“Hunters” is the kind of black-comic thriller that takes a common phrase like “eat shit” to the literal extreme, but couches its outrageous moments in historical import. Al Pacino isn’t just spoon-feeding poop to a random bad guy — he’s shoveling shit into a suspected Nazi. If that sounds like a wish you want to see fulfilled, Amazon’s historical-fiction series will serve it up, time and time again, though it’s worth noting this is actually one of the more low-key (and less inventive) torture scenes.
“Hunters,” created by David Weil and executive produced by Jordan Peele, can be extremely violent and extremely silly; it respects the drama inherent to any Holocaust story while still allowing fans to enjoy the fictionalized quest for vengeance. For every conversation about justice and vengeance, morality and responsibility, right and wrong, there’s a fake ad about spotting Nazis or a dance sequence set to “Staying Alive.” The balancing act works pretty well if you can stomach each extreme; it makes for a grisly reckoning of the past, with only the pretense of thought to the present.
Set in 1977, “Hunters” primarily follows Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a 19-year-old who works at a comic book store and still lives with the grandma who raised him, Ruth (Jeannie Berlin). Jonah isn’t particularly religious — he’s reprimanded by his elders for not following the Torah — but he still faces antisemitism and hatred in his day-to-day life, which is bluntly illustrated when a bully beats the hell out of him while spouting racial epithets. Later that night, the bloodied comic-book nerd watches in terror as his grandma is shot and killed by a masked intruder.
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Jonah thinks it must have been a robber, until a bearded, hunched, and heavily accented Meyer Offerman (Pacino) shows up and explains that Ruth was likely targeted and killed by a Nazi. Why would anyone, even a white-power scumbag, go to the trouble of breaking in and killing Jonah’s grandma? Well, she helped establish a team of Nazi hunters, that’s why. Funded by Meyer, a very rich businessman described as a “Bruce Wayne” type, the group consists of spies, fighters, con artists, and code breakers, all dedicated to — you guessed it — hunting Nazis.
The colorful group has its standouts (like Saul Rubinek and Carol Kane’s bickering but lovable couple), and Jerrika Hinton makes the most of her by-the-book (but crusade-friendly) FBI agent. Dylan Baker and Lena Olin do far more to earn viewers’ disdain than sport a Nazi insignia, crafting deliciously vile baddies. Even Pacino finds the sweet spot between his two post-“Scent of a Woman” go-to’s: the soft-spoken earnest counselor and the grandstanding, scenery-chewing, “Hoo-ah!”-shouting caricature. He’s affecting and fun in equal measure, even if he can’t help but overshadow Lerman, who is so committed to Jonah’s role as audience stand-in that he occasionally forgets to get off the couch and move around.
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And yet Jonah’s call-to-action is as direct as it is renewable: The young kid is tempted into joining this semi-elite squad in order to find and execute hundreds, if not thousands, of Nazi war criminals who infiltrated U.S. soil. That last part is based in fact. In the late ’70s, after the American government passed laws making it easier to deport anyone with ties to the wartime Nazi regime, real men and women worked hard to hunt down these war criminals and send them packing. What “Hunters” imagines is what if these Americans took a vigilante approach instead of going through the courts?
To enforce the need for that action-oriented tweak, Meyer repeatedly states that the war isn’t over; that for these men and women, this war only ends when you’re dead. At first, Jonah doesn’t feel like he’s a part of their war because he wasn’t alive during the Holocaust, but “Hunters” quickly creates circumstances that enlist the young man as a Jewish soldier. From there, he’s pushed and pulled between asserting himself as a hunter and, if not empathizing with the hunted, believing there’s a more humane way of holding them accountable. Is Jonah naive and soft for being appalled by the team’s tactics? Or is he exercising better moral judgment because he’s lived outside the dehumanizing conditions they faced?
“Hunters” lives in a violent world because its characters believe they’re still at war. The assertion allows for a fanciful level of wish fulfillment, as well as a compelling action narrative, but the twisty thriller can also feel too twisted for its own good. Aside from the aforementioned shit-eating, Amazon’s original opens with the massacre of an entire family and features numerous bloody and brutal torture scenes, some of which reflect what real people went through during the Holocaust. While never extreme for its own sake, they still add up to a jarring experience that doesn’t always feel warranted.
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Because “Hunters” knows it serves a wish fulfillment similar to “Inglourious Basterds” — onscreen retribution on par with the Nazis’s own criminal acts — there’s little consideration given to the virtues of peace. The audience can feel OK about what’s going down because it’s not real, while the characters are put at ease because the threat level is too high.
In the show’s world, there’s a massive conspiracy that could destroy America, so Jonah, Meyer, and the rest of the team aren’t the hunted or the hunters; they’re both, at all times. That’s war, after all, and it’s a fine rationale for a dispensable throwback B-movie, but it also keeps “Hunters” from feeling all that relevant today. Yes, there’s a Nazi problem in modern America, but no one contends that the answer is to start hunting, torturing, and murdering skinheads, this show included.
Instead, “Hunters” lives in a state of emergency, which necessitates action more than it mirrors reality. It’s an effective, fictionalized premise, but one that’s also dependent on the viewer being able to enjoy a particularly harsh blend of fact and fiction — one that’s not as wickedly concentrated as Quentin Tarantino’s last great film. While there’s still five more episodes left for the series to make a topical point about the re-proliferation of Nazis, so far “Hunters” is more concerned with spinning a good yarn. Its sturdy construction should be able to deliver on that front, but it remains to be seen if it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
“Hunters” premieres Friday, February 21 on Amazon Prime Video.