Hunters review: Al Pacino and Amazon lead a new gang of Inglourious Basterds in aggressively average show

Hunters
Cast – Logan Lerman, Al Pacino, Kate Mulvaney, Tiffany Boone, Josh Radnor, Dylan Baker, Lena Olin

Darth Vader doesn’t get up every day looking to destroy the galaxy; he gets up every day believing he needs to save it. So says the very perceptive Jonah Heidelbaum in Hunters, Amazon Prime’s new series. The only difference between a hero and a villain, he adds, is who sells more costumes on Halloween.

This is the sort of binary thinking that limits the show, in which young Jonah, an orphan, is taken under the wing of a lonely rich man – the Robin to his Batman, if you will — and trained to become a vigilante like him. Played by Al Pacino, Meyer Offerman is like a combination of Simon Weisenthal and Bruce Wayne, a Holocaust survivor who has dedicated his wealth and remaining time on Earth to hunt down, and systematically assassinate the hundreds of Nazis who escaped Germany after the fall of the Third Reich, and made new lives for themselves in America.

Watch the Hunters trailer here:

Creator David Weil drops several references to geek culture in Hunters, a show that despite its dour subject matter has the tone of a bonkers Justice League movie. “You should read the Torah more,” Meyer tells Jonah. “It is the original comic book.”

This would have been fine in surer hands – Quentin Tarantino achieved the impossible in his finest film, Inglourious Basterds, when he transformed the tragedy of the Holocaust into a trademark exploitation picture – but on the other end of the spectrum, we have magnificently misguided misfires such as Jojo Rabbit and Life is Beautiful.

In the feature length opening episode, Weil and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon drink thirstily from Tarantino’s well of bad taste. A pulpy premise is established and the performances are turned up to 11, but then, jarringly, in the episodes that follow, Hunters feels the need to be taken seriously. To earn this respect, it does the first thing that comes to its mind, and pretends that in addition to being a pulp thriller, it has the gravitas of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

And so we get desaturated flashbacks to Meyer’s time as a prisoner in a concentration camp, where he first met Jonah’s grandmother, and fell in love. Not only do these scenes feel grossly out of place in a show as deliriously dumb as Hunters, they sort of negate its inherently schlocky nature. This isn’t to say that it is impossible to converge comic book storytelling and the Holocaust – the X-Men movies did a wonderful job of handling Magneto’s backstory as a prisoner at Auschwitz – but Hunters doesn’t deal in superpowers. As ridiculous as some of it is, it’s set in a recognisably real world.

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Despite Gomez-Rejon’s splendid work in that 90-minute opener, Hunters is rarely able to sustain the goofiness at its core. In the five episodes that were provided for preview — the heavily marketed first season has 10 — Al Pacino revisited his Scent of a Woman brand of over-the-top acting on precisely one occasion. For the most part, he plays Meyer with an uncharacteristic reserve that reminded me of Art’s father in the graphic novel Maus.

But Meyer isn’t the protagonist of the show. Pacino isn’t even top-billed. That distinction goes to Logan Lerman, who more than holds his own opposite his illustrious co-star, as the reluctant hero Jonah. The rest of the team includes a middle-aged couple, a fading movie star, a Strong Black Woman, and others; each of them experts at particular skills.

There’s an episodic quality to Hunters that somewhat dilutes its prestige ambitions — every episode has a ‘villain of the week’ character that must be hunted and executed — but there’s an overarching plot that is developed in the background. Having caught on to Meyer’s plans, a faction of the Nazis has put into motion a scheme that will bring about the rise of a Fourth Reich. One of the most interesting characters among the ‘villains’ is an American-born youth who acts as an enforcer for his Nazi commanders.

That Darth Vader reference in episode one wasn’t as forced as you’d imagine. Jonah is essentially Luke Skywalker and Meyer is Obi Wan; the neo-Nazi is Kylo Ren. The proposed Fourth Reich is the First Order, and Hunters is, regardless of its iffy ethics, Star Wars with the SS.

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