Review: Al Pacino and Nazis, in Amazon’s ‘Hunters’

Hunters, a new series on Amazon Prime Video, offers various ways in. A lot of people will be excited because Jordan Peele helped bring it about. (He’s an executive producer.) That would have been me in 2015, post Key and Peele; not so much now, post Twilight Zone and Us.

Then there’s the show’s logline: A motley crew of talented but everyday folks in 1977 Son-of-Sam New York, assembled and led by a mysterious concentration-camp survivor, hunt Nazis and uncover a deep-state conspiracy to bring back the Reich. Catchy, but it could go either way.

But really, the show has us at Al Pacino. He plays the group’s leader, Meyer Offerman, and it’s his first regular starring role in a series, after portraying problematic males (Roy Cohn, Phil Spector, Joe Paterno) in a smattering of HBO movies and mini-series. At 79, he’s having his peak-TV coming-out party.

Having gotten Pacino, though, Hunters doesn’t do much with him, or with its premise or the rest of its stellar cast. He’s fine — he adroitly underplays Meyer’s compassionate vengefulness amid the noisier, more hyperbolic elements of a comic-book-style action fantasy. But there’s something generic about Meyer, and about Hunters, even as the show tries very hard to be singular. Defending Pacino against the inevitable inauthentic-casting charges (an Italian-American playing a Jewish avenger), his co-star Logan Lerman said, “Come on, anybody can play the role.” Exactly.

Hunters is the creation of David Weil, a young actor. His influences show. The obvious one, in the show’s jokey tone, its not quite cartoonish violence, its winking evocation of the 1970s and its thematic affinity with Inglourious Basterds, is Quentin Tarantino.

But in the five (of 10) episodes available for review, there are others that are just as apt: the Oceans films (Weil apparently missed the “Rick and Morty” episode on the lameness of caper-crew stories) and Steven Spielberg in both his Schindler’s List and Munich modes.

Most noticeable — in the show’s declamatory approach, in its toggling between naturalism and a highly metabolised stylization, even in the look and deployment of its onscreen graphics — is a kinship with Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Sam Catlin’s Preacher, another show that used religion as the underpinning of an exercise in genre indulgence and excess. Like Preacher, but less successfully, Hunters employs the currently popular strategy of pointedly jumping among times and places, wielding history and geography to give a greater sense of weight or import to what are essentially Saturday matinee adventures.

In Hunters, the primary focus of that attempted fusion is Jonah Heidelbaum, the 19-year-old Brooklynite, petty drug dealer and comics-shop employee played by Lerman. Jonah is part Peter Parker, an incipient hero — he doesn’t have superpowers, but he’s a whiz at cracking codes — who’s been raised by a female relative, his Auschwitz-survivor grandmother (Jeannie Berlin in the show’s present, Annie Hägg in the World War II scenes). Her death, and his desire for revenge, bring him to the attention of Meyer and Meyer’s seemingly ordinary crew.

But Jonah is also the embodiment, at least in the early episodes, of a moral debate about ends versus means and the righteousness of vigilante murder, even when the victims are former Nazis who have brought their schemes for world domination to the United States.

It’s the kind of high-low narrative bridge that comic books pull off all the time, and there’s nothing particularly inappropriate or tasteless about the way Hunters handles it. But there’s nothing particularly interesting or exciting about it, either.

Jonah’s situation feels synthesised, a computer mash-up of Spider-Man and Marathon Man. Weil’s parallels of historical atrocities — murder by shower head, medical experimentation, looted Jewish treasures — with the present-day actions of his Nazis and their hunters don’t register as either clever or offensive, they’re just plot points.

An awful lot of talent has been assembled for Hunters — Pacino, Kane, Rubinek, Berlin, Lena Olin and Dylan Baker as high-ranking Nazis, Jerrika Hinton as an FBI agent tracking both the Nazis and the hunters. They all acquit themselves well, and the show exhibits a high degree of competence and polish in its production. (Frederick Elmes, the Blue Velvet cinematographer, shot the 90-minute opening episode.)

But it feels underwritten, and the actors underused (with the exception of Greg Austin as a coldblooded American Nazi hit man). It never quite gets the blend of dramatic intensity, comic-book embroidery and cathartic action that it seems to be going for. Hunters, like the hunters team itself, is less than the sum of its parts.

© 2020 The New York Times

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