The Hunting Party – DVD Review

Available Amazon.com

Be Vewwy Vewwy Quiet, I’m Hunting War Criminals.

Writer/Director Richard Shepard is hitting his stride. Before The Matador, which saw a rejuvenated Pierce Brosnan playing a hit man suffering through a mid-life crisis, Shepard directed a pair of small-budget thrillers with actress Maura Tierney – a friend from NYU. Both failed to have much of a life on home video, but the Pierce Brosnan flick certainly gained an audience.

Like Brosnan, Richard Gere is an actor that is due for a reboot. Over the years he’s been seemingly upstaged by the likes of Edward Norton (Primal Fear) and Diane Lane (Unfaithful). With an Oscar nod for his performance in 2002’s Best Picture winner Chicago, his next few films failed to attract audiences. The same can also be said for this film. But like Shepard’s previous effort The Hunting Party will surely find its audience on DVD.

The film is a docudrama based on an Esquire article by Scott K. Anderson titled “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” This is a cute title that is oftentimes the subject of essays written by elementary schoolers on the first day of school. But in this case Anderson wasn’t writing about a trip to the beach. His piece was on five veteran war reporters who went out searching for an international war criminal in the spring of 2001. The purpose wasn’t an interview; they wanted to capture him.

Richard Gere plays Simon Hunt, a once-respected news journalist whose on-air meltdown leads to a fall from grace. After a few dozen news jobs, each more and more shameless, he drops off the radar. There to witness Hunt’s fall is his cameraman Duck (played by Terrence Howard). His name is fitting, because when the film opens he’s ducking to avoid bullets and flying shards from nearby explosions. While Simon falls, Duck lands on his feet and finds himself working a cushy gig for the network – thousands of miles away from crimes of war – paired with veteran newsman Franklin Harris (James Brolin).

Five years later, Simon and Duck find themselves reunited. Simon is still a man without a network affiliate, but he’s got a lead on a big story – the whereabouts of one of Bosnia’s most notorious (and most wanted) war criminals. He enlists Duck’s help. Back in the fold Duck gets his second wind; he starts to feel that adrenaline rush of being on the frontlines. The friendship Simon and Duck have is in some ways like Shane Black’s buddy-cop pictures (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout), full of sarcastic wit, only here Shepard applies it to a war-torn setting. He is able to bring levity to a serious situation, while giving us a different perspective on the subject of war.

Both The Hunting Party and The Matador explore themes about men who have a feeling of detachment. For Brosnan’s character it was about growing old and losing that killer instinct. For Gere, having someone close to him perish at the hands of a war criminal was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and the reason for his on-air meltdown.

When Duck agrees to be Simon’s cameraman he figures it’s for this big story. But Simon has other intentions. He wants to capture “The Fox” (Ljubomir Kerekes), a war criminal who has killed thousands of Muslims, including the woman he loved. Joining this ebony and ivory duo is Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg), a Harvard journalism grad – and the son of the VP of Simon’s old network – who has come to Bosnia with Duck to work on his reporting skills.

On looks and appearance there’s no way this trio should have clicked. Richard Gere’s the heavy, Howard’s the base – the witness and narrator to the story – and Eisenberg is the twitchy one. But the team plays off each other beautifully, and in one scene Harvard Boy outshines his esteemed counterparts.

This loud, rock’em sock’em war picture is an action-comedy that leans to satire. While Shepard’s film seems to end abruptly, it still has a lot going for it. There’s his elaboration of male relationships and the mysteries and melancholies therein. Emphasizing the faults of the Simon Hunt. A mixture of comedy and drama – with some thrills – The Hunting Party is always funny and engaging. Besides, not many based-on-a-true-story stories can claim that.

For its home release, we get a solid 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Shepard uses a bizarre array of camera angles, all of which look crisp on DVD. And then there’s his location graphics and titles in big font. Again, another great representation. Despite having a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, there are scenes and sequences where it is soft. This requires a bit of fiddling with the volume button on the remote control, except for times when gunfire or explosions are happening. Then, all is well. The disc also includes optional subtitles in both English and Spanish.

Richard Shepard gives his thoughts about the production in an amusing commentary that has him talking of the genesis of the project, and pointing out shooting locations and where CGI was used – in places you wouldn’t expect. Other extras include the theatrical trailer, a nine-minute making-of featurette, and six deleted scenes – with optional Shepard commentary – that have a total running time of five minutes and 22 seconds. Aside from Richard Shepard’s commentary the only other feature on the disc with any real meat is The Real Hunting Party, a 30-minute Q & A with Shepard and two of the five real-life journalists for which The Hunting Party is based.

The Hunting Party is a satirical jaunt through the world of modern warfare, and contains more wit and humor than any recent big-budget comedy. Writer/director Richard Shepard has shown with films like The Matador that he can take the most unlikely situations – a businessman and hit man bonding – and make it work. This DVD release has good visuals and nice selection of extras, especially the Q & A. Combined with the film, it makes for an easy recommendation.
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The Weinstein Company presents The Hunting Party. Written and directed by Richard Shepard. Starring Richard Gere, Terrence Howard, Jesse Eisenberg, and James Brolin. Running time: 101 minutes. Rated R. Released on DVD: January 22, 2008. Available at Amazon.com