Since World War II spawned its share of war-themed movies, both direct and indirect, it's only natural that our era does the same, especially given that the Iraq War has gone on for several years now. A lot of movies over the past four or five years have dealt with the attacks in New York, soldiers in war, prisoners of war, and endless variations on these and other themes. Even the recent Western 3:10 to Yuma, hidden underneath its character-driven gun slinging, has a little something to say about the occupation. Most movies tackle their subject head-on, such as the numerous documentaries of the past few years and films like United 93 and World Trade Center as well as war films about other eras like Letters from Iwo Jima and Days of Glory. How refreshing, then, to see a movie like Richard Shepard's The Hunting Party, which has on its mind the topic of war criminals still at large. It wants to know why the U.S. has been unable to find certain outlaws, when just about any civilian with a passport, the price of a drink and a line of B.S. can do it. But instead of grousing or hand wringing, it becomes a spry, surprising and intelligent comedy.
The movie is told through the point of view of a TV news cameraman nicknamed Duck (Terrence Howard), who once worked together with reporter Simon Hunt (Richard Gere) in any Third World war zone worth covering. Their lives together were dangerous and exciting. They dodged explosions, drank in dive bars and romanced local girls. But when the tragedy got to be too much for Simon, he melted down on the air, effectively ending the relationship. Duck has since been promoted to a highly paid New York studio job, while Simon works for increasingly desperate TV stations so far off the radar that he eventually disappears. For the five-year anniversary of the end of the war in Bosnia, Duck, a polished TV anchorman (a perfectly cast James Brolin) and a network executive's son, Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg), arrive to cover a routine press conference. Simon is also there, and he convinces Duck to help him cover the story of the decade: finding an infamous war criminal known as The Fox (Ljubomir Kerekes) with a $5 million bounty on his head.
From there, writer/director Richard Shepard takes his characters on a real ride, juxtaposing the prefab press conference with seat-of-your-pants journalism, which involves sniffing out leads, blundering into fresh information and a lot of drinking. As with his lively, highly enjoyable 2005 film The Matador, Shepard has a gift for exciting suspense, which then gives rise to intelligent humor. In a lesser film, creating humor out of tension can often result in a sickly, dreadful feeling, but Shepard's films employ anticipation rather than dread. The unexpected usually happens; in one sequence, our trio stops for lunch at a roadside café and a waiter overhears their conversation about The Fox. When they leave, the waiter fires a few bullets at their car, but -- it turns out -- not because of The Fox. He's shooting because the perpetually broke Simon has stolen the money from the table. The scene starts out tense, but turns into humor. This sense of the unpredictable runs right up until the film's end; it's impossible to guess the fate of The Fox at the hands of our three adventurers.
Of course, The Hunting Party is based on many real people and events, but Shepard avoids the usual reverential treatment. Most "true stories" get so bogged down in research and in paying proper, respectful homage to the real people that they forget to actually make a movie. Shepard refuses to buckle under and become a slave to such things. He has been truly inspired by the lunacy of the real events and runs with them, making them the crazy centerpiece of the movie and providing a fictional cushion around them. (The movie's opening line is "only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true," and the end credits go on to explain just what he means by that.)
As for the movie's heart, Shepard has once again succeeded by finding an unlikely duo for his male bonding story. In The Matador, hired killer Pierce Brosnan and businessman Greg Kinnear connected on a level more organic than the usual romantic comedy formula in which one partner "fixes" the other. The same happens here with Gere and Howard; Shepard makes their history together a palpable thing. Duck doesn't just act out of guilt or the promise of a great story. He acts because he truly feels friendship toward his old partner. Gere brings a great deal of energy to his role, and his enthusiasm for the story is infectious. The Benjamin character -- the equivalent to Hope Davis' "Bean" character in The Matador -- is an ingenious addition as well. He's Ivy League educated, but also smart enough to know that his book learning may not apply to the real world. Moreover, having this amateur around allows Duck and Simon to explain their history and business to the audience without sounding like gratuitous exposition.
Finally, Shepard actually hauled his entire cast and crew to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina for that final touch, an authentic, war-torn backdrop to his rich, detailed characters and situations. The entire package has a genuine personality, and a playful one at that, something entirely too rare in movies. And when it comes time for Shepard to ask his question about war and war criminals, he includes it with the regular flow of the movie; it's not tacked on, and it doesn't change the movie's tone. He's not angry, or even exasperated, and he's not out to teach or preach. He sees the absurdity of the entire situation and invites us to see it too.
For more on The Hunting Party, see James' interview with writer-director Richard Shephard.