Amazon’s Hunters is ‘Inglourious Basterds’ Meets 70’s Exploitation
Hunters is experimental, offbeat, and bloody violent
If a Tarantino-esque exploitation period piece set in New York City about a gang of vigilantes who track down Nazi fugitives living in America sounds like your cup of tea, then look no further. Amazon Prime’s Hunters is just that and so much more. This fantasy revenge thriller contains all the things Tarantino fans will like— from hyper-stylized action sequences to a barrage of pop culture references— Hunters is anything short of boring.
Will it polarize audiences? Certainly so. But for anyone professing true love for exploitation cinema, there’s no resisting it.
Produced by Academy Award-winner Jordan Peele and created by David Weil, this first season of Hunters is set in the summer of 1977 and follows a diverse band of Nazi hunters who have discovered that hundreds (if not, thousands) of high-ranking Nazi officials are living in the United States and conspiring to create a Fourth Reich. The eclectic team of vigilantes set out on a bloody quest to bring the Nazis to justice and thwart their new genocidal plans.
What makes the series less Inglourious Basterds and more of a coming of age drama is its central figure— a 19-year-old Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), an average American teenager who lives with his grandmother Ruth (Jeannie Berlin); works at a comic book store; and sells weed on the side in order to help pay the bills. Jonah isn’t particularly religious, yet despite not showing his Jewish heritage he still faces antisemitism and hatred evidenced in an early scene when another teenage boy beats the hell out of him while spouting racial slurs. It’s just the start of what might be the worst day of his life. Later that night, Jonah witnesses his grandma shot and killed by a masked intruder. At first, it seems like a robbery gone wrong but frustrated with the lack of detective work from the local police force, a distraught Jonah decides to go looking for answers. In doing so, he ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time; is arrested and put behind bars. To his surprise, he’s bailed out by Meyer Hoffman (Al Pacino), a wealthy Jewish man described as a “Bruce Wayne” type who just so happens to also be a Holocaust survivor, and friend of his loving grandma, Ruth. It doesn’t take long before Jonah learns that Ruth and Meyer helped put together a secret society all dedicated to — wait for it — hunting Nazis.
There is a lot going on in Hunters— so much so, the premiere episode runs a whopping 90-minutes long just so viewers can get caught up on the intricately plotted storyline and the large cast of eccentric characters. Speaking of which, let’s talk about the cast.
Pacino is by far the main attraction here. He might not play the most interesting character and he isn’t technically the lead (that would be Logan Lerman’s Jonah) but his star power will certainly turn heads and have viewers check-in. The show also marks Pacino’s first series regular role, and his performance is mostly great (despite his questionable Midwestern German American accent) but the reason he works is that he never pulls the spotlight from his co-stars. For an actor who’s known for his sometimes larger-than-life performances, it’s impressive how much he restrains himself here.
That said, while the legendary Oscar-winning actor looms largest, the series belongs to Lerman’s Jonah Heidelbaum. For better or for worse, he’s the emotional center of the story and has easily more screen time than anyone else in the cast. For the most part, the All-American babyface plays his part well, juggling a delicate balance of rage, sympathy, teen angst, and genuine curiosity as he learns more about his heritage. It helps too that Jonah is the show’s true detective, outsmarting and outthinking both the police force and the F.B.I. agents he encounters. The hunters quickly come to recognize his talents, putting him to good use and making him a far more important role in locating the Nazis hiding in plain sight. Watching him piece together the clues like a junior Sherlock Holmes is always fun to see.
While Pacino and Lerman are both great, it’s the supporting cast that livens up the proceedings. The titular avengers are a dynamic lot; whether they are Jewish, or another race or ethnic background, each member is driven by personal motivations. There’s Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvany), an MI-6 agent-turned-undercover-nun; Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone), a streetwise, black-power activist; Vietnam vet Joe Torrance (Louis Ozawa), arguably the team’s muscle with martial arts skills, and Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor), a fast-talking has-been actor and master of disguise who won’t drop his cover while pulling off a heist until his colleague says “and scene”. Rounding up the ragtag group is Murray and Mindy Markowitz (Saul Rubinek and Carol Kane, respectively), the team’s weapons experts and Holocaust survivors.
While much of the story is split between Jonah’s personal journey, the Hunters get plenty of opportunities to shine while showing off their talents as spies, con artists, bank robbers, code breakers, and martial arts specialists. There’s a particularly great fight between Roxy and a lady German spy that recalls the opening scene of Kill Bill and an amusing bank heist with a call back to Dog Day Afternoon. Meanwhile, Jerrika Hinton plays Millie Malone, a rookie black female FBI agent who begins to see a pattern in what initially appeared to be a series of unrelated deaths of Germans across the U.S.A. It doesn’t take long before she realizes the motives of the murders were personal and that each victim was a Nazi that someone specifically targeted.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Hunters is based on a graphic novel, since it feels like a superhero origin of sorts as it slowly introduces the eclectic band of misfits— but it’s actually an original creation by David Weil, In fact, according to the press notes, Hunters was inspired by the “greatest superhero he’s ever known”— his grandmother— a Holocaust survivor who would tell him stories about the war and her survival.
