Judge Steve Power's hunting party never left the bar, and couldn't catch a cold.
Only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true.
Whether it was a victim of the Weinstein's less than successful post-Miramax distribution woes, confusion over how to market the film, or just a lack of confidence on behalf of the fickle producers; Director Richard Shepherd's follow-up to 2005's highly acclaimed hitman-cum-midlife crisis vehicle, The Matador wound up being widely overlooked in its limited release. In spite of some recognizable names in Richard Gere (The Jackal), Terrance Howard (Hustle and Flow), and Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network); The Hunting Party undeservedly garnered "dead on arrival" status both at the box office, and on home video. Given another breath of life on Blu-ray, this film is ripe for rediscovery, but is it worthy of it?
Facts of the Case
Simon Hunt's (Richard Gere, Pretty Woman) days of being a world renowned war correspondent are well behind him. Duck (Terrance Howard, Iron Man), his former cameraman and fellow action junkie, has moved on to more successful and prominent pastures. A chance reuniting in a Bosnian club brings the two back together again. Simon has a plan; he knows where to find "The Fox", a wanted war criminal with a multi-million dollar bounty on his head, and he wants to score the mother of all interviews. Along for the ride is the son of a news network vice president, Benjamin Strauss (Jessie Eisenberg, Zombieland). The Bosnian war is five years gone, but these three unlikely hunters will learn that there are still sides, battle lines, and conflict in the Balkans.
There have been relatively few cinematic excursions into the Balkan conflict; offhand I can recall Denis Tanovic's fantastic No Man's Land, and the rather execrable Owen Wilson action vehicle, Behind Enemy Lines. The Hunting Party doesn't try as hard as the former, but it's a hell of a lot more relevant and heartfelt than the latter. I was initially attracted to The Matador because of Pierce Brosnan's performance in the film, and how totally anti-James Bond it was at a time when everyone was talking about Brosnan's Bond. It was Richard Shepherd's glib writing however that really endeared the film to me. It was smart, sharp, and humorous; never quite cynical enough to become unlikeable, but weary. It's those qualities of Shepherd as a writer that really makes The Hunting Party equally, if not even more captivating. There are more than a handful of laughs here, the kind you feel really bad for, the kind of black humour that might discourage some. For others, it will take the edge off, and the humour is never played to a degree that it becomes insulting to the circumstances, or the true events that transpired in the war torn Balkan states. Shepherd's excellent screenplay is able to balance cutting sarcasm, biting criticism of the handling of the Balkan conflict on an international scale, and personal issues on the edge of a knife. And it handles each in such a fashion that the whole thing never becomes too preachy, melodramatic, depreciating, or condemning. It really is a fantastic bit of writing that deserves a much better fate than it received.
The cast is equally remarkable here. Richard Gere has a history of sameness in many of his roles, but here he bites into Simon Hunt like a hungry horse eating an apple. He devours the role, has a ton of fun with it, and brings the gravitas full on when it's required. I've seldom seen a better, more confident performance from Gere. Terrance Howard flexes his acting muscles as well, and does an admirable job of playing 'straight man' to Gere's desperate reporter. Granted, Gere overshadows him for much of the runtime, but it's more out of service to the screenplay than any weakness on Howard's behalf. Jesse Eisenberg rounds out our lead cast in another great performance that would hint at things to come in flicks like The Squid and the Whale or The Social Network, this is a fine early sample for an actor who has already proven himself to be A-list material even as young as he is. Once glance at The Hunting Party would be more than enough to prove that he's anything but another Michael Cera.
The supporting cast handles themselves well here also, with some great work from Josh Brolin (Jonah Hex) and Dylan Baker (in an awesome turn as a mysterious CIA operative).
The cast is well served with strong direction and some truly excellent production design, as well as a ton of talent pulled from the region depicted, making things all that much more immersive. The film never feels anything but authentic, and it looks suitably torn asunder and earthy. The streets, homes, squares, and people look haggard and broken, hammered by civil war. Shepherd's attention to detail is top notch.
On the technical side, the 1080p AVC encoded disc looks great, capturing the naturally grainy look of the film and the washed out colors perfectly. It's not the sort of disc you use to show off your fancy display, but the fine detail and colors pop with clarity. The audio is suitably loud and bombastic, with battle scenes featuring an aggressive mix full of ambiance and low end rumble. Again, it won't sell home theatres, but it gets the job done well, and suits the nature of the film.
On the extras side, everything is ported over from the decent 2008 DVD release: Director Richard Shepherd's talkative and energetic commentary track that's well worth a listen, a few deleted scenes that also feature commentary, and a slightly showy 10 minute featurette about the making of the film that feels more like an extended commercial.
The best stuff relates to the actual basis for the film: The half hour interview with the "real" Hunting Party, conducted by Richard Shepherd with Journalists Scott K Anderson and John Falk, and of course, the original Esquire magazine article by Anderson, "How I Spent My Summer Vacation," which is a fascinating read.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film states that it is based on a true story, an Esquire Magazine article entitled, "How I Spent my Summer Vacation." This implies that it has some basis in reality, and this is The Hunting Party's biggest failing. In truth, 5 journalists did go seeking a wanted Bosnian war criminal, and they did butt heads with the UN, and covert operator types, but the similarities between the fact and the fiction are few and far between. It's more Three Kings than Black Hawk Down, an entirely fictional tale inspired by real events.
The Hunting Party, in spite of its use of fact vs. fiction, makes for an entertaining and engaging look at a conflict that's seldom been seen by mainstream movie goers. The facts may not be checked, but within the context of the film and its story, they really aren't important. It is to the Balkan conflict of the late 20th century what Three Kings was to the first war in the Persian Gulf. The Blu-ray is a solid offering, and though there isn't much new to speak of, the extras ported from the DVD release serve the film very well and are worth a look.
Acquitted! This is a gem of a film that's worth seeking out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
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