It's not an easy thing to balance jocular irony and geopolitical earnestness in a film, and it's harder still when it's a film about war. David O. Russell somehow managed the feat in his 1999 Three Kings; Andrew Niccol fell somewhat short in his 2005 Nicholas Cage vehicle Lord of War; and now Richard Shepard has missed the mark altogether in The Hunting Party.
At the opening of the film onscreen text informs us that "Only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true." This playful boast is utter hogwash, as viewers will soon conclude themselves. Shepard's movie is about a down-on-his-luck American war correspondent, Simon (Richard Gere), who persuades his former cameraman, Duck (Terrence Howard), and a young TV producer, Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg), to accompany him on a lunatic mission to capture a Serbian war criminal known as "the Fox" (Ljubomir Kerekes), who has evaded UN authorities in Bosnia for years. In the course of their efforts, they are mistaken for CIA agents by a UN official and, after protesting to no avail, decide they might as well go along with the unintentional deception. Word of their "mission" ultimately reaches the Fox, however, and the hunters soon become the hunted. The subsequent cat-and-mousing features abductions, beatings, an intervention by the real CIA, a couple of face-to-face encounters with the Fox, and more than one execution avoided at the last second.
The problem with this "true" story is that nothing in those last two sentences actually happened. The Hunting Party is based on a 2000 Esquirearticle by Scott Anderson, which described how he and a few fellow war correspondents jokingly decided to see whether they could track the real-life Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic and, in the process, were mistaken for CIA men and ultimately reprimanded by authorities. But the edge-of-the-seat suspense and intrigue of Shephard's movie is pure invention: Anderson et al. never encountered Karadzic, and were never targeted by his minions. They certainly never succeeded in--well, I won't give away the film's conclusion; I'll just note that it's another fabrication, and a silly, obvious one at that. So while the basic premise of the movie may be ridiculous but true, it quickly wanders into the far less interesting terrain of the ridiculous and entirely made up.
It's not hard to see how this happened. Anderson's tale of kicking around Bosnia with his buds, half-pretending to be secret agents and amazed to discover that some people actually believed they were, was a neat little serving of black comedy. It just wasn't very cinematic. So Shepard (who also wrote the script) juiced it up with shootouts and chases through the woods, ransacked hotel rooms and near-beheadings. He also provided extra helpings of that most overused of Hollywood ingredients, backstory. Simon, the protagonist, is so weighed down by conflicting motivations--he's in it for money, for professional vindication, to avenge the murder of a girl he loved--it's a wonder he has the energy to do anything at all. "My whole situation," Simon explains at one point, "everything bad that's ever happened to me, was because of [the Fox]"--and, absurdly enough, in the fantasy context of the movie it's true.
None of this would necessarily matter if Shepard's film worked on its own terms, but it doesn't. It careens errantly from brazen whimsy to ponderous moralizing, with long expository stretches in between. (It needs, after all, to explain to us both a war and a fictional warlord's place in it.) A voiceover by Terrence Howard's character is deployed to get us over the rough patches, but it's too bland to add any real narrative momentum. And while Gere has moments of charm in the central performance, his character is patched together from too many disparate parts ever quite to come to life.
And then there's the dialogue. Though the film aims for an air of geopolitical sophistication, many of the exchanges are B-movie cliches: "She may seem beautiful to you, but she will cut your balls off and sell them as trinkets"; "Putting your life in danger is actually living. The rest is television"; "If I ever hear from you again, the CIA will be on you like a cheap suit from Men's Wearhouse." Black comedy requires a drier wit than this; without it, we get a half-hearted action flick burdened with geopolitics.
The Hunting Party is not a terrible movie. But it is a clumsy, frustrating one, an ill-conceived effort to inflate an ironic Esquire article into a grand, genre-melding black comedy/political thriller/action movie. Shepard managed a similar feat a couple of years ago with The Matador, a wickedly funny film about political assassination. But this time out, his reach exceeds his grasp, and the movie's contradictory impulses spin out in all directions. In Scott Anderson's original article, a lieutenant colonel actually told him, "You know, in my twenty years of service, this is the strangest thing I've ever been involved in. It'd make a helluva movie." If only.