Hunters review: Al Pacino’s Jewish hunters are in the killin’ Nazi business in this sub-Tarantino alt-history lesson
Hunters hopes to combine the righteous retaliation of Munich with the sweet satisfaction of Inglourious Basterds.
In Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, Seth Rogen’s Ben Stone raves about Steven Spielberg’s Munich for turning the post-Holocaust Jews from the victimised to victimisers: “Every movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed. Munich flips it on its ear. We’re capping motherfuckers." Quentin Tarantino takes it a step further in his alt-history lesson of Inglourious Basterds, where Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine delights in the fact: "We ain't in the prisoner-takin' business; we in the killin' Nazi business." In reaction to the ongoing wave of white supremacy, BlacKkKlansmen and Watchmen taking down neo-Nazi nutters has turned into pop entertainment — and "business is a-boomin."
With the new Amazon series Hunters, executive producer Jordan Peele and creator David Weil bring to us another alt-history fantasy of Jews torturin' and killin' Nazis. The new show hopes to combine the righteous retaliation of Munich with the sweet satisfaction of Inglourious Basterds. Like Munich, Hunters brings together a rag-tag ensemble for a caper in a world of anti-Semites, without Spielberg's more serious meditation on the morality of revenge. If Tarantino elevates his B-movie pastiche with impactful set-pieces and thrilling mind games, Hunters can only imitate his unapologetic brutality and pop culture riffing.
In 1970s New York, young Jonah Heidelbaum's (Logan Lerman) life is turned upside down when an unknown assailant murders his beloved safta ("grandmother" in Hebrew), a Holocaust survivor, in their Brooklyn apartment. Driven by the usual "cops won't do shit" rationale, he sets out to find the killer, and crosses paths with Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), a mysterious millionaire closely linked to his safta's past. Meyer reveals he heads an operation to track down former Nazi dignitaries secretly hiding in the US, who are now planning to establish a new regime, the Fourth Reich. Jonah thus joins Meyer's group of hunters as they attempt to foil the genocidal plans orchestrated by a woman simply named The Colonel (Lena Olin). Meanwhile, FBI agent Millie Morris's (Jerrika Hinton) investigation into the murder of a NASA scientist also sees her cross paths with the Nazis and the Nazi hunters.
Hunters hides its lack of intelligence, logic and good taste with Jewish sayings delivered by the Talmud-quoting Al Pacino in his Yiddish-inflected New York accent with an appropriate amount of phlegm. Saul Rubinek and Carol Kane play Murray and Mindy Markowitz, a tech-savvy couple who may bring to mind Beetee Latier and Wiress of The Hunger Games series. Josh Radnor is Lonny Flash, a struggling Jewish actor who makes up for his wounded masculinity with tall tales of his sexual exploits. Tiffany Boone's Roxy Jones is a more idealistic version of blaxploitation icons like Coffy and Cleopatra Jones. Louis Ozawa is Joe Torrance, the token skilled-in-combat Asian, and Kate Mulvany is Sister Harriet, a crime-fighting British nun with ties to MI6. These characters and their backstories are fleshed out in small bursts throughout the series — but not enough to make us care about them.
The show sets up the extent of Nazi infiltratation in the US, from the suburbia to the State Department, right from the get go. The opening scene is Fargo's Lorne Malvo-in-the-elevator chilling as Congressman Biff Simpson (Dylan Baker) is forced to end his decades-long Nazi operation after being identified by a Holocaust survivor at his family's backyard barbecue party. Of course, Hunters has its own Lorne Malvo in the form of the chillingly calm Nazi sympathiser Travis Leich (Greg Austin). But the show would have been better served by having Biff Simpson as the primary antagonist, rather than the Colonel, who is more Cruella de Vil than exceptionally evil, despite the season-ending pay-off. The other Nazi villains are defined by their cartoon viciousness: one uses Jews as pawns on a human chess board; another holds a weekly radio show like The Voice Nazi-style where those who sing out of tune are shot dead. The Nazi hunters of course return the violence in kind. But when evil is reduced to over-the-top silly smorgasbord of torture and violence, it stops being disturbing after a while as the mayhem turns into monotony.
The showrunners fail to realise one can be subtle and subversive. In one of the show's more solemn moments of resilience, a group of Jewish musicians at a concentration camp are forced by a Nazi officer to play the music of well-known anti-semite Richard Wagner, but they play the Israeli folk song 'Hava Nagila' instead — even as they're shot dead one by one. This inspires the other prisoners to join in as they hum the tune in defiance. It is a genuinely powerful scene, where the Jewish prisoners aren't just reduced to receptacles of Nazi savagery. Here, the Jews are beatified while the Nazis are dehumanised. In contrast, the act of revenge may be satisfying, but the violence brings together the victimiser and victimised in a punishing embrace.
Weil also displays his playful sense of innovation in asides, like "How to identify a Nazi?", "Why Does Everyone Hate the Jews?" and the introduction of the titular Hunters. But he doesn't just sprinkle pop culture references in his dialogue, he uses them to justify the show's extreme depictions of "violence-begets-violence" and "are Nazis born or made?" It is 1977 after all — and the show uses Star Wars mythology to understand conditioning in Nazi ideology. We first see Jonah and his geeky friends — Cheeks (Henry Hunter Hall) and Bootyhole (Caleb Emery) — coming out of a theatre after having watched Star Wars maybe a dozen times. Jonah jokes Darth Vader may have been born a Jew named "Chad Rubenstein", and gives us the following justification, meant to exemplify how the Nazis were conditioned to hate Jews: "Like every kid in the Galactic Empire, he (Darth Vader) was conditioned to believe that some evil Jedi rebels from some desert shithole were gonna come bomb his parents, behead his friends, kidnap all the hot Galactic chicks for lightsaber orgies. Vader doesn't get up every day looking to destroy the galaxy. He gets up every morning believing he needs to save it." The show not only repeatedly uses comic book's black-and-white moral allegory (equating Batman and Robin to darkness and light), but also presents the chess board as a morality play between forces of good and evil (illustrated even in the opening credits).
Hunters often plays like an exploitation film that has invaded an overlong comic book movie. It may not be cathartic justice, but it is revenge disguised as a wish-fulfilment fantasy. Furthermore, the shockingly absurd reveal at the end of the season may entice some viewers for a second helping, if Amazon does renew the series for another instalment. For the rest of us, one season is already one too many.
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