In Richard Shepard's follow-up to The Matador, neither substance nor style triumphs

The Hunting Party

on September 07, 2007 by Mark Keizer
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If Richard Shepard ( The Matador ) actually makes a comedy as black as he thinks The Hunting Party is, watch out—he'll have invented a new standard for stylish cynicism. Unfortunately, movies also require a plot, and when this one, inspired by Scott Anderson's Esquire magazine article about the hunt for a Bosnian War criminal, kicks into gear, it's neither as convincing nor as unique as the nuggets of glibness that drive our interest. But any director who ends his based-on-a-true-story film with an admission of what he fabricated demands a tip of the cap.

With Shepard's film and Lasse Hallström's The Hoax , 2007 has emerged as the year in which Richard Gere experimented with lower-budgeted, semi-fictional fare about scheming rascals who can talk their way around any problem. Here he plays Simon Hunt, a network war reporter who gets off on bulldozing into combat zones, accompanied by loyal cameraman Duck (Terrence Howard). Years of witnessing battlefield carnage have thickened both their skins, until Simon suffers a breakdown during a live report from Bosnia, something that only happens in movies about TV reporters who suffer breakdowns during live reports. His career finished, Hunt disappears, while Duck lands a cushy network gig in New York.

Five years later, Duck returns to Sarajevo with network anchor Franklin (James Brolin) for a report on the Bosnian aftermath. The country is still a shambles and Shepard, shooting in Sarajevo, doesn't spare us the burned-out buildings and rubble-strewn streets. Much to Duck's surprise, Simon appears from the Sarajevo ruins, older and grayer from having wandered the journalistic desert filing freelance reports and selling them to the highest bidder. Simon wants back in the game and has the perfect vehicle: an interview with The Fox (Ljubomir Kerekes), Bosnia's most notorious, and elusive, war criminal, whose secret whereabouts are no secret to Simon. So Duck reluctantly agrees to dump his tailored suits and risk his six-figure salary to help his old friend hunt The Fox, whose very name strikes fear into the locals.

Shepard is a clever director, so clever that when he's not being clever, the flaws become more obvious. The chase for The Fox, though not without its puckish moments, is mechanical. The movie has many points to make, cluttering the narrative as they jockey for attention, and too much doesn't pass the smell test. Howard ( Hustle and Flow ), whose career is cooling after a fast rise, is too strong a presence for us to believe he'd be dragged around by Simon for all those years. The pair is joined in its search by young Benjamin, the fortunate son of a network executive, played by Jesse Eisenberg ( The Squid and the Whale ), whose only speed is fidgety, even when bailing out the team during tense negotiations with Mirjana (Diana Kruger) an attractive contact. Mirjana, like the similarly handy U.N. peacekeeping official, thinks Simon and his team are CIA, a rumor Simon is in no hurry to dispel.

When it comes to visual and tonal inventiveness, Shepard is on to something. But unlike David Russell's Three Kings , which had style to spare but still retained credibility, too much of The Hunting Party 's design is not in service of its story but rather mostly bells and whistles, no matter how zingy and playful. And Shepard's attempt to personalize Simon's quest by making The Fox responsible for the death of his girlfriend vaguely disrespects those who've truly suffered.

He's telling the story of a post-war Bosnia so ignored by the international community, war criminals are free to list their names in the phone book. You can't make stuff like that up. But Shepard makes us think he did.
Distributor: MGM  
Cast: Richard Gere and Terrence Howard
Director/Screenwriter: Richard Shepard
Producers: Mark Johnson and Scott Kroopf
Genre: Comedy drama
Rating: R for strong language and some violent content
Running time: 103 min.
Release date: September 7, 2007
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