Now that we're 1,500 days into the war in Iraq, it's about par for the course for Hollywood to start addressing the genocidal Bosnian conflict. Nothing says relevancy like a film made 12 years after the event.
Coming off the critical success of his debut, The Matador, filmmaker Richard Shepard steps into the difficult-to-master arena of political satire with The Hunting Party and comes up short. A shaggy-dog story that's a mishmash of cynical black comedy, male-bonding road movie, political critique and cautionary tale, one has to wonder whether the film's opening title card ("Only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true") is a rationalization for the The Hunting Party's unfocused storytelling and hard-to-swallow contrivances.
Very loosely based on Scott Anderson's Esquire magazine article, "What I Did on My Summer Vacation," we meet Simon Hunt (a jaunty Richard Gere), a washed-up TV war correspondent who, after an on-air meltdown during the Bosnian war, was fired by his network and now travels from one war-torn nation to the next, scraping together jobs. On the fifth anniversary of the war's end, Hunt reunites with his old cameraman Duck (Terrence Howard) in Sarajevo and convinces him to help track down Bosnia's most wanted war criminal, "The Fox," to bag the interview of a lifetime and a $2 million bounty. With fledgling reporter Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg) in tow, the two set off for the mountains, where they encounter Serbian loyalists, jaded UN officials and psychotic underworld killers. And, once the CIA gets involved, it just gets weirder.
War-ravaged landscapes have long provided terrific backdrops for tales of corruption and Wild West opportunism. Shot with chilling authenticity in shell-scarred Croatia, The Hunting Party clearly wants to be in the same league as David O. Russell's Three Kings, but never establishes a dramatic core strong enough to get there. Glib but shallow, Shepard struggles to balance caustic irony with life-threatening suspense, male-bonding with moral outrage. Unlike Russell, however, he isn't a deft enough director to weave together the conflicting styles. While his rambling story moves swiftly from one situation to the next, he never gains much ground.
Despite these obvious flaws, The Hunting Party does feature sharp dialogue and a few inspired ideas. Shepard captures the morbid sense of humor and suicidal confidence of reporters too long on the frontline. A recurring bit is how everyone from the locals to international officials believes the American reporters are actually CIA agents; it rings hilariously true.
There's also a poignant but far too subtle criticism of the Bush administration's lackadaisical hunt for Osama bin Laden, as international authorities let "elusive" genocidal criminals roam free for hours outside Sarajevo. But as much as Shepard seems to want to shame the world powers for letting this horrifying war escalate to the level it did, he never distills that impulse into a convincing dramatic moment.
Much like the awful Balkan tragedy that inspired it, Richard Shepard's The Hunting Party is a noisy and meandering mess that constantly engages our attention but never adds up to a compelling whole.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].