent to Belfast with his squad to aid the Royal Ulster Constabulary in its search for firearms in suspected IRA houses. The longer the raid lasts and the longer the British soldiers have to hold the neighborhood at bay, the more violent and chaotic everything becomes. Amidst the chaos, Hook is separated from his squad and is left in the streets of Belfast to fend for himself. When news of a stranded soldier reaches certain members of the PIRA and the OIRA, the hunt begins to find and kill this soldier. Meanwhile, other in the city are more sympathetic to Hook’s case, which means he has to choose his friends very carefully in his wait for his squad to return and finally extract him.

Like I said, the crux of the plot of ’71 is Gary Hook trying to stay alive in hostile territory. Looking beyond that, however, you will find a total nightmare of a situation that only gets worse as the movie goes on. Hook is pretty much in the movie and left behind enemy lines so that we can see through his eyes an unbiased look at the violence and brutality that happened in the early days of the Troubles. At first, when Hook is with his squad, the movie has a harsh view on the Catholic nationalists in the IRA and at first I thought that the movie was going to make them the opposition for Hook. As time goes on and the story evolves, however, the Protestant loyalists who are supposed to be with the British at this point can’t be trusted either. This film does a great job at showing the corruption and deadly nature of both sides where no one is anyone’s friend.

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While this movie tells a story of a very dark time in Ireland’s history, it can’t be said that this isn’t an entertaining movie. There are movies like The Baader Meinhof Complex that tell a story about a dark historical time, but it does so in a way that made me feel like I was reading a very interesting textbook. It was a great movie, but not something I would call genuinely entertaining. ’71, on the other hand, is a fast paced and very entertaining movie that is filled with action and suspense. One scene in particular has Hook navigating an apartment complex while trying to stay hidden from the PIRA members that tracked him there. It’s a nail biting scene that forcibly moves you to the edge of your seat and leaves you there to fend for yourself. I love seeing great action and suspense held together by a very smart and intriguing story. It’s refreshing.

This movie marks two careers that hopefully have bright futures. Since being in ’71, Jack O’Connell has gone to star in Angelina Jolie’s film Unbroken, which was received well enough, but didn’t really make a huge mark. O’Connell is excellent in ’71 and really channels the fear and desperation that his character is going through. Another new talent we have from this movie who I demand to see more from is director Yann Demange. Demange has worked with shorter works before, but this is his first feature, and what an excellent debut it is. The way he captures realism while making an entertaining action film is how movies should be made. He understands the medium and I can’t wait to see what else he has to offer.

’71 is an extremely powerful film that is accurate in its portrayals of history while also serving up some great action and suspense sequences. The music, the acting, and the cinematography all work in tandem to create and atmosphere that is as wide and exposing as it is claustrophobic. There was never a boring moment in this movie and trying to figure out who was one who’s side only made it all the more interesting. This was mostly a festival movie that got a very limited release, but all of the great press it got was exactly what the movie deserved. Unfortunately, not enough people have seen this movie which means many people are missing out on a great film.

The Hunted – Review

19 Apr

In all my years of watching movies, one of the best film makers I’ve ever seen is the one and only William Friedkin. One of his most famous movies is the 1971 film The French Connection, but I know him best as being the director of two of my favorite films of all time, The Exorcist and Killer Joe. Needless to say, Friedkin is one of the most influential and memorable film makers, in my opinion. Not all of his movies have been overwhelming successes, however. Just look at his 2003 film, The Hunted. While I think The Hunted is a fine example of how to craft a thriller film filled with great action and suspense, I still feel there are some faults that can’t be overlooked.

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While on a black ops mission in Kosovo, Aaron Hallam (Benicio del Toro) witnesses atrocities that have such a great affect on him he can no longer fulfill his duties as a soldier. It also seems to completely unhinges him from reality. When hunters are being found brutally murdered in the woods of the northwest, all the signs point towards someone who has been trained for violent and precise combat. Not knowing how to catch this person, FBI Agent Abby Durrell (Connie Nielsen) brings in civilian military instructor L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones), who has exceptional skills in both hand to hand combat and tracking. Soon the hunter becomes the hunted, but it is revealed that Bonham and Hallam may have connections previously unknown which makes the vendetta against society much more personal.

Right from the get go, I was interested in this movie not only because William Friedkin was in the director’s chair, but also because the movie starred both Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio del Toro. Both are very fine actors and both play their roles very well in The Hunted. Tommy Lee Jones really seems to understand his character and the nervousness that is deep down inside of him, which is completely counteractive to him being called in to track down a sadistic murderer who has been expertly trained. Jones delivers his lines with sharp sarcasm while also being very fidgety when stuck in some closed in area. On the flip side, del Toro uses his trademark soft spoken intensity to really create an imposing individual. While he is seen as sadistic and violent in most scenes, we still see the human side in him too and understand him as a tragic character. The acting is really all top notch stuff.

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The action in this movie is really cool. There is absolutely nothing stylized or cinematic about any of the fight scenes, which is an interesting choice. When there’s a scene of hand to hand or knife combat, there’s no music playing and the wounds suffered by the fighters are all really brutal. Still it creates a sense of realism. In fact, the entire movie has a very real look to it. This is partially due to Friedkin hiring one of the most acclaimed cinematographers, Caleb Deschanel. There are a few action sequences that are more cinematic. One foot chase through Portland has some great music and camera techniques that makes it all the more exciting.

The only shortcoming I can find in how the plot allows for virtually no character development for the secondary characters. The two main characters get a lot of time and attention to building them up, but there are a handful of other people that either get left in the dust without any sort of character resolution or just serve to take up space on the screen. This is sort of a double edged critique because on one hand I’d like to see the characters developed, but on the other hand Friedkin wanted this to be a “lean, mean action thriller” which is exactly what it is and I appreciate his attention on the entertainment aspect. If I want to be objective, however, I have to say that a little more character development would have gone a long way.

The Hunted is certainly not one of William Friedkin’s best movies, but it does offer plenty of fun and excitement. What this movie really only fails at is developing any kind of relationships between characters other than between Jones’ and del Toro’s. Everything else in the movie is pure action with plenty of thrills, cool fight sequences, and a memorable chase through Portland that reminded me of a sequence in The French ConnectionThe Hunted isn’t going to be revered as the years go on, but it’s a fun way to kill an afternoon.

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