The Hunted, which came out in 1995, was something of a throwback: a ninja movie long after the ninja boom of the ’80s had come to a close. Starring Christopher Lambert to bring in the white audience, the movie was really about samurai and ninja battling it out in (then) present-day Japan and all the best stuff involves the Asian cast.
The Hunted starts relatively slowly, introducing us to Paul Racine, an unlikely American played by Lambert, on a business trip to Japan. In the first of a good number of huh? moments, Racine is in Japan to sell microchips to the Japanese. That’d be a first.
At any rate, Racine ends up encountering a beautiful woman (Joan Chen) in the hotel bar and the two enjoy a nice evening out together. Eventually she invites him to her room for some torrid lovemaking in a big soaking tub, but rebuffs any suggestion that they spend more time together. The reason for this becomes clear in short order, as Chen’s character is put to death at the hands of a ninja named Kinjo, played by John Lone. Racine witnesses the killing, is badly wounded by Kinjo’s accomplices and then left for dead.
I should stop here for a moment and share one of my major objections to the movie. Ever since I saw this thing 15 years ago I have never been able to figure out why writer/director J.F. Lawton chose to cast Chinese actors in prominent roles meant to be Japanese. I mean, he was shooting the movie in Japan, took time enough to research and implement Japanese traditions, even went so far as to nab Kodo to do the score, but he couldn’t find Japanese actors to fill these parts? It’s just strange to me and I’m hoping it’s not another case of Any Asian Will Do when casting.
Anyway, Racine remains a target of Kinjo and his clan, but to his apparent rescue comes a modern-day samurai played by Yoshio Harada, an honest-to-goodness Japanese guy. Harada’s samurai has a 200-year-old feud to settle with Kinjo’s clan and intends to use Racine as bait to lure Kinjo to his remote island castle/sanctuary to do battle.
I won’t tell you more except to say that of course there’s a big battle and that you may be surprised who lives and who dies. Certainly the parts involving Harada’s character are some of the most interesting in the movie, as the samurai is a fairly unpleasant guy despite his nominal hero status.
The weakest element in the movie is Christopher Lambert and his character, Racine. Like the companions on Doctor Who, Racine exists primarily to have things explained to him for the audience’s benefit. But because he is the white guy, he’s also at the center of the movie even when he shouldn’t be, including during the ninja vs. samurai climax of the picture. I didn’t buy his transformation from businessman to fighter and the script’s constant attempts to keep things moving around Racine detract from might otherwise have been a quite solid film about ancient traditions intruding on the modern world.
Still, I find myself liking The Hunted despite myself. I guess I’m a sucker for ninja and sword-fights and all that stuff, and The Hunted has plenty of both. At Netflix I toyed with giving it three stars instead of four (out of five), but even after all this time and the objections I have to the movie, I couldn’t bring myself to downgrade it. Maybe next time.