If one had seen Highlander as the only example of Christopher Lambert's work, one might think that here is a man who understands the desired form of a sword-fighting movie. Highlander, for those uninitiated folk who have somehow found their way here, was the ultimate expression of the '80s fascination with medieval fantasy (despite its setting in modern times). It featured a number of sword fights, but left the best for last. The final duel is something to behold: two combatants on a rooftop, swinging blades wildly as sparks fly from nearby neon signs and Queen howls on the soundtrack.
After seeing such a classic example of steel-clash cinema, however, there is something criminally unpoetic about a sword-fighting film that ends with a mere fistfight. Such a pathetic beast is The Hunted, one of the last non-Highlander related films starring Christopher Lambert to play in theaters. That an otherwise acceptable movie, which spends so much time dwelling on the ancient arts of swordplay and archery, should come to its climax instead with the characters rolling in the mud, clumsily bludgeoning each other with hands and feet, is almost as great a mystery as Lambert's continued stardom. Let's face it, this guy is basically Jean Claude Van Damme without the ability to do splits.
"Does this look like infected to you?"
To be fair, Lambert isn't that different from George Clooney, unless you count the haircut. Oh, and the beady eyes, oily appearance, and mumbling line delivery. And let's not forget his complete unwillingness to give anything resembling a performance in most of his films. And Clooney is probably taller. But other than those few things, Christopher Lambert is almost on par with George Clooney!
Since Highlander, Lambert has been typecast in Z-grade action films. The chances that he will appear in any given action film increase greatly if swords are involved and the dialogue doesn't have to be comprehensible. That probably explains how the heavily accented Lambert was cast as a "New York businessman" in The Hunted. Other than Lambert's presence, however, The Hunted seems like an A-list film. It has a fairly high budget, it was shot in some pretty spectacular Japanese locations, and at the time of the film's release a big deal was made about its creation by J.F. Lawton. Lawton will forever be known for writing the greatest hooker recruitment film ever, Pretty Woman. Lawton wrote and directed The Hunted, so you'd better believe his favorite profession shows up.
Next on Saturday Night Live:
Samurai Train Conductor.
In Nagoya, Japan, American businessman Paul Racine (Lambert) charms his way into the hot tub of Japanese prostitute Kirina (Joan Chen! Does she have a thing for appearing in films with washed up actors with unidentifiable European accents?). He leaves after he gives her the best ten minutes she's had all night, but when he uses a misplaced key to get back into her apartment he finds that she is about to be killed by Kinjo (John Lone! It's a Last Emperor reunion!), the head of the "ninja cult" called the Makato.
We had to wonder about that whole "ninja cult" designation. Usually ninja live in clans. Maybe the Makato decided that "ninja clan" sounds too much like "ninja clam" if you say it quickly, and honestly, who's afraid of a mollusk in black pajamas? Still, a ninja clam might be pretty scary compared to the Makato. As ninja go, these guys would make good car salesmen. The three ninja in Kirina's hotel room completely fail to notice that Paul is in the same room, phoning for help! And being an American, you just know he's speaking at top volume so the Japanese operator will understand him. The Makato boys don't see him until he bursts out (in slow motion) from around a smallish sculpture. The ninja hit Paul with swords and poisoned throwing stars, but they leave him quite alive. So much for Japanese efficiency.
Dream produced by MTV.
On the Ninj-o-meter, with 10 being Sonny Chiba and 1 being Don Knotts, the Makato only get one bullet each, and they have to keep it in their pockets. But hey, Kinjo did manage to kill the unarmed hooker, so maybe we're being a little harsh.
As Paul recuperates in a Japanese hospital we see Kinjo put that "Management Secrets of Doctor Doom" class he took last month to good use. He accuses the two ninja who failed to kill Paul of conspiring to let Paul steal part of Kinjo's soul (no one outside the cult has seen Kinjo's face and lived before, and that makes him powerful or something), so then he challenges the two (including his right hand man) to combat and kills them. Then he has a sauna pow-wow with his creepy "lady of death" advisor, who tells him to kill Paul in the hospital so that Kirina's ghost will no longer haunt the clan. (Never mind the more practical consideration that Racine can finger Kinjo for murder!) Kinjo decides to send his best men. Oops, he just killed them! Being a ninja cult leader is harder than it looks.
"No matter how drunk I get,
the end of Knight Moves
still doesn't make sense!"
The ninja go about the rather simple task of assassinating a hospitalized man in the most complicated manner possible. They capture the room that contains the power supply for the hospital, then blow up the switch rather than just turning it off. One ninja shoots arrows through a window while others sneak into the hallway outside Paul's room and engage the police protecting Paul. Paul escapes.
Paul then links up with the husband and wife samurai team of Takeda (Yoshio Harada) and Mieko (Yoko Shimada). They agree to help Paul escape to their private island by train. But the ninja somehow know Paul is on the train, and so they attack it in force. The Makato are so prepared for the eventuality of a fight on a train that their pajamas are matched to the train's décor, making them almost invisible. Examine the picture below. If you look carefully you might be able to spot the camouflaged ninja.
Ninja never reveal their identities
-- except to their hairstylists.
A bloodbath involving innocent passengers follows, but in what turns out to be the best fight scene of the film, Takeda brutally slaughters the entire ninja platoon. This is great if you happen to watch that scene and that scene only, but it's somewhat less exciting when the remaining action sequences fail to live up to this one. Watching Takeda lure his pad-footed opponents into a succession of evacuated train cars is the saving grace of this movie, but it's also the limit of the filmmakers' imaginations.
Further quashing the fight scenes is the fact that Lambert's part requires him to abstain from action. Not only is he injured for most of the film, but he's also (playing) a pasty American white boy with no particular fighting skills. Add to that the fact that Takeda forbids Racine to use a pistol, for reasons that are never explained. This reduces Lambert to the part of Hitchcock's "Maguffin" the useless object that nevertheless drives the plot.
"And that's for M. Butterfly!"
Lambert only outgrows this Maguffin status in the film's final scene, when the Makato attack Takeda's island fortress, slaughtering his family of samurai trainees and forcing Racine to defend himself when the samurai cannot. A large portion of film's last act is devoted to establishing that Racine has learned sword fighting (from the island's comedy relief blacksmith), yet when it comes down to it Paul falls back on hitting Kinjo in the head with a rock. Take that, lifetime of supernaturally assisted ninjitsu training!
The Hunted isn't completely incompetent, nor is it the truly awful sort of film in front of which we find ourselves all too often. It's much more watchable than Gymkata or any Highlander sequel. Maybe if they'd given the script a good doctoring by someone less hooker-obsessed and concentrated on the sword fighting, the grosses of this film wouldn't have been as invisible as the ninja themselves.