“Hunters,” a new Amazon series about vigilantes seeking to bring justice to Nazis hiding in 1970s America, is fixated in ways by which violence can be made weird. It features a vast conspiracy of Nazis embedded in the U.S. government, one of whom enters the series by committing a gruesome mass killing. It goes on to depict the baroque ways a team led by Al Pacino’s Meyer Offerman obtains revenge on their quarry, including force-feeding manure to a society matron as she pleads for mercy.
Yuck! This scene, like many others on “Hunters,” makes its point, then goes on making it long after the stomach has turned. This show seems to borrow much of its aesthetic from Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” — a film about the gleeful process of claiming vengeance on Hitler’s footsoldiers — but it fails to get the alchemical balance right. Its nastiness, even as deployed against the world’s worst people, fugitives from justice, somehow comes to feel more like abuse of the audience. Its big bad, a young convert to the Nazi cause played by Greg Austin, is somehow both superhumanly powerful and easily evaded to the point where his perpetual reappearances carry little weight; its banter just isn’t funny enough.
To wit: The crew isn’t chosen solely for their skills, but also for the ways in which their persona adds some basic load-bearing element to the show’s attempts at comedy. (Josh Radnor, for instance, plays a vain actor moonlighting, so he gets a lot of material about his ego and theatricality; he won’t abandon a cover until a fellow spy says “scene,” for instance.) And to introduce these broadly drawn personas, over surf-rock that sounds ripped from “Pulp Fiction,” the gang enters with corny onscreen chyrons, with one pair described as “a couple of Chabad-asses”; we later get a fake movie trailer for the gang that we’re told is “Rated J for ‘Jewtastic.’” Even Tarantino skeptics might wonder why “Hunters” so explicitly invokes his film only to invite such an unflattering comparison.
“Hunters” is above all else an exercise in genre pastiche, blending ultraviolence with brutally unfunny comedy. It strands its lead, Logan Lerman, in a grave and painstakingly emotional plotline about his quest for reprisal after the murder of his grandmother (Jeannie Berlin) that’s surrounded by material whose only concern is proving that Nazi hunting can be fun. Later revelations about Pacino’s character don’t have the weight they could, given the actor’s barely-directed hamminess this time around (a shame, after he was so recently so precisely deployed in “The Irishman”). The show’s general tone, cemented through each time a member of the crew acts precisely true to form with a one-liner that doesn’t suit the situation, is sweaty seriousness about proving the case that a story about vengeance can be fun.
Which we already knew… from “Inglourious Basterds.” That counterpoint is unfair but, again, it’s one the show requests. There’s a reason that merging wit, flair and joyful nastiness with the aftermath of the 20th century’s defining tragedy was so widely understood as an accomplishment when Tarantino pulled it off: Because it’s hard. “Hunters,” with C-minus jokes and storytelling that inelegantly toggles between gravity and deeply self-conscious oddity, demands credit simply for trying, and not trying hard enough.