The energy that propelled Richard Shepard's 2005 psychological action film "The Matador" is in short supply in "The Hunting Party." A political statement cloaked in the animal skin of satire, "Party" is more easily digested as a highly effective acting exercise than a brutal karate-chop to geopolitical-soft minds.
A lean, mean reporting machine team in the 1990s, cameraman Duck (Terrence Howard) and reporter Howard (Richard Gere) traveled around the world to find warzones that required their attention. The bravery gave them notoriety and success, but it also robbed Howard of his soul. Now in 2000, Duck arrives at the remains of Bosnia for a peace ceremony only to find Howard there begging for reporting scraps. As the two reconnect, Howard reveals a plan to find a war criminal (nicknamed "The Fox") forces such as the UN and NATO have found difficult to track. Bringing along an inexperienced news assistant (Jesse Eisenberg), the trio heads into the wilds of Eastern Europe on an impossible mission.
Much like "Matador," Shepard doesn't have a substantial dramatic road map with "Hunting Party," forgoing tight narrative control for a series of eccentricities and language-barrier anxiety sequences. It's a disjointed story that moves quickly from point to point as the team gathers clues, yet strangely doesn't seem to gain much ground as it plays.
Introduced as a slightly wacky satire of the salty egos involved with journalism and warzone reporting, "Party" soon abandons those intentions to transform into a mystery of sorts, as our anti-heroes track "The Fox" throughout the deadly Bosnian countryside and fall into major scrapes along the way (including being mistaken as CIA agents and harassed by a gangster in the form of a little person), sniffing around an area where they are not welcome. One can feel the heat of Shepard looking to mold a thriller out of these parts, but it never takes. The film is better suited as a character study than an art-house action picture.
Thankfully, Shepard has cast very well, especially in the team of Howard and Gere, who share superb chemistry. Their push-and-pull is the centerpiece of the film, with Duck's voice of doubt routinely silenced by Howard's cowboy attitude and enthusiasm for the chase. Whether Howard is hoping for a story or the monetary reward for the capture of "The Fox" is the lone piece of ambiguity that clicks in the film. Howard is great with bewilderment, while Gere can always be counted on to nail the finer points of ego and revulsion, and "Hunting Party" hums especially well during their moments of disagreement and professional brotherhood.
While "Hunting Party" is many things during the 100-minute running time, it only craves to be one specific thing at the very end: an indictment of global policies concerning war criminals. The point is accessible enough, underlining that the profitable global war machine would stop running without these boogeymen, but the delivery juts out of the film in the final moments instead of eased smoothly into the flow of the story. Shepard is too enamored of his soapbox pieces to concentrate on the whole, shoving "The Hunting Party" through thematic hoops it isn't prepared to handle.
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