“Only the Most Ridiculous Parts of the Story Are True”
As I read this brief title card at the beginning of the new Richard Shephard (“The Matador”) film “The Hunting Party”, I suddenly realized something. For months, I have been watching a trailer for a different film. Funny thing is the film I saw was better than the film promoted by the trailer. Let me explain.
Over the course of many months, I saw the trailer for “The Hunting Party” many times. Every time I watched it, the film was painted as a fairly typical war story. Richard Gere plays a reporter covering stories in various war zones, Terrence Howard plays his cameraman. Together, they dodge a lot of bullets and explosions. Jesse Eisenberg (“Noah and the Whale”) plays a young newbie along for the ride. Every time I watched the trailer, I couldn’t help suppress a yawn. It appeared to be too conventional to have anything new to say.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I saw a television commercial for the film. This commercial was different; mentioning the film was directed by Richard Shepherd. Richard Shephard? The director of “The Matador”? “The Matador” was an unusual film, a dark comedy featuring great performances by Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear. It wasn’t one of my favorite films, but I appreciated the dark, offbeat sense of humor. When I learned “The Hunting Party” was a dark comedy, my interest became peaked.
Simon (Richard Gere) is a danger junkie. His job as a reporter for a major television network’s evening news has made him a star and he seems more comfortable wearing a pair of cargo pants and a camouflage vest, dodging bullets, than he would be at a dinner party enjoying conversation. His cameraman, Duck (Terrence Howard), has been with Simon for a lot of years and also gets an adrenaline hit from the danger, a rush he has become addicted to. Then, one day, Simon loses it. On live television. He is fired and Duck returns to New York to become the personal cameraman for the network’s news anchor Franklin Harris (James Brolin, doing a fun riff on Dan Rather). Five years later, Franklin and Duck return to Sarajevo to cover the ceremonies surrounding the anniversary of the end of the war in the Balkans. They take along Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg), the son of a network VP. Upon their arrival in Sarajevo, Duck immediately runs into Simon who now travels to various war zones doing freelance reports for any network that will pay for it. Simon has a crazy idea. He knows where “The Fox”, one of the most wanted war criminals, is and thinks they should go and try to get an interview, traveling into a very unsafe Serb area under the criminal’s control. It hasn’t escaped Simon’s attention that there is a $5 million dollar reward for The Fox. He could sure use the money.
“The Hunting Party” is based on a true story involving Sebastian Junger, the celebrated reporter and author of such books as “The Perfect Storm” and many Vanity Fair articles delving into the politics and history behind various war zones. Simon is based on Junger and some of his associates, who apparently came up with the idea of trying to capture a real war criminal in the Czech Republic while drunk. As the story unfolds, there are some outright hilarious moments as Simon, Duck and Benjamin prove they have more intelligence in their head than any of the UN forces charged with keeping the peace in the region. The US Government? Forget about it. After they get in a scrape, Simon and his friends are rescued by Chet (Dylan Baker), a member of an elite Spec Ops force of the US Government. Chet proves he is all bravado very quickly.
“Hunting” is about male bonding. Simon and Duck are friends, have lived through a lot together and are sad when events pull their friendship apart. Because this friendship lives in war zones, they also get an adrenaline high from the friendship, and the danger they face on a consistent basis. It is a sort of win-win relationship for them. When they are reunited haphazardly, you can see the relief on Simon’s face and the joy on Duck’s. Duck has been living a safe life in New York, as the cameraman for the network anchor. When he sees Simon, in Sarajevo, he immediately starts to think back to the life he once had, filled with danger and excitement. When Simon sees Duck, he realizes his friend has returned, he has someone to talk to, someone to help him, after being alone for a long period of time.
Each initially regards Benjamin as an interloper, a newbie, something they have to tolerate. He has led a sheltered life and he seems to regard the potential for danger as a new and thrilling chance to do something exciting with his life.
I have never been a huge fan of Richard Gere. But with his last few films, he is growing on me. In “The Hoax” he played Clifford Irving, a complex character and actually did a very good job. He was able to make his version of this real life person real to me. Now with his role in “The Hunting Party”, he goes two for two. As we watch Simon, we get a real sense of his character’s complete life. There is a brief segment at the beginning of the film, narrated by Duck, giving us an overview of their relationship to the point when he has his breakdown on national TV. As he does his live report, we see the pain in his eyes from all of the horror he has witnessed. Even though we have just seen brief snippets, we understand how he could have this breakdown. As soon as he and Duck are reunited, a wash of relief crosses his face. After five years of covering stories alone, in horrible war zones, he finally has a familiar and friendly face to deal with, a companion.
Then, when he announces his plan to Duck and Benjamin, we understand why he would consider such a deadly thing. He needs the money, he needs the excitement, and he needs the camaraderie. It is a nice turn from Gere.
Terrence Howard is also very good. From the opening frames, it is his voice narrating the moments we watch from their friendship. His lighthearted tone reveals a lot about how they really need each other.
Then, when Duck and Simon reunite in Sarajevo, Duck has become comfortable, but bored in his cushy job. As Simon reveals his plans, Duck is, at first, incredulous, but quickly jumps on board. He even goes so far as to postpone his meeting with a beautiful girl in Greece, a trip planned for after the coverage of the festivities in Sarajevo. The prospect of spending time with his friend, spending time alluding danger, is more attractive to him than spending time in Greece with a beautiful woman.
As Benjamin, Jesse Eisenberg is able to portray the new kid, adding an additional level to the relationship between the three men. Everything happening to them happens through his eyes for the first time. He is amazed, shocked, scared and overjoyed to be living this adventure. He doesn’t hesitate to mention he earned a degree from Harvard, which is also his battle cry for adventure. His life has been so sheltered, for so long he needs this to really come alive.
“Hunting” is funny and also an adventure. There are moments of ridiculous behavior and some very funny dialogue as the characters deal with all of the madness surrounding them. It is a dark comedy, which means there are also moments of seriousness, drama and danger. Combined together, they create a very interesting, watch able film. A much better film than the trailer would lead you to believe.