[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
Itâ€™s a neat idea for Steve McQueen, who started his career playing a bounty hunter on TV, to confront his own image by playing an aging contemporary bounty hunter in a sort of â€œBullitt Grows Oldâ€ adventure filmâ€”especially when the actor himself is surrounded by rumors that he is dying, rumors which he himself denies, though the denial loses impact coming from a hospital bed. Surrounded by the most depressing aspects of a world he considers a â€œgarbage can,â€ yet reminded at every turn of the impending birth of his first child (reminded especially by the children who, as victims, near-victims, or onlookers, haunt the corners of nearly every episode in the film), the based-on-true-life character of Ralph â€œPapaâ€ Thorson emerges as a likeable and sympathetic figure, never the hardboiled skip-tracer one expects. And though his cynical view of the world is given ample airing, and considerable justification, itâ€™s the joyous view of life that wins the day: tragedy always turns to comedy, disaster is always averted, and the birth of the child freezes for the end title.
With this to work with, itâ€™s a shame that McQueen and Kulik didnâ€™t come up with a better movie. I blame it on Kulikâ€”a TV-oriented director who is good at creating, every eight or nine minutes, crises that are easily resolved and turn out to have nothing to do with plot, style, or character. Kulik turns The Hunter into an eminently â€œsafeâ€ film (many minds boggled at the announcement that a film in which Steve McQueen portrayed a modern bounty hunter would be rated PG), opting for derivative chase sequences and semicomic demolition derbies instead of confronting the dark side of Thorsonâ€™s inner conflict, and trying to build a coherent, unified film on the subject. Sure, the career of a man like Thorson is necessarily episodic; but thereâ€™s a unity to a manâ€™s life, and even to somebodyâ€™s book about that life, that never comes through in Kulikâ€™s film. There are nice touches here and there, like the overhead shots of the car-vs.-reaper duel in a Nebraska cornfield, and the recurrence of Thorsonâ€™s mean dog that doesnâ€™t like its master and that suddenly isnâ€™t home when he might come in handy; but in the end The Hunter is nothing more than a series of chase scenes with a happy ending tacked on. Coscenarist Peter Hyams was originally signed as director, but was replaced with Kulik when production was delayed by McQueenâ€™s contract with First Artists for Tom Horn. All things considered, I wish Hyams had done the film. On the evidence of Capricorn One, which also has suspense, chase sequences, ambiguity, cynicism, and a happy ending, heâ€™s much better at this sort of thing.
Direction: Buzz Kulik. Screenplay: Ted Leighton and Peter Hyams, after the biography of Ralph â€œPapaâ€ Thorson by Christopher Keane. Cinematography: Fred J. Koenekamp. Production design: Ron Hobbs. Editing: Robert L. Wolfe. Music: Michel Legrand.
The players: Steve McQueen, Kathryn Harrold, Eli Wallach, LeVar Burton, Tracey Walter, Ben Johnson, Richard Venture, Tom Rosales, Theodore Wilson, Ralph Thorson.
© 1981 Robert C. Cumbow