- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

Writer-director Richard Shepard mined some pretty dark humor with 2005’s “The Matador,” an unlikely buddy comedy that was one of the best films no one saw that year.

His follow-up, “The Hunting Party,” makes that movie look like a round of Chutes and Ladders. It’s a bleak comic fiction based on an actual hunt for a Bosnian Serb war criminal.

To Mr. Shepard, battlefields can be a blast for those covering the bloodshed, an ugly premise he turns into a fiercely funny drama. And while his picture bounces between black comedy and sentiment, he’s able to hold the narrative together long enough to tack on the kind of Hollywood ending unavailable to the Balkan War’s victims.

War correspondent Simon Hunt (Richard Gere) loses his cool during a live telecast and is shunned by an industry that once adored him. His veteran cameraman and partner in crime, Duck (Terrence Howard), escapes the fallout. He ends up with a cushy network slot photographing a vain, wooden anchor (James Brolin).

The pair reunite by chance years later, and while Simon’s career remains rocky, he tells Duck about a news tip that could change that.

Simon learns that the notorious Fox (Ljubomir Kerekes), a war criminal blamed for raping and executing thousands of Bosnian Muslims, is being hidden in a local village.

Simon wants to find, and then interview, a man whom no one in the civilized world seems able to find. Duck would rather visit his new girlfriend in Greece as he’d originally planned.

But the lure of a great story and the chance to re-team with Simon proves irresistible.

So the pair, along with a cub reporter (Jesse Eisenberg) who forces his way into the assignment, try to track down the Fox.

The various U.N. officials the trio meets in the still dangerous Bosnia seem more like Keystone Kops than peacekeepers.

Much of this “Party” shouldn’t hold together, but the game cast and Mr. Shepard’s wink-wink wit makes the plot contrivances feel organic. Credit can be split between Mr. Gere, gaining gravitas to match his white mane, and Mr. Howard, who doubles as the film’s engaging narrator. But Mr. Eisenberg (“The Squid and the Whale”) provides a capable foil for both, even if it’s hard to believe how quickly he matures when thrust into life or death scenarios.

It’s rare to see the U.N. take it on the chin in movies today, but Mr. Shepard also lets loose with some uppercuts against the U.S. and the West in general. His conspiracy-minded epilogue is as snarky as it is unsatisfying. There’s a documentary waiting to be told about the real-life hunt, although the closing credits demystify some of what has just transpired.

We’re told in the film’s prologue that “only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true.” Mr. Shepard’s “Party” uses the ridiculous to play up some sublime characters and richly comic situations.

***

TITLE: “The Hunting Party”

RATING: R (adult language, violence and sexual situations)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Richard Shepard based on an Esquire article by Scott Anderson

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

WEB SITE: www.thehuntingpartymovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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