Hunting Party, The: Richard Shepard’s Political Thriller, Starring Richard Gere and Terrence Howard

Lacking dramatic credibility or historical authenticity, Richard Shepard’s The Hunting Party is a schizoid movie that can’t decide what it is about, what approach to take to its potentially interesting issues, and in what tone to describe them.

Part political chronicle of the Bosnian wars and their aftermath, part anatomy of what it means to be a journalist in inflammatory contexts, part dissection of male camaraderie, part coming-of-age saga of a young rich journo into the “real” world, “Hunting Party” is a disappointing picture on any of these levels, failing to fulfil expectations of its generic strands. End result is a political adventure that may gain visibility due to its star cast of Richard Gere and Terrence Howard (Oscar nominee for “Hustle & Flow”).

By today’s standards of political thrillers, “Hunting Party” is way below the standards of these pictures, to use Michael Winterbottom’s “A Mighty Heart,” about the assassination of journo Daniel Pearl, or the upcoming political actioner “The Kingdom,” which is set in Saudi Arabia at the same time as Shepard’s picture and stars Jamie Foxx.

Relatively speaking, of its various but confused strands, the friendship elements in “Hunting Party” are the most effective, or at least the most enjoyable.

Story is told in voice-over from the POV of Duck (Terence Howard), a young, handsome cameraman turn big shot exec-producer. Duck recalls the “glorious” times, when he and macho TV News reporter Simon Hunt (Richard Gere) worked in the world’s hottest war zones, from Bosnia to Iraq, from Somalia to El Salvador. Together, he says, they have dodged bullets, filed incisive reports, and collected Emmy Awards.

Then, on a terrible day in a Bosnian village everything changes. During a live broadcast on national television, Simon has a meltdown, which is at first concealed from us and later revealed. After that traumatic event, Duck is promoted to the executive level, sporting elegant suits, and Simon disappears into the void.

Cut to five years later, 2000, when Duck returns to Sarajevo with rookie reporter Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg, who was so good in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale”) to cover the fifth anniversary of the end of the war.

Out of the blue, an older, unkempt Simon shows up, like ghost from the past. Though time-weathered, Simon claims he holds the promise of a hot world-exclusive news story. To that extent, he convinces Duck that he knows the whereabouts of Bosnias most wanted war criminal, The Fox, a hunter of both humans and animals.

Armed with only spurious information, the trio–Simon, Duck and Benjamin–embark on a dark, dangerous mission that takes them deep into hostile territory. From that point, on, the tale unfolds as sort of a mystery. Will the threesome survive as a unit Will one of them live to report what sounds like the scoop of a lifetime, a story that will forever change their careers and lives.

Written and directed by Richard Shepard, who previously helmed “The Matador,” a picture starring Pierce Brosnan, “Hunting Party” is loosely based on an Esquire magazine article, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” by Scott Anderson. I recently read the original article, which is a somewhat bizarre, eccentric document of war reportage, an adventurous road trip with elements of black comedy, cautionary tale, and poignant political commentary.

The problem is that Shepard can’t decide whose story he is telling, and hence, for opportunistic reasons, he goes back and forth between Simon’s charismatic, irresponsible anti-hero and the more straight-laced Duck, who represents some sort of a moral or rational voiceup to a point. In voice-over, Duck reminisces nostalgically: Simon gave me balls I never knew I had. Of course, I got shot four times and Simon never got so much as a scratch.

At one point, Duck says, The UN, NATO, the CIA and every bounty hunter from here to Chuck Norris claim to be looking for him. He is not kidding. On TV screens in their hotels, we see glimpses of Chuck Norris’s right-wing fantasies of the 1980s, when he (and Sylvester Stallone in his “Rambo” pictures) went back to Vietnam, rescued American soldiers, killed the enemies like fliesin short, revised both the Vietnam War and American history.

Even in its approach to the Chuck Norris’ preposterous but commercially popular actioners, “Hunting Party” can’t decide whether it’s commenting and/or spoofing Chuck Norris, though I would claim that in his picture, Shepard ends up recreating a Norris-like fantasy-adventure.

Based on the commonsensical knowledge that, in wars, what the viewers read or see on their TV screens, and what actually happened, are two very different things, “Hunting Party” pretends to be telling us shocking and revelatory truths. Hence Simon tells Benjamin: Putting your life in danger is living, the rest is just television.

The film’s tone also changes from scene to scene, which is fine, if the director convinces us that he knew what he was doing. Outtakes and title cards (such as only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true) suggest a goofy black comedy. But mid-way, as the three men risk their lives while seeking the war criminal, the movie feels like a generic actioner or escape adventure that could have taken place anywhere. The movie sinks to a point of no return in a scene, in which the trio is about to be shotand saved at the very last moment by a risible development that caused giggles among critics.

Making things worse is the fact that all three central characters are stereotypes. As embodied by Richard Gere (who has played numerous charming psychos and dangerous low-lifes in his three-decade career), Simon is mythologized as a good yet realistic and cynical journalist. Once Simon sets his mind on a goal, he would pursue any avenue, legit and illegit, responsible and irresponsible, to get the story down. Says Simon, “Well, what the f–k are we doingwriting for Travel & Leisure

Though committed to his goal, in the midst of the proceedings, Simon says, Im going to do what any good journalist does when he gets to a new placeIm going to find a bar. And he does, with his two comrades dully following him. In the bar, Simon buys drinks for all the barflies, but with no money to pay, he barters Duck’s guitar, his most personable object.

Later on, however, having established that Simon is a flamboyant, bon-vivant reporter, “Hunting Party” humanizes and even sentimentalizes Simon by offering a personal and tragic love story with a local woman as crucial background for his present motivation.

Even more narrowly-defined is the character of Benjamin, a rich, spoiled educated boy and son of the network’s big boss. Burdened with a name like Benjamin, this kid needs to become a “real man,” and the only way to accomplish that is by spending time with and absorbing lessons from vets like Duck and especially Simon. Just laugh at all their jokes and dont stare at the midget, Simon tells Benjamin upon encountering a group of suspicious residents (which, indeed, includes a midget). At first, Benjamin worries and complains about every potential risk, but then he goes along with the ride, joining his mentors when they exclaim with gusto, “Let’s go and get ourselves some war criminals!”

Sporadically, once you have given up any belief in the story or its characters, “Hunting Party” offers a brisk, cheesy entertainment, in large part due to the likable performers and the behind-the-camera team, which includes director of photography David Tattersall (who shot “Green Mile” as well as Shepard’s “Matador”), production designer Jan Roelfs (who did work for Oliver Stone on both “Alexander” and “World Trade Center”), and costume designer Beatrix Pasztor (“Vanity Fair,” “Good Will Hunting”).

End Note

The Esquire article told the story of Anderson and four other journalists who travelled to Bosnia earlier that year. All five had worked as reporters in the Balkans during the war. Five years after the end of hostilities, in the summer of 2000, they returned to Sarajevo. Over a night of swapping stories, drinking beer and catching up they had an inspired, if somewhat harebrained, idea. Why not track down and capture the war criminal Radovan Karadicz With the help of a disaffected Serb police officer, who believed the journalists were a CIA hit squad, the five set about tracking down the most wanted man in Europe–until the real CIA showed up.

Cast

Simon Hunt – Richard Gere
Duck – Terrence Howard
Benjamin – Jesse Eisenberg
Mirjana – Diane Kruger
Duck’s Girlfriend – Joy Bryant
Franklin Harris – James Brolin
The Fox – Ljubomir Kerekes
Magda – Kristina Krepela
Chet – Dylan Baker
Boris – Mark Ivanir

Credits

A Weinstein Co. release of a Weinstein Co., QED, Intermedia presentation of a Mark Johnson, Intermedia, QED, Cherry Road production. Produced by Mark Johnson, Scott Kroopf, Bill Block. Executive producers, Bo Hyde, Martin Schuermann, Adam Merims, Paul Hanson. Directed, written by Richard Shepard, based on the Esquire article by Scott K. Anderson.
Camera (Technicolor/B&W, widescreen), David Tattersall; editor, Carole Kravetz-Aykanian; music, Rolfe Kent; music supervisor, Liza Richardson; production designer, Jan Roelfs; art director, Mario Ivezic; set decorator, Radha Mehta; costume designer, Beatrix Aruna Pasztor; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Reinhard Stergar; sound designer, Dane A. Davis; supervising sound editor, Davis; re-recording mixers, Matthew Iadarola, Gary Gegan; visual effects supervisor, Lon Molnar; special effects coordinators, Garth Inns, Marijan Karoglan; visual effects, Intelligent Creatures; stunt coordinators, Tom Delmar, Ivo Kristof; assistant directors, Richard L. Fox, Hr Zoran Sudar; second unit director, Arsen A. Ostojic; second unit camera, Vanja Cernjul; casting, Stephanie Corsalini, Joyce Nettles.

In Venice Film Festival — Venice Nights.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 104 Minutes
(English, Serbo-Croatian dialogue)