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09.12.07

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Photograph by Karen Ballard/Courtesy of the Weinstein Company
AMONG THE RUINS: Richard Gere and Terrence Howard sift through the rubble of war in 'The Hunting Party.'

After the Fox

Richard Gere drinks his way through the Balkans in snarky war comedy 'The Hunting Party'

By Richard von Busack


REMEMBER Garrison Keillor's comment about the TV news: "You could learn more about the world if you just drank gin out of the bottle." This bon mot is particularly descriptive of the 60-second bursts of international conflict offered by the networks. The "If it bleeds, it leads" style brings on reliable emotions: horror, despair and gratitude for the relative peace of one's living room.

The Hunting Party, Richard Shepard's follow-up to his evil comedy The Matador, focuses on the personal suffering of a still-in-Sarajevo American reporter, Simon (Richard Gere), who disgraced himself live on national TV and disappeared into badly paid freelancing.

Years pass. Long after the war is over, Simon's former cameraman and partner, Duck (Terrence Howard), turns up for a quick shoot in Sarajevo, just before joining his girlfriend on holiday in Greece.

Simon tracks Duck down. Although he has no money and a drinking problem, he also has a half-brained plan to interview the internationally wanted fugitive who helped engineer Balkan genocide. The killer's nom de guerre is "the Fox" (Ljubomir Kerekes), a Serbian nationalist hiding in the mountains, where he is protected by loyal, homicidal followers.

The two reporters take with them a deep-pocketed, grass-green intern, Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg), so unused to the area that he falls for a gag about how you have to watch your step at the Sarajevo airport because there are still mines underfoot. The three head off into the Serbian wilderness. Halfway up the mountains, Simon reveals the true scope of his mission. It isn't just to get the Fox's side of the story but to drag him back to justice.

A few drinks are necessary to catch up with the movie and with Simon. This alcohol-rich story plays all the most drunken emotions, from false bravado to weeping nostalgia to the blurted-out, offensive line of dialogue. Not that there's anything wrong with that—there's a long streak of movies that go with too much wine, from John Ford's Westerns to The Big Lebowski.

What's less likable is the way The Hunting Party tries to link the drunken self-indulgence of a once-slick reporter with the suffering of the people he is covering. That kind of math won't add up, even if Shepard cooks the books with a flashback about the atrocity that cracked Simon. Popular screenwriting insists on that one big instant, the straw that broke the back.

Yet The Hunting Party does have something: a deliberate rattiness, a deep lack of worry about committing offense. In those many moments when this kind of insouciance doesn't seem like a frat boy's crassness, it can appear almost like sophistication. There hasn't been a movie quite this raucous about the war between the press and the dark, conspiratorial side of U.S. policy since Oliver Stone's Salvador.

If Shepard doesn't take himself as seriously as Stone (thank God), he has also mixed in some real-life anecdotes, just as Stone did. The Hunting Party is a fictionalized adaptation of Scott K. Anderson's article for Esquire. The fictionalized stuff is obvious, such as the night meeting with some Dietrich of the Balkans who runs the local mafia; Diane Kruger plays her, and she gets to make a juicily accented threat: "Nyot even Gyod can hyelp you."

The story of the U.N.'s haplessness rings true; remember the nickname used for the United Nations in No Man's Land, because of their baby-blue helmets and their harmlessness, "The Smurfs." And the true-life failures are novel: such as the time NATO published an 1.800.We.tip number you couldn't dial anywhere but in America, or the failure to equip the United Nations with a list of the wanted, let alone office machinery that worked.

Just as Shepard brought out the sick-comic, caddish style of Pierce Brosnan in The Matador that wasn't often a part of Bond films, Shepherd wakes up Richard Gere. Gere has been a placid gray bore in his most recent films, so abstracted by his inner peace that you practically wanted to shake him. But he's avid here. It's a real change to see him as what they used to call a heel. Unfortunately, the genuinely exciting actor Terrence Howard slouches through the buddy role, idly picking at a guitar.

The ending in this wildly uneven movie is another let-down. After complaining about the limitations of American views into countries with old and complex histories, the upbeat finale looks like the perfect example of the kind of American simplemindedness Shepard wants to denounce. (And the film's title-card comment at the end about bin Laden is infuriatingly smug.)

Shepard is obviously far smarter than the ordinary director, but even his nerviness fails him. The film takes regular turns into cuteness—the kind of cuteness that can make network news a worse central-nervous-system depressant than hard alcohol.


Movie TimesTHE HUNTING PARTY (R; 104 min.), directed and written by Richard Shepard, photographed by David Tattersall and starring Richard Gere and Terrence Howard, opens Sept. 14 at selected theaters.


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