An international thriller dealing with the pursuit of a notorious war criminal may be a hard sell for moviegoers still digesting a steady diet of summer-tent-pole junk food, but audiences seeking out something a little more original, and willing to give writer/director Richard Shepard's fact-based follow-up to The Matador a chance, may be pleasantly surprised by this taut but humorous tale. Inspired by Scott Anderson's 2000 Esquire article "What I Did on My Summer Vacation," The Hunting Party follows a trio of journalists as they set out to locate an elusive Bosnian war criminal rumored to be hiding out in the mountains of Serbia five years after the war. In their quest to locate the sadistic Serbian leader, the journalists are unexpectedly mistaken for a CIA hit squad by a UN official, who assumes that the government really wants to capture the man who orchestrated the slaughter of entire villages. The more intensely the journalists deny their connection to the CIA, the more convinced the somewhat naïve UN official becomes that they are precisely what they claim not to be. Before they realize what's happening, the tables have turned and the hunters have become the hunted -- not only by the man they are attempting to smoke out of his hiding spot, but by the actual CIA as well.
For most folks, war is no laughing manner, but to the journalists entrenched in battle and determined to cover a conflict, a sense of humor -- and perhaps the occasional stiff drink -- are the only means of coping with the unspeakable horrors they witness day after bloody day. Of course, there's nothing funny about a bomb that doesn't know a soldier from a civilian, yet a deliberate step back and a thoughtful look at the larger picture often reveals absurdities that one can't help but laugh at: like the fact that the government that claims to want to catch a notorious Bosnian war criminal -- and has offered a five-million-dollar reward to anyone involved in his capture -- lists a "1-800" tip line that is only operational in the continental U.S. These are the kind of details that writer/director Richard Shepard is interested in. There's no question that the Bosnian War was a tragedy and that the innocents caught up in the fighting didn't deserve the grim fates they often met, but in order to understand why these things happened and prevent them from occurring again, it's imperative to grasp the causes and effects of such events. With The Hunting Party, Shepard focuses on the effects that the war has on the journalists who dodge machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades in search of the truth. Five years after the last shots of the Bosnian War have been fired, a group of journalists gather in the city to reconnect, drink heartily, and share their war stories. But one of the journalists -- a shamed television reporter who had a notorious on-air meltdown -- is notably absent. Like many burnt-out war correspondents, he has fallen on hard times -- and the prospect of a five-million-dollar paycheck and the story of a lifetime is simply too tempting to resist.
Cast as haggard journalist Simon Hunt, Richard Gere shares much in common with Pierce Brosnan's character in Shepard's 2005 sleeper hit, The Matador -- he's decidedly rough around the edges, his stressful line of work has done irrevocable damage to his psyche, yet through it all, he remains something of a lovable rogue whose unseemly streak is precisely the reason one warms to him. Arriving in the wake of such glossy Hollywood efforts as Chicago and Shall We Dance?, The Hunting Party presents a side of Gere that audiences haven't really witnessed as of late -- a disheveled, dejected, and unshaven side -- and the contrast between this and his most recent high-profile efforts makes him undeniably effective.
Hunt is determined to capture the evasive Serbian war criminal known as The Fox, but he realizes that his target is surrounded by loyal supporters and that he won't be able to accomplish his mission alone. As a result, Simon seeks out the assistance of his former cameraman Duck (Terrence Howard). Duck was the man behind the camera when Simon lost it on the air, and whereas Simon was relegated to obscurity after that fateful broadcast, Duck was granted a cushy job in New York City. An Oscar-nominated actor whose star-making performances in Hustle & Flow and Crash have recently propelled him onto the Hollywood A-list, Howard plays his character as a man who has perhaps grown a bit too comfortable in the safety of his New York job, and longs to get back out into the field, so to speak, and experience a bit of adventure. When Simon starts to lose it, Duck is the voice of reason, and Gere and Howard strike a fine balance as two old friends who represent the opposite sides of the same coin. Add Jesse Eisenberg into the mix as a rookie reporter named Benjamin who proves that inexperience and competence are two very different things (especially in one astounding scene), and Shepard achieves the perfect balance of seasoned cynicism, knowing caution, and calculated ambition.
However, it isn't just about the familiar American faces in Shepard's film, because he makes remarkable use of local talent as well. Croatian sitcom star Ljubomir Kerekes is absolutely chilling as The Fox, Mark Ivanir is great as UN official Boris (the man who initially mistakes the journalists as a CIA hit squad), and Branko Smiljanic strikes a menacing tone as a nine-fingered barkeep with a deadly secret. Likewise, a scene-stealing performance by Dylan Baker (who essayed similar roles in such previous Shepard films as Oxygen and The Matador) provides chills and laughs in equal measure.
In addition to assembling such a talented team of actors for his film, Shepard has also crafted a compelling story out of Anderson's original article. As a writer, Shepard has displayed remarkable growth over the years, and The Hunting Party shows that he's only improving. It's not easy to balance, comedy, action, drama, and thrills, but as with real life, Shepard's films frequently feature a mix of all these elements. With The Matador, Shepard seemed to truly hit his stride as a writer, and in The Hunting Party he proves that success was no fluke. Wisely, Shepard avoids political commentary to focus instead on the characters and the story at hand. The result is a thriller that, despite dealing with fairly heavy subject matter, never loses sight of its goal to entertain. Set at a satisfying pace, shot on location, and featuring plenty of naturalistic, handheld cinematography by David Tattersall (The Green Mile, Die Another Day, and the new Star Wars trilogy), The Hunting Party is an involving take on an incredible story that successfully accomplishes the rare feat of keeping the tension high, releasing the pressure with well-timed humor, and, ultimately, prompting the viewer to meditate on the true motivations behind U.S. involvement in world events.