With 2005’s “The Matador,” writer-director Richard Shepard slyly and effectively mined the possibilities of dark humor in a deadly situation: a washed-up hit man on the verge of burnout.
In “The Hunting Party,” he applies the same tactic in an even bleaker place: Bosnia, where a group of journalists seeks out a wanted war criminal to ... Interview him? Capture him?
Even they’re not quite sure what they’d do if they found him.
Shepard has made a rock ’n’ roll war postwar picture, one that’s slick and stylish but has something to say. Shot on location in Bosnia and Croatia, it conveys a visceral sense of decay and loss. And Shepard strikes just the right absurd, satirical tone until near the end, when he allows the film to take some turns that wrap things up a bit too conveniently.
Richard Gere, Terrence Howard and Jesse Eisenberg play off each other beautifully throughout, though, as the mismatched trio whose adventures are based on some of the real-life events detailed in an Esquire magazine article by Scott Anderson.
As veteran TV news correspondent Simon Hunt, Gere has covered conflicts around the globe and has seen it all — until he sees too much one day in Bosnia, causing him to snap and deliver an epic meltdown live on the air. (James Brolin is a perfect casting choice as the pompous anchor on the receiving end of this tirade back in the air-conditioned New York studio.)
Drunk, glib and self-destructive, Simon shows glimmers of the irresistible cad Pierce Brosnan played in “The Matador,” except that he has more drive. Five years after the end of fighting in Bosnia, he thinks he has a phenomenal scoop that will help him revive his career: He knows the location of the feared war criminal known as “The Fox” (Ljubomir Kerekes), who murdered thousands of Bosnian Muslims and has since gone into hiding in the mountains.
Simon enlists old pal and longtime cameraman Duck (Howard) to join him on this quest. Back in their heyday, Duck would have been up for anything, and in the film’s whiz-bang opening, you see the two of them cracking wise while dodging bullets. Now, Duck has a cushy network gig but he still longs for the rush of his former life in the field. And so he says yes to Simon’s crazy plan, even though he has a gorgeous woman (Joy Bryant) waiting for him to join her on vacation after he finishes up his work in Bosnia.
The third member of their makeshift team is Benjamin (Eisenberg of “The Squid and the Whale”), a jittery newbie — and the son of a network executive — who comes along for the ride to earn his reporting chops. Armed with only his Harvard education, which he annoyingly keeps reminding his colleagues about, he’s ill-prepared for the dangers that await him. (But he does show hilariously surprising improv skills during a meeting with a sexy informant, played by Diane Kruger of “Troy.”)
Each is the same guy throughout — Simon is obsessed, Duck is bemused and Benjamin is neurotic — but they tool on each other incessantly, and it works. One scene, in which Duck rides in the back seat of the rental car playing the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” on a beat-up acoustic guitar, exemplifies their interaction perfectly.
For most of the time, “The Hunting Party” has a real edge to it, and it’s definitely on to something in its attempt to call out international leaders for their failure to track down war criminals and bring them to justice. That’s why it’s so baffling when the film goes soft in its explanation for Simon’s collapse, and in the fate that befalls The Fox. (Gere himself, who’s done some of the best work of his career this year between this and “The Hoax,” openly is at odds with Shepard over the conclusion.)
War is messy, and a movie that so vividly depicts its messiness shouldn’t end so tidily.