Told by another character in "The Hunter" that he should let his hair grow, Steve McQueen responds, "I'm too old for that." He should have said the same thing to his agent when offered the moth-eaten script for this ramshackle romp, something monumentally negligible in the annals of cats chasing their tails on the movie screen.

Puroprtedly based on the real-life exploits of modern-day bounty hunter Ralph "Papa" Thorson, "The Hunter," now at area theaters, is a self-destructive muddle in which McQueen's once imposing screen persona gets whittled down still further to somewhere between the Paul Williams and Herve Villechaise stages. McQueen is so mopy and taciturn as Thorson that he seems to be holding a grumbling grudge against those who made the movie. Of course, it would be justifiable grumbicide.

Thorson's life was considered hot movie property by producer Mort Engelberg, whom Paramount claims as having considered McQueen the only possible actor to play the role -- even though Paramount also describes the real Thorson as "a huge, full-bearded man, 6-foot-2, 300 pounds." Perhaps Orson Welles was unavailable.

McQueen sulks, shuffles and mutters his way through a formless narrative that offers up a few paltry examples of the 5,000 bail-jumping fugitives that Thorson reputedly corraled during his 30-year career as a freelance vigilante. tAn outrageously primitive screenplay by Ted Leighton and Peter Hyams strings out meager strands of plot floss to tie the nabbing sessions together; Papa's girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold) is exceedingly pregnant, for one, and vengful psycho (Tracy Walter) once nabbed by Papa pops up now and then threatning to kill him.

Characterization is limited to ascribing a number of eccentricities to Papa: he likes opera (for the first half of the movie, that is), his dog growls at him, he merrily crashes into other people's cars with his dreadful driving, he had a houseful of poker-playing cronies, and he's decent enough to hire as a handyman one of the jailbirds he's helped catch (LeVar Burton, in his most demeaning role yet). Somehow none of this adds up to the most unforgettable character anybody ever met, or even a minimally credible one.

Director Buzz Kulik is best known for his work in TV movies and should stay there, in a medium where stylelessness is prized and strictly-by-the-numbers is an all-purpose elixir. Not even the few action sequences inserted to wake the movie up got anything approaching a fresh or distinctive touch. A chase between a Camaro and a harvesting machine in a cornfield has certain visual possibilities that are all but ignored, and the movie's set piece, a chase through Chicago that ends when a car plunges off the city's famous Marina Towers apartment building, would be detivative even if the Blues Brothers hadn't trounced the city into delirium earlier in the summer.

Papa's motivations and values are left lazily vague. He fights with his girlfriend over the imminent baby because "you gotta to be crazy to bring a kid into this garbage-can world," a remark prompted by the suicide of a cop friend that Papa does nothing to prevent. Kulik and company apparently thought that by this time McQueen can play maverick loners in his sleep. So he does.

This couldn't be much of a boon to a movie career whose most recent turns include a disatrous, largely unseen McQueen version of "Enemy of the People" and the abortively released "Tom Horn," a film that may take the record for fast disappearance from "Can't Stop The Music" and "The Gong Show Movie."

"The Hunter" is also another of those movies in which characters are so maddeningly inarticulate that one wonders how they manage to breathe and blink. When Papa's out of town tracking anoter fugitive, Harrold is menaced by the psycho in an incident meant to be horrifying. Yet when he returns, she never mentions it to him.

Abysmally photographed by Fred J. Koenekamp and lit so that, in interior shots, people cast shadows like there's no tomorrow, the film would be merely tedious if not for the ludicrous touch of Michel Legrand's musical score. It lurches from mawkish melodramatic bombast to yechy romantic slop; to say it suffers from a split personality isn't the half of it, but the movie's problem is that it sufferes from having no personality whatsoever.

Even this garbage-can world deserves a better grade of junk.