In the new age of hate, this current era of White Nationalists in the White House, hate crimes on the rise, and good people apparently on both sides of Nazi rallies, now would be as good a time as ever to grapple with Nazis, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the terrible feelings of vengeance that inevitably surface whenever we’re faced with the notion of confronting those happy to stick you in a cage or an oven over your ethnic differences. Unfortunately for “Hunters,” the new Amazon series, executive produced by Jordan Peele, starring Al Pacino and created by writer/producer David Weil, this new show isn’t really interested in any kind of meaningful reckoning or look at the state of the world. Instead, “Hunters” is B-movie Jewspolitation, a badass, genre-y look at Nazi-hunting that’s more indebted to grizzly Tarantino violence and tough guys, cartoonish “Mod Squad“-esque ’70s style, comic books, and even twisted moments of horror-ish torture porn. Occasionally, “Hunters” wrestles with how the soul is poisoned by violence and reprisal, but in doing so, it further takes the show tonally all over the map.
It’s perhaps not a surprise someone would take the tone and feel of “Inglourious Basterds” Nazi-hunting, the comedic violence, the humor, the quippy dialogue and emigrated it to the United States, but given today’s climate, both Jews and the Holocaust deserve something better and a bit more dignified. Those looking for something akin to Steven Spielberg‘s masterful “Munich,” which really examined the cost of retribution, and the heavy burden it placed on the soul, have come to the wrong place.
This is of course, purposeful. “Hunters” takes a comic book approach and looks at the legends of the Holocaust and Nazi hunters as mythological superheroes, but much of that just feels trite and trivializes the heavy subject matter, none of which feels particularly honored or treated with adequate solemnity. An opening scene where a musical quartet in the concentration camps plays Havila Nagila in protest of their German captures and killed off one by one while furiously playing out their last notes reads like an incredible moment of burning defiance in description, but actually plays out as something cheap to shock and provoke the viewer.
“Hunters” follows the life of Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a young disaffected Jewish teen in Brooklyn whose life is ripped apart when his beloved Safta (Jewish grandmother), Ruth Heidelbaum (Jeannie Berlin), is suddenly and mysteriously murdered. Bright, sensitive, and intuitive, Jonah, sensing the police aren’t doing shit to solve the murder, takes it upon himself to do some DIY sleuthing which eventually leads him down a dangerous path. During the shiva, Jonah meets the concerned and avuncular Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), who takes a keen interest in the boy, now completely without any family.
Meanwhile, two more stories begin to unfold at the same time. The B story which is the rise of a clandestine and secret society-like Fourth Reich in the U.S.—lead by Lena Olin‘s The Colonel and featuring Dylan Baker as an influential “American” lobbyist who has the ear of the President but is at odds with new Reich leadership — and the C story of Millie Morris (Jerrika Hinton), a closeted lesbian FBI agent whose own dogged detective work leads her to both Jonah Heidelbaum and the Fourth Reich operatives who have grown hip to his own low-rent inquiries. There’s also Travis Leich (Greg Austin), the poster boy for Aryan Youth, and an obedient sociopath working for the Colonel who’s hunting everyone (a cartoonish Terminator figure that seemingly cannot be defeated or caught).
This all leads to the Mod Squad-like team of Hunters that Pacino’s Offerman has assembled. When Jonah finally tracks down his grandmother’s killer, an old ex-SS officer, living in secret in New York, Offerman is there to save his skin in the end after a gruesome torture scene featuring darts. And then Offerman pulls back the curtain and the true story is unveiled: Ruth Heidelbaum, along with Meyer Offerman, both Holocaust survivors, were both the leaders of this new Nazi-hunting effort. The motley crew of disparate players includes the codebreakers and old Jews, Mindy and Murray Markowitz (Carol Kane and Saul Rubinek), the vain, washed-out actor and recovering drug addict Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor), the British nun and ex-M16 operative, Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvany), the lethal and unhinged Vietnam vet Joe Torrance (Louis Ozawa Changchien), and the Black militant Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone).
Already on shaky ground, opening with meant-to-shock scenes of extreme violence to hook, grab and provoke the viewer, “Hunters” shows its true style over substance colors when the Hunting crew is revealed. The gang is disparate and colorful but essentially caricatures of their stereotype. Radnor in particular, annoying as the slick, jive-talking actor with all the quips and irreverent lines and the klezmer kvetching of all the old Jews with their Yeshivish accents—all of them sounding like parodies out of a Mel Brooks skit—are practically their own form of anti-Semitism. Most of these caricatures are hamming it up too, Pacino included.
There’s a real glibness to the story too. For seemingly no reason, the Hunters are introduced in a stylish “Jewtastic” movie trailer title sequence where each member is re-introduced to the audience in a scene that would have fit better in “Suicide Squad” or “Harley Quinn.” ’70s clichés of style, Blaxploitation-like music, jargon, and clothing abound too. Lonny Flash’s “How To Spot A Nazi” TV segment might sound like fun to write and shoot, but when contemplated next to the idea of people dying and suffering in concentration camps—the gruesome flashbacks to which are many— the idea of this shallow treatment of the story is borderline offensive (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directs the first episode, but it’s only marginally better than the rest given the overall dubious tone and dodgy writing).
The idea that “Hunters” has no depth or interest in saying something is not entirely accurate, but the series, undercuts itself when it tries to have it both ways, periodically grappling with legacy, heritage, guilt, conscience, and the morality of payback “justice.” But none of it is very effective and even less meaningful when juxtaposed next to the superficial cool violence and hip jokes, or ghastly forms of torture that occur in some of the very next scenes. Maybe in 2009, circa “Inglourious Basterds,” playing fast and loose with history and indulging in revenge fantasy without much cost works. But in 2020, with hate entering an era of acceptance, and anti-Semitic hate crimes on the rise, much of the “Hunters” facile and surface tone leaves one with a bad taste in the mouth.
Regardless, “Hunters” does have its chance moments of intrigue once you get past, tolerate, or come to terms with the fact this show is more interested in entertaining and sensationalizing than it is grappling with this history of the world in any consequential way. Plot-wise, a mole in the Hunters group creates an interesting twist, the internecine power dynamic struggles of the Fourth Reich are somewhat fascinating and an episode centered around a Manhattan bank and the Nazi treasures its secret vaults may house, are fairly compelling.
But humanity is misplaced and forgotten throughout, the show more interested in presenting the badassness of “cathartic” revenge than anything worthwhile. Not to mention its simplistic look at injustice or righting wrongs, and it’s the crucial missing element that prevents “Hunters” from achieving any kind of greatness. Sure, those asking for a lot less will be entertained and perhaps thrilled by sickening sequences where sadomasochistic Nazis shoot Auschwitz camp prisoners when they sing out of key, or a former Nazi is forced to eat feces until they confess, or a sequence that places Jewish prisoners on a huge human chessboard where they’re forced to kill each other in place of a chess lost piece (honestly, this feels a little too much like the influence of Jordan Peele’s horror gone all wrong). For those that live eyes awake in the current state of hate, and or read a second of history, you might find yourself shuddering at just how something so horrific is often treated in such a casually violent light. [C-]