An effort at meaningfulness, but not much actual meaning, is evident from the very first frame of The Hunted, which announces with a sermonlike lack of subtlety that what we're about to see is no cartoonish pursuit of cat and mouse. First, Johnny Cash recites lyrics from ''Highway 61 Revisited'' in a sepulchral boom, chiming the lines ''Oh, God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son.'''
Then we're in Kosovo in 1999, where Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro), a secret-special-super-covert-undercover human stealth machine of a soldier, is doing the killing. He has been assigned to neutralize an evildoing Serbian officer in his ''nest.'' At one point while Aaron slithers expertly past machine-gunning madmen and screaming victims in order to hunt his prey, he comes face-to-face with that familiar cinematic icon of purity in a war-mad movie world -- a solemn little girl who has just seen a parent murdered. (The child will, of course, haunt Aaron's nightmares long after he has won a Silver Star for his service.)
Then we're in British Columbia in 2003, where L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones) is tracking an injured wolf through the snow with the skill and patience of a man so warmed by an inner fire of hard-won serenity that he doesn't need to wear a hat in the frozen north.
And then we're in Oregon soon afterward, where the relationship between the two men is established: Having snapped from the accrued horrors of his job, Aaron seems to have become a wacko West Coast environmental vigilante, offing wildlife hunters with a zealot's determination and a butcher's precision. And L.T., who has been brought in by the FBI to find the killer, turns out to be the man who trained Aaron in the first place. Now retired from the military and in manly torment about his past, L.T. initially resists the assignment, explaining, ''I don't do that kind of work anymore.'' (Those kinds of guys always say that kind of thing in the first act of scripts as standard-issue as this one by David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths, and Art Monterastelli.) Then, when L.T. decides to take the tracking job, he insists on working solo. ''You're not going out there alone!'' the FBI agent in charge of the case (Connie Nielsen) insists (as her type, in turn, always does in the first act).
Are L.T. and Aaron a variation on father and son, their bond sealed by shared guilt about the terrible things one has taught the other to do? Are they personifications of the good and evil in every man, a theme that has absorbed director William Friedkin in so many of his movies, including ''The French Connection,'' ''The Exorcist,'' and ''To Live and Die in L.A.''? I would feel more inclined to ponder the deeper psychological themes that the director and writers propose if the movie weren't so obviously turned on by the fetishism of the story: This is a parable of Thou Shalt Not Kill that's boyishly aroused by the ingenious ways a person can kill -- and the more special-ops the method, the more excited the filmmaker.
Indeed, the chases that take up so much screen time come to a halt, twice, so that Friedkin can lovingly document the on-the-spot, beyond-Boy Scout manufacture of knives, either by forging metal or by chipping stone. (Abraham, remember, raised a knife over Isaac, a long way from Highway 61.) Inspired by the work of a real-life professional tracker who teaches killing techniques to elite U.S. military forces, ''The Hunted'' is the kind of movie for which the production notes boast the amount of knife handling and fight training the actors underwent -- as if the effort put into the simulation of authenticity were its own recommendation.
And yet the film is at its most essential -- and is most essentially a work of Billy Friedkin -- when the two men are pursuing or eluding each other without props and distracting side business. (Aaron has an estranged girlfriend who tells him, ''I'm not listenin' to you no more!''; L.T. has that inconvenient FBI agent on his back, who insists on waving a gun around even though in the gospel of ''The Hunted'' it's clear that real men fight the biblical way, with their hands.)
Brief stretches in the action sequences pulse with the old Friedkin craft, and the landscapes of wilderness, city, and movie-set Kosovo are finely delineated by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who particularly appreciates the look of unlovely urban wildernesses when the pursuit moves to Portland, Ore. But only in simple close-ups do any sincere emotions escape the traps of so much showy survivalism. In quiet moments, while L.T. follows Aaron's trail, a world of guilt and paternal concern can be read in Jones' middle-aged eyes, working intently in their creased pouches. And when Aaron is pausing to consider his next move, Del Toro's own busy face gets to soften, conveying a son's universe of torment. ''The Hunted'' stalks the masculine psyche with sharp knives, but it tracks its audience too noisily to bag us.