September 20, 2007

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The Hunting Party (R)
Richard Gere plays a TV reporter who loses his career and a large piece of his sanity during the war in Bosnia and then tries to regain a bit of both some five years later in The Hunting Party, a TV-journalism satire, war thriller black comedy thing.

Simon Hunt (Gere) and his cameraman Duck (Terrence Howard) are a successful war correspondent team. Though they are frequently shot at (and, in the case of Duck, occasionally hit), they love their job, darting between mortared buildings and ducking under buildings to capture footage of battles and then spending their evenings at the bar with eager locals. They are riding particularly high during the Bosnia conflict of the mid-1990s until the brutality of the war gets to Simon and he flips out on air. Afterwards, Duck heads to New York for a cushy cameraman’s job on the network news and Simon, having been canned, slips progressively further down the career ladder (basic cable, freelancing, work for foreign news agencies) until Duck loses track of him all together.

Five years after the end of the conflict, Duck travels back to Bosnia to cover the anniversary with his pompous news anchor and Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg), an over-eager young producer getting his foreign-travel feet wet at the insistence of his network vice president father. Duck meets up with fellow vets of Bosnian war coverage and, during a round of drinking, they explain the facts of war and the particular moral compromises of this war (did NATO and the UN strike bargains to let some of the worst war criminals run free?) to young Benjamin. When the gentlemen head upstairs to their respective hotels rooms, Duck finds another jaded reminder of wars past — Simon, drinking the liquor from his mini bar. Simon claims to be there for the anniversary as a freelancer and asks Duck to shoot his stand-up the next day, for old time sake. Duck agrees but then Simon starts to hedge about why he’s really there, some big story he wants Duck to work with him on.

Duck’s reluctant. He’s got a hot girlfriend waiting for him in Greece. Through a series of hints and jibes at how Duck has gone soft, Simon’s able to convince Duck to sign on to search for The Fox (Ljubomir Kerekes) the most notorious of the Serbian war criminals.

But wait, Duck’s not the only one whose interest is piqued by promise of real foreign correspondent work. Benjamin sees all the furtive looks and closely whispered conversations and figures out some fun is afoot — after all he “went to Harvard” as he tells Duck several times. Duck agrees to bring Benjamin along and the three set off to Serbian territory to hunt The Fox.

Eventually, we learn that Simon didn’t just crack on air — his reaction to the brutality he had just witnessed at the hands of The Fox and his men had a personal connection to Simon. Likewise, we realize Simon’s not hot to find The Fox just for potentially career making interview or even the $5 million bounty on the former leader’s head.

The movie zigzags from war correspondent caper to one man’s tale of vengeance to a rumination on how war is hell and back to comedy with jolts as jarring as the gear change on an old sedan. The movie feels like the kind of blustery story some photographer’s-vest-wearing war veteran tells to the young production assistant chippies at the bar of a journalist-infested foreign hotel. I suppose that might come from the fact that the movie started its life as a story in Esquire, which started out (according to Wikipedia) with a bunch of war correspondents drinking at a hotel bar. But the bragging tone (which is actually key to the movie’s success) doesn’t always hold up — the turns into seriousness are a little too sharp. And an early overdose of Howard’s narration is so exposition heavy that you’re very nearly tired of the movie before it even gets going.

Despite this messiness, especially in the beginning, The Hunting Party eventually works out to be an entertaining, if bumpy, ride. Howard and Gere have decent chemistry together and Gere’s performance is just weird and desperate enough to really give his Simon more than just a scruffy appearance to work with for character development. Eisenberg’s character, clichéd though it is, works and after a while he feels like an organic part of this strange group.

As the find-The-Fox caper unfolds, we get into a realm of increasing absurdity — a midget black market salesman, a Serbian girl willing to sell out her people for a crack at ruling the illegal oil market, an overly dramatic UN official. The movie didn’t always completely make me buy these more theatrical flourishes but it didn’t get in the way of me enjoying them either. B

Rated R for strong language and some violent content. Written and directed by Richard Shepard, The Hunting Party is an hour and 43 minutes long and is distributed by MGM. The movie opens wide on Sept. 14.