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Friday, February 24, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Looking For Action? `The Hunted' Has It

------------ MOVIE REVIEW ------------

XX 1/2 "The Hunted," with Christopher Lambert, John Lone, Joan Chen, and Yoshio Harada. Written and directed by J.F. Lawton. Uptown, Mountlake 9, SeaTac 12 South, Crossroads, Grand, Factoria, Kent, Oaktree, Parkway Plaza. "R" - Restricted; graphic violence.

Until it finally buckles under the weight of mounting improbability, "The Hunted" serves up a slickly energetic feast of mayhem for martial-arts movie fans. If you can forgive the often ridiculous dialogue and predictable plotting, you might even inch toward the edge of your seat now and then.

To a certain degree, the movie's faults may be accountable to its international potential. In the lead role, Christopher Lambert packs the kind of global stardom that guarantees profit, and writer-director J.F. Lawton's dialogue is so full of simple cliches that it seems deliberately geared towards efficient multilingual translation.

On purely commercial terms, this Ninja showcase is about as close as you can get to a sure thing, even if it tanks here in the U.S. of A.

Of course, that doesn't mean the movie's particularly good, although it certainly has its moments. With a first half that pulses toward a finely executed assault aboard a Japanese bullet train, "The Hunted" seems destined to be a Ninja variation on "Speed." Unfortunately, that nonstop pace is eventually halted, and the film never recovers.

Lambert plays Paul Racine, an American businessman in Japan who becomes the latest target of a legendary Ninja assassin named Kinjo (John Lone) after he witnesses the execution of Kirina (Joan Chen), a mysterious woman with whom Racine had enjoyed a passionately brief affair.

With the help of a modern-day Samurai named Takeda (Yoshio Harada), Racine survives numerous attempts on his life and prepares to confront Kinjo on the grounds of a secluded island fortress.

Lawton wrote "The Hunted" long before his scripts for "Pretty Woman" and "Under Siege" made him a hot property, and the movie suffers from the same early-work syndrome that plagued Lawrence Kasdan's long-dormant script for "The Bodyguard."

It's calculated for mass appeal, clicking along as a formula thriller but lacking any genuine character of its own.

Within those limits, however, "The Hunted" is never less than competent, with occasional peaks of cinematic vigor. And while Lambert supplies routine and barely credible heroics, the movie's heart and soul belong to Lone and Harada as enemies haunted by the legacy of a 200-year familial war. Lone is fiercely charismatic, as always, but it is Harada - one of Japan's most acclaimed actors - who grabs your undivided attention. It is high praise indeed to say that he recalls Toshiro Mifune in terms of pure screen magnetism, and "The Hunted" should have favored that asset.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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