Proceeding with the same tone of cynical world-weariness that proved a mixed blessing in his debut feature, “The Matador,” writer-director Richard Shepard fictionalizes a real-life tale of journos recklessly tracking down a Bosnian war criminal in “The Hunting Party.” Alternately glib, superficial and amusing, pic vainly attempts to absorb some degree of Serbian irony into a story that’s unavoidably lessened by its privileged American vantage point. The war-can-be-fun mood may not go over well in the current climate, serving up major challenges for MGM (handling Stateside release) and QED Intl.Shepard’s strategy for fictionalizing Scott K. Anderson’s Esquire mag piece contrasts in telling ways with Michael Winterbottom’s “Welcome to Sarajevo,” still the best account of Western correspondents in the war-torn Balkans. While latter developed as an honestly sober yet intensely charged docudrama, Shepard’s film has star TV news correspondent Simon Hunt (Richard Gere) and loyal camera operator Duck (Terrence Howard, also narrating his first-person account) dashing around the 1994 Bosnian war as if they’ve jumped out of a jokey buddy movie.
War is some kind of game for Simon, for whom self-endangerment is the only way to live. The movie often wants auds to view it the same way, and such irreverence is clearly Shepard’s preferred metier, something he exercised considerably in “The Matador.” But in the context of the ongoing Bosnian tragedy, it’s an approach that tends to lay its own mines, as the pursuit of gallows humor — and from an outsider to the conflict at hand, no less — can come off as terribly callous.
When Simon goes emotionally over the edge during a live feed from the front, his stellar career suddenly collapses (unlikely, given his supposed stature), and he’s reduced to filing reports for various backwater outlets. Duck has moved into cushier posts in the intervening years, but when he accompanies network anchorman Franklin (ideally cast James Brolin) on a trip to survey Bosnia a decade after the war, Simon pursues Duck and tries to sell him on an outrageous idea: As reporters, they will score an exclusive with the Fox (Ljubomir Kerekes), murderer of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and the most wanted man in the Balkans.
Young Benjamin (smartly cast Jesse Eisenberg), a network exec’s son assigned to produce Franklin’s reports in the field, insists on coming with them. This impossible trio on an impossible mission inadvertently arouses thesuspicions of U.N. peacekeeping official Boris (Mark Ivanir), who assumes the group is CIA — utterly incorrect, of course, but Simon convinces himself (if not quite anyone else) that this is a viable cover for their Fox hunt.
Shepard’s script runs into certain mechanical difficulties when it provides several flashbacks to the war and the causes for Simon’s emotional breakdown. The device allows for pic’s early snide tone to slip into something more serious and even melodramatic later on, but it never feels like more than a storytelling trick. In the end, political brownie points — targeting the CIA and the West for failing to nail genocidal thugs — are too easily scored, given how the film casts Yank war correspondents as lovable antiheroes.
To his credit, Gere has loads of fun with Simon, letting loose with some of the best acting of his career as a guy all too aware of his own mortality and the high-stakes gamble he’s throwing himself into. Howard is considerably upstaged, and after his amusing intro, his Duck never quite passes the credibility test. Eisenberg is starting to patent a personal form of innocent deadpan that gives him a distinctive place in the busy pic. Diane Kruger, Ivanir, Brolin and Kerekes leave strong supporting impressions.
David Tattersall’s sleek widescreen lensing and gifted production designer Jan Roelfs’ rock-hard realist production design magnificently serve pic in every scene, the only deficit being Rolfe Kent’s off-putting score.