The dwarf Serb thug really existed, according to the end titles of "The Hunting Party," and there's the movie's underlying problem. When something seems too bizarre to be true, that's generally how it plays onscreen.
Richard Shepard's ironic romp through postwar Bosnia revels in such odd touches, though. The film is a comedy-drama about U.S. journalists tracking a war criminal, and if that sounds like an exceedingly tricky tone to pull off, it is. It worked reasonably well for Shepard's last movie, "The Matador," but genocide's hard to decorate as dark farce. "The Hunting Party" wants to get at political truths through audaciousness, but it keeps bumping into that problem of taste.
At least Richard Gere is in full gallop as Simon Hunt, a TV journalist legendary for having an on-camera meltdown in 1994 while reporting on a Serb massacre. Immediately canned, Simon has disappeared into the broadcast backwoods while his loyal cameraman, Duck (Terrence Howard), is called back to a desk job in New York.
Cut to five years later, and Duck is back in-country with preening anchorman Franklin Harris (James Brolin, playing it majestically dim) for an anniversary feature. Out of the woodwork appears Simon, grayer and the worse for booze. He has a lead on an interview with "the Fox" (Ljubomir Kerekes), the genocide's chief architect and a man on the run from the international community.
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Will Duck shed the suit and tie to go back into the field with his mentor? He has to or there won't be a movie. Coming along for the ride is Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg), an earnest young intern with a network executive father. Against Duck's better judgment, the three pile into a battered car and head into the mountain stronghold of the Fox, an effete type surrounded by a ring of fanatical killers. If a U.N. peacekeeping officer (Mark Ivanir) wants to assume our boys are CIA officers preparing a hit, so much the better. It's possible, too, that Simon has another plan.
"The Hunting Party" alters idiots-abroad shenanigans with more trenchant matters -- death squads killing pregnant women and children, for one -- and the mix barely congeals. In his favor, Shepard knows how to juggle high-spirited goofiness with tragedy, and the film careens from laughter to the sharp intake of breath.
Gere gives the part his all as the journalist gone gonzo, but he is still fundamentally miscast, his inherent mellowness failing to give Simon the necessary Hunter S. Thompson edge. Howard, by contrast, looks as lost in the movie as Duck is in Bosnia.
The film is based on a 2000 Esquire article about five journalists who set out to find the real Radovan Karadzic, and we're assured that many of the wilder, woollier elements in the script actually occurred.
It doubtless makes a great tale told round the bar. On the screen, though, where you can see the real-world ghosts pressing in from the background, "The Hunting Party" muffs the timing. It's not springtime for Bosnia yet -- not by a long shot.