Of course, being a show about hunting Nazis, Hunters also has its fair share of villains including Dylan Baker as an influential American politician Biff Simpson; the mysterious Lena Olin, who is working to bring about a Fourth Reich, and Greg Austin who steals the show as savage young American-born neo-Nazi killer named Travis who amuses his victims with riddles before pulling the trigger. Austin’s character is downright frightening (even if at times cartoonish) and reminds me most of a villain from a Coen Bros. films— something in the lines of Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. Working as an assassin for hire, Travis is a sociopath who likes quoting children’s books while he’s threatening people, singing show tunes during gunfights, and lecturing little children on airplanes about the eugenics of peanut allergies.
Not for the Weak Stomach
Speaking of villains, Hunters is at times dark and I do mean dark. Every episode features grim flashbacks showing what life was like living in the concentration camps during World War II. Auschwitz and Buchenwald are featured heavily, and I suspect the decision to include fictional atrocities may outrage some viewers. One flashback is shot in black-and-white, showing only a single object in color, reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List; another sees the Jewish prisoners in a real-life game of chess in which they are forced to kill each other. Other flashbacks show the Jewish prisoners tortured and terrorized in a variety of stomach-churning ways including being forced to play musical instruments until they are each shot dead, one by one. Yet, for every horrific flashback, Hunters uses these scenes to not only show the unimaginable torture Jewish prisoners had to endure but also to show unfathomable acts of love, friendship and bravery, such as a young Ruth (Annie Hägg) stepping in front of a guard about to shoot a prisoner in order to save a women’s life.
“The only difference between a hero and a villain is who sells more costumes at Halloween.”
It’s not just the flashbacks that feature a steady supply of random acts of violence— the present-day scenes can be just as gruesome as we watch the vigilantes torture Nazis. For example, in the second episode titled “The Mourner’s Kaddish,” the band of outlaws confronts a former concentration camp commander now living large in New York. Hoffman’s group invades his home, ties him up, beat him silly, and reads testimonials of the many atrocities he committed against his Jewish prisoners during World War II. It is a chilling moment, powerful because of its seriousness. And then Hoffman proceeds to torture the man by blasting Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” at such a loud volume, his eardrums begin to burst. Another episode has the hunters literally shoveling shit down the throat of a suspected Nazi and in another episode, they tie a man to a chair and proceed to drown him. Hunters is dark and twisted at times, and not for the faint of heart.
This Show is Extremely Stylish
What sets Hunters apart from other series is its style which seems to borrow much of its aesthetic from pulpy revenge thrillers and exploitation films of the ’70s. Everything from the revenge fantasy plot, the pulp culture references, the profane dialogue, period setting, and the violence will certainly remind you of Quentin Tarantino’s work (even “Misirlou,” the song from Pulp Fiction, is included in the soundtrack)— but these moments are few and far between. For the most part, Hunters straddles the line between Jewsploitation and modern, Prestige TV. At times, Amazon’s new series reminds me of Noah Hawley’s Fargo— other times there are nods to classic martial arts cinema— and other times it openly embraces a comic-book ethos with character introductions that seem lifted from the pages of a graphic novel. In my favourite scene, the team is introduced one by one, by a teenage girl in a Bat Mitzvah candle-lighting ceremony that features a collection of exploitation movie teasers complete with posters for each character. Hunters is above all else an exercise in genre pastiche interspersed with fourth-wall-breaking flights of fancy, from a Bee Gees “Staying Alive” musical interlude to Jonah imagining himself starring in his own action film rated J, for “Jewtastic”. It can be thoughtful and calm in one moment; and incredibly depressing the next as we sit through grim, poignant flashbacks of murder and torture in concentration camps. Much will be said about the extreme tonal shifts but for my money, it all strangely works if you can stomach the violence. The pilot episode titled “In the Belly of the Whale” is especially well-directed thanks to Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s stylized camera movements, gorgeous tracking shots, and single-take sequences.
I suspect some viewers will accuse David Weil as a man who watches too many Tarantino films while other critics will criticize the series for being distasteful. However, as a long-time fan of 70’s exploitation films, I’m totally digging every minute so far. Hunters is a piece of bravura filmmaking— an over-the-top revenge fantasy that melds high comedy with tragic melodrama for pure hypnotic effect. It’s a jaunty, wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy punctuated with some truly emotional dramatic beats and exciting action set-pieces. What’s more, is that it had me truly care about the wellbeing of its central character, I’m really looking forward to the next five episodes.
All in all, Hunters is recommended whole-heartedly for those seeking a mix of pulp fantasy, genre play, and narrative tropes injected with fresh