Sep 4, 2007

On The Hunting Party

A darkly comedic, moralizing and ultimately bankrupt war journalism turned vigilante revenge tale, Richard Shepard’s The Hunting Party falls well short of its potential, albeit without much of a fuss; the film doesn’t realize it wants the viewer to take it seriously (which, somewhere, it does), even if the attuned spectator can’t help but try. Loosed based on true events is putting it lightly. The film, which at one point bore the infinitely more amusing title Spring Break In Bosnia before test audiences shot down that one bit of charm and wit, claims in its closing titles to be based on the experiences of several grizzled Bosnian war journalists who, years after the conflict, decided to journey up from Sarajevo to the mountains of Serbia in search of some of the world’s most wanted war criminals, many of whom are being actively hidden by sympathetic Serbians. Of course, those men sobered up and went back down the mountain (although not before being mistaken for CIA operatives), however, in recounting the tale of a fallen from grace, Peter Arnettesque war journalist (Richard Gere) who enlists his former cameraman (Terrence Howard) and a green, network executive’s son (Jesse Eisenberg, terrific) in a clandestine quest to capture a notorious Serbian war criminal dubbed “The Fox” (Ljubomir Kerekes), the film leaves the serious spectator angry and threatened by how little it’s willing to explore the fascinating aspects of a parochial and still nationalistic Serbian present; instead it’s easier to make these people into savages and morons, which it does with shrewd skill.

Shepard is at home in broad comedy, even when telling violent and morally complex tales, as he did in his hitman with a mid life crisis dramedy The Matador (slightly better), but this time out his sensibilities steer him toward ignorance and calculated manipulation of a probably all too willing audience. At least they didn’t trot out Rade Serbedzija to start killing people. Why would a filmmaker do such a disservice to his own critique of the cynical, unspoken pact NATO and the UN have made to not hunt down these men by including the absurd and offensive Hollywood ending contained in the final passages of The Hunting Party? Shepard’s trumped up assumption that these three American journalists could apprehend a man as slippery at “The Fox” makes the ending of Three Kings seem plausible and uncompromising. Dylan Baker, playing an American CIA operative, saves the trio and briefly embodies American malfeasance in a lamo monologue, but where’s the meat?

Even richer and more dubious is the poetic justice the Fox gets from the Gere, out to avenge his Bosnian Muslim lover, when he drops off his tied up body in a Muslim settlement. What is gained from giving the audience this satisfaction? Is it a mature representation of the aftermath of the war in the Balkans? Surely no one confuses Richard Shepard (The Matador) for a Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo) or Milcho Manchevski (Before The Rain), but to take an obscure Eastern European conflict from that long ago epoch known as the mid 90s and make it fodder for awkward comedic beats for Richard Gere seems suspect from the start. Jesse Eisenberg and Diane Kruger do terrific supporting work and Terrence Howard coasts along, but one is consistently surprised by how little authenticity manages to make its way into this picture, even if the bullet holes on the Sarajevo Holiday Inn are real. Amid the numerous American war films generating awards season buzz in Telluride, Aspen and Toronto this week, The Hunting Party brings up the rear. It takes a mordant and fascinating piece of recent European history and squanders it with its unwillingness to treat its audience like adults.