Thursday, February 20, 2020

Hunters on Amazon

In 1977, thriller fans were primed to look for fugitive National Socialists under every bed. Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil had been one of the biggest bestsellers of the previous year, following in the footsteps of Robert Ludlum’s Osterman Weekend and Frederick Forsythe’s Odessa File. Plus, in real life, Simon Wiesenthal’s heroic hunt for war criminals was reasonably well-reported. Meyer Offerman has recruited a team to do similar work, but their methods are more hardcore in the first season of Hunters, created by David Weil and executive produced by Jordan Peele, which premieres tomorrow on Amazon Prime.

Jonah Heidelbaum knew his grandmother Ruth survived a concentration camp, but she never talked about the Holocaust. Yet, he suspects her murder was somehow related to her status as a survivor, based on what he heard while cowering around the corner. Offerman definitely agrees.

Offerman met and fell in love with Heidelbaum’s grandmother while they were both held captive in the camps. Over time, their relationship became rather complicated, but she was still his primary researcher, who compiled the files and testimony that now supports the group’s Nazi-hunting. Naturally, Heidelbaum wants in, but the rest of the Hunters are skeptical, especially the not very merciful Sister Harriet. Martial arts expert Joe Torrance and the Pam Grier-inspired Roxy Jones are nearly as unwelcoming. However, Murray and Mindy Markowitz, an old married couple who happen to be crack weaponsmiths, and Lonnie Flash, a Jewish exploitation movie star (sort of a forerunner to the Hebrew Hammer) are more sympathetic.

Even before her murder, Offerman’s group detected signs of increased activity on behalf of the secretive Odessa-esque organization. Viewers know they have Biff Simpson, a highly placed mole in the State Department, who has convinced Jimmy Carter to lift trade sanctions on Latin America. Apparently, they have big plans that require a mystery import from the southern hemisphere.

is peppered with many amusing faux-grindhouse visual gags in the Tarantino-Machete tradition, but it still has a very incomplete understanding of the era it is trying to recreate. Sometimes it is small details, like a reference to Kramer vs. Kramer, which was released two years later (in 1979). However, some errors reflect a more fundamental cluelessness regarding the greater social trends of the era. For instance, in one scene, naïve Heidelbaum goes undercover as Young Republican canvasser, hoping to score a signature from a suspected war criminal in Huntville, Alabama. However, a YR would be almost unheard of in the solid democratic South of the 1970s. (Alabama voted squarely for Carter and the Huntsville district elected Dems until 2010.) Even more to the point, the rampant crime and fiscal collapse that defined Abe Beame’s mayoralty in New York are largely, if not entirely ignored.

Nevertheless, given the alarming increase in anti-Semitic violence, here and abroad, it is definitely satisfying to see some old school retribution. The shadowy conspirators and the German fugitives hiding in plain sight totally have it coming—and the Hunters frequently give it to them, in graphically poetic terms.

Naturally, Al Pacino plays Offerman to the hilt, shamelessly chewing the scenery, but a show like this would never work without that kind of big, over the top performance. Frankly, it is really yet to be seen whether Lena Olin’s evil, string-pulling German Colonel can hang with him, at least judging from the first five episodes supplied to the media. Fortunately, Dylan Baker holds up the villainous side as the insufferably self-important Undersecretary Simpson.

Most of the Hunters are cartoony stereotypes, even by the standards of retro-grindhouse, but Logan Lerman is surprisingly compelling as the guilt-wracked Jonah Heidelbaum. Louis Ozawa also plays Torrance with genre-appropriate stone-cold steeliness. On the other hand, Saul Rubinek and Carol Kane bring enough old couple stereotypes for a Cocoon sequel as the Markowitzes [but they get a lot more serious in episodes 6-8]. However, nobody can match Josh Radnor’s uncomfortably weird shtick as Flash.

Honestly, we could use the Hunters now, at a time when the former leader of the UK Labour Party and prominent surrogates for the front-running Democratic presidential candidate (Zahr, Sarsour) have shamelessly peddled anti-Semitic tropes. Weil and the rest of the writers really ought to be smarter about history, politics, and pop culture, but at least they make the cathartic payback satisfying. Recommended for the style and the violence, Hunters streams on Amazon starting tomorrow (2/21).