We’ve always trusted Richard Gere. We trusted him when he tried to pimp his girlfriend to a rich man in “Days of Heaven.” We trusted him when he decided to make a prostitute his girlfriend in “Pretty Woman.” Now, in “The Hunting Party,” we trust him as he foregoes girlfriends and prostitutes altogether and instead pursues Bosnian war criminals. Unfortunately, writer-director Richard Shepard does not trust our trust, or our intelligence. Initially an exciting, funny film, “The Hunting Party” drags when it works too hard to explain itself to its audience.
The film starts off strong. Gere plays down-and-out war reporter Simon, a journalist who hopes to salvage his career by nailing an interview with The Fox, an elusive Bosnian warlord. Trailing behind are Duck (Terrance Howard) and Ben (Jesse Eisenberg, of “The Squid and the Whale” fame). Duck is Simon’s former cameraman and great admirer; Ben is Duck’s nerdy, bumbling assistant. The trio makes their way from Sarajevo to the warlord’s secret mountain hideout, where the stakes are raised when Simon reveals that his true intention is to assassinate The Fox. The quest for an interview thus transforms into a manhunt, and misadventure ensues.
All of this is very fun. Shepard creates a cartoon Bosnia in which his characters roam, realizing that the news media’s sober depictions of the region have failed to convey its complexity. Thus, as Simon and Duck and Ben make their way up the mountain, they are followed not by Eastern European men, but by Hollywood’s idea of Eastern European men — that is, tough, greasy, intimidating men who drink and have guns. The caricatures (complete with cheesy facial zoom-ins) create an atmosphere drenched in irony, and the first part of “The Hunting Party” carries the energy and self-aware rhythms of a good Bond movie.
Unfortunately for “The Hunting Party,” this energy is eventually drained by Shep’s over-eagerness to make a meaningful point. A film about an inept government’s hunt for a war criminal, “The Hunting Party” sets itself up as a metaphor for the U.S. government’s inept hunt for Osama Bin Laden. To prove its seriousness, the film occasionally breaks from its humorous portrayal of war into something much more somber, cutting its punk rock soundtrack and showing people dying in bloody, un-cinematic ways. This momentary lifting of the farce is very effective the first time, but towards the end of “The Hunting Party” it recurs so frequently that it leaves the audience confused. With the film’s comedic momentum destroyed, the audience wades through a final forty minutes of ineffective pot shots at the U.N. and the Bush administration.
Howard and Gere form a decent duo, but Howard’s performance is disappointingly muted. He usually plays strong, confident men, and it is surprising to watch him acquiesce to Gere’s charisma in “The Hunting Party,” literally taking the backseat as Gere drives up and down Bosnia, literally following Gere as he runs over mine fields. Luckily, Gere doesn’t have to carry the whole show: Eisenberg makes an excellent fall guy as Benjamin, acting as the butt of jokes while also providing a regular reality check on Gere and Howard’s characters. At one point a caricatured Serb warns the journalists that “The Fox knows everything,” glaring at them ominously and then stalking away ominously. Gere and Howard let their characters take the melodramatic news stoically, like movie characters should; Eisenberg, however, asks in the most quotidian voice possible, “Okay, what the fuck was that about?” His character acts as the movie’s self-aware mouthpiece, making up for some of the potential lost in Howard’s lackluster effort.
In the end, the trio captures The Fox, but the happy conclusion feels tacked on — even our trust in Gere can’t really justify it. Richard Shep is a good director, but he should let his audience pick up on his messages, rather than spoon-feed them at the expense of his film’s unity.