One has to admire a picture that tries to make an irreverent black comedy of one of the most awful episodes of modern history, and implicitly criticizes world powers for turning a blind eye when it comes to punishing those responsible for horrendous acts against humanity. But while Richard Shepard (“The Matador”) offers some sharp moments in “The Hunting Party,” as a whole his picture doesn’t hit the bull’s-eye. Very loosely based on a magazine article about some journalists who tried to track down Serbian war criminals still at large in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it offers a mixture of seriousness and humor that doesn’t quite gel.
Richard Gere stars as Simon Hunt, an intrepid, risk-taking TV correspondent who lost his network gig during the Bosnian war of the 1990s when he experienced an on-camera meltdown in reaction to the atrocities he’d witnessed. Ten years later, when Franklin Harris (James Brolin), the network anchorman, and Duck (Terrence Howard), Simon’s former cameraman (and sharer of his dangers), come to Bosnia to do a piece on the tenth anniversary of the war’s end, shaggy, rumpled Hunt—now a forgotten freelancer selling pieces to third-world outlets—approaches Duck to join him in following a lead to the whereabouts of the most notorious of the Serbian wanted men, the poet-general known as The Fox (Ljubomir Kerekes). Duck finally agrees to join his old buddy, despite the fact that he’s got a gorgeous girlfriend (Joy Bryant) waiting for him in Greece; and they’re joined by young Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg), son of a network bigwig, a callow journalism school graduate who’s sure the two men have a great deal to teach him.
Of course, their search hardly goes off without a hitch. Simon proves both deceptive and unwilling to play by any rules—though charmingly so, needless to say. Duck, meanwhile, is alternately bemused and appalled at his conduct, while Benjamin is the nervous Nellie of the group. But things really take a turn when the three are mistaken by UN peacekeeper Boris (Mark Ivanir) as a CIA hit squad and put in touch with an informant, Mirjana (Diane Kruger), who can actually direct them to their quarry. Eventually the trio does find The Fox, but not quite as they’d hoped.
The picture is alternately lighthearted (in terms of Simon’s offhandedly cynical attitude toward everybody and anything), bitingly satiric (as when a UN officer does a verbal dance about tracking down war criminals), crudely comic (for instance, when Boris is on the scene) and positively melodramatic (as when the trio visit a tavern that’s a haven of Serb nationalists, and even more so in flashbacks showing the reasons behind Hunt’s collapse ten years earlier). Though Shepard never succeeds in melding the various tones smoothly, he manages to juggle them reasonably well until the final reel, when a sequence involving the Fox’s brutal enforcer and a real CIA operative (Dylan Baker) comes across as bad action-movie stuff (presumably it’s intended as parody, but never quite works as such), only to be followed by a twist ending that’s entirely too reminiscent of “Marathon Man.”
But while “The Hunting Party” is at best a mixed bag, it’s fun to watch Gere let loose, leaving his matinee idol past behind in the same way he did in “The Hoax.” Howard’s not quite so lucky; he has a few choice moments, but mostly serves as a laid-back complement to Gere’s gleeful wildness. In the same way Eisenberg has the innocent abroad routine down pat, but is somewhat lost in Gere’s showier shadow. And while Brolin, Ivanir, Kruger, Kerekes and Baker do fine jobs, their roles are all quite subsidiary to the leads. There’s solid work from cinematographer David Tattersall, especially in view of location shooting that must have been extremely challenging, Jan Roelfs’ production design provides an appropriately hard-bitten look, and Carole Kravetz-Aykanian’s editing gives the picture a strong pace.
But the hyper-realistic appearance doesn’t jibe terribly well with Shepard’s approach, any more than the drama, farce and satire of “The Hunting Party” mesh in the end. As a result it’s a picture easier to respect for its ambition than to praise for its achievement.