In The Hunter, legendary car nut, Steven McQueen, plays Papa Thorson, a bounty hunter who is a very bad driver.
That’s the joke.
Papa Thorson was a real-life bounty hunter, the Dog the Bounty Hunter of his day, and The Hunter was based on his own autobiography. Maybe that explains why the film itself is so extremely episodic. Thorson goes from one assignment to another, capturing criminals with relative ease and occasionally having to deal with an unappreciative sheriff (Ben Johnson). Along the way, one of those criminals (Levar Burton) goes to work with Papa and becomes his protege. Papa’s girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold) is pregnant and a crazed criminal (Tracey Walter) is targeting her because he wants revenge on Papa for putting him away. It’s all Magnum P.I.-level stuff, without the backdrop of Hawaii to distract you from how predictable it all is. It’s not terrible because there are a few good action scenes but it still feels more like a pilot for a weekly Papa Thorson television series than a feature film.
The Hunter was also Steve McQueen’s final film. After The Towering Inferno, McQueen was inactive for most of the 70s. He still received scripts and turned down good parts (including the roles of both Willard and Kurtz in Apocalypse Now) but the only film in which he appeared in a barely released version of An Enemy of the People. It wasn’t until 1980 that McQueen finally started appearing in movies again, starring in both Tom Horn and The Hunter. Tom Horn is an underrated western but The Hunter is largely forgettable. Sadly, The Hunter would be McQueen’s last film as he died of lung cancer shortly after it was released.
McQueen was obviously ill during the filming of The Hunter, though he still had the laconic coolness that made him a star in the first place and he still looks credible, even at the age of 50, handling a gun and chasing criminals. He doesn’t give a bad performance as Thorson and he even shows a talent for comedy. Both Tom Horn and The Hunter show that McQueen wasn’t afraid to play his age. Neither Tom Horn nor Thorson were young men and, in The Hunter, McQueen gets a lot of mileage out of being a cranky, middle-aged malcontent who has never figured out how to parallel park. The film might be forgettable but Steve McQueen shows that, to the end, he was an actor who was often better than his material.