In the summer of 2000, a group of journalists who’d covered the Bosnian war returned to the Balkans* for hugs, sun and memories. One of these journalists, Scott Anderson, wrote about their reunion in a high-profile Esquire article which describes how he and his friends “accidentally almost caught” wanted war criminal Radovan Karadzic, one of the genocide architects responsible for the rape and slaughter of thousands of Bosnian Muslims. The article — and The Hunting Party, which is partly based on it — questions why a few untrained civilians were able to locate, in a matter of days, a fugitive whom NATO, UN forces, the CIA and Interpol haven’t been able to apprehend over the course of years. This public spanking is exuberantly transposed to the film, whose epilogue suggests in bold white text that none of these agencies want certain war criminals caught, for various politico-ideological reasons. It’s a heavy topic that screams for a cinematic transfer, but director Richard Shepard goes against the grain; rather than taking The Killing Fields approach, he stages this event like a dramedy (expect nothing less — or more, depending on your tastes — from a guy who’s helmed a few Ugly Betty eps).
The Hunting Party opens with a montage: A foreign correspondent (Richard Gere) and his faithful camera operator (Terrence Howard) whoop it up through various war zones, enjoying adrenaline rushes that go all the way to their cocks at the expense of the locals. Duck the cameraman admits in voice-over narration that he got addicted to the erections brought on by the sight of carnage, and Simon the journalist preaches the decrepit saw that the only time you’re actually alive is when death’s breathing down your neck. Their jobs are painted as extreme sport at its most callously self-centered. Something happens, however, during the Bosnian war that breaks Simon’s jejune detachment and leads to his dropping out of the business altogether, until he resurfaces, years later, in Duck’s Sarajevo hotel room with the promise of a Great Story. Simon apparently knows where to start looking for a wanted genocidal maniac, an ex-general known as The Fox, long protected by Serb nationalists willing to conceal him and die for him in the Dinaric Alps. Along with Benjamin (the green son of a network vice president), Simon and Duck head into those same mountains seeking a killer interview, and/or the $5 million bounty placed on The Fox’s head.
The Bosnian war is underused subject matter ripe for cinematic exploration beyond earnest BBC documentaries and limited-market foreign indies. Pit Serb against Croat against Bosniak in the 1990s Balkan region, and your tensions and ironies are automatically built right in, ready to be added to or subverted or whatever the hell else an artist wants to try. This has certainly been done by local filmmakers and authors, but few outsiders have taken notice of the rich story potential that lingers in the region — wanting perhaps to avoid the controversy any take on the Bosnian war is bound to ignite. Shepard, a big advocate of location-shooting in uncommon locales, drenches our eyes with gaspingly beautiful shots of Sarajevo rooftops, Balkan mountain roads and Serbian villages. This is something North American audiences, post-1992, are rarely exposed to on a Hollywood scale, with this part of the world rendered so real and wide onscreen for mass consumption (I had a similar reaction to the souped-up Montenegro scenes in Casino Royale, but Shepard is much more devoted to the landscape, urban and rural, in his film). I’ve always considered 1960s industrial architecture to be extraordinarily photogenic, and this being Southeastern/Central Europe, we get a lot of that, too — much of it decayed, or burned out, or bullet-blasted, but still geometrically significant as it stands contrasted with the tiled roofs of Sarajevo houses or the unending breadth of forest. Whether Shepard does the region or the history any justice is a question best left to viewers with more direct experience than I possess — and even then, there are bound to be opposing reactions to the way the film presents the conflict and its lingering effects.
With such an interesting backdrop, The Hunting Party should have been an interesting movie, but instead we’re asked to attach ourselves to three stock characters who bored the living shit out of me: the half-mad cavalier crack professional, his wiseacre wing-man, and the wet-behind-the-ears college-boy pipsqueak who absorbs insults until he finally tests his wings and self-asserts at the most opportune moment. Stock characters can be wonderful and even purposeful when they’re delivered well, but Gere (the world’s most featureless actor) flattens flat; his watery face squints and blurs and sprouts hoary chin-hair and never really firms up long enough to convey stolid soul-searching. Howard is saddled with the usual “black” half of the standard buddy-flick combo, so there’s nothing much of consequence going on there, either (though an effort is made, I think, on both Howard’s and Shepard’s parts). The dialogue fizzles in that liminal region between wanting desperately to be catchy-original and just plain stinking up the screen (Duck: “This war’s complicated as hell.” Simon: “War’s hell; there ain’t nothing complicated about that.”) The Soderbergh-esque stills and close-ups aren’t enough to give this thing the edge it seems to be striving for, and the paper-thin Americans are surrounded by earthy locals whose own daily problems loom so large, they blot out any sense of relevance to the pickle the journalists create for themselves.
This is where the movie breaks down; The Hunting Party is pervaded by an ambiance of boy-scout naivete, the kind Hollywood action movies goldmastered in the ’80s (with frequent face-melting awesomeness), in which nothing is viewed by the main characters as more substantial than a joke until the typical Moment of Crisis (here involving a freaky Rhys Ifans doppelganger named Srdjan, if Ifans were a psychotic Serb nationalist with a nihilistic message branded on his brow in Cyrillic). There has to be a deliberate spoof of action and buddy flicks buried somewhere in The Hunting Party, because we’re treated to arch scenes of Chuck Norris rising out of a pond with his M-60 afire, referentially, throughout the movie. The locals are just too sinister, uttering things like “These woods know when there’s blood in the air” in thick tones, or lighting cigarettes in threatening ways during secret meetings in dark tunnels. But the clichés fall down just when they’re pulled out to prop the wink-wink-nudge-nudge up. Not even Dylan Baker as a cynical CIA veep can work this particular script.
Shepard’s purposes are on the record: he wants to collapse genre barriers and play mix-and-match with action, comedy, and everything else (something he aimed for in The Matador, as well). While genre-blending is a laudable goal (Bob’s your uncle when it succeeds), and while it’s certainly nothing new (we should, as viewers, be able to easily situate ourselves in these kinds of films), there’s something a little not-quite-happening with The Hunting Party that left me dissatisfied. A hardness is missing, a sense of control and direction, like the kind Russell wrought in Three Kings. The thing about genre-mixing — about writing well or filming well in general — is the need for what I call a Golden Thread, that one thing that furls through a short story, an essay, a documentary or an action film and ties everything together structurally with its gravitational pull, binding together any number of disparate or even contradictory elements in gorgeous, complementary paradox. It takes a capable hand to keep things united when diving into a barrel of concordia discors. Shepard’s isn’t firm enough, and while it’s tempting to suggest that the disjointed feel of the film is deliberate (to reflect the fractured politics of a region or the disorganization of international agencies), I think that would frankly be giving the direction too much credit. Everything feels too limp and elusive and unhinged. It’s Lethal Weapon superimposed over The Constant Gardener with too loose a grip, and when you’re grasping solids as heavy as war, rape, roadside executions and mental breakdowns, you need to own your work with more authority in order to reap the laughs. – Ranylt Richildis
*I know terms like “Balkan”, “Bosnian war”, “Central vs. Eastern Europe” and even “genocide” are contentious in the context of this historical event but, since no term will satisfy universally, I’ve opted to use the film’s lingo to save space — I’m long-winded enough as it is.
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on September 14, 2007.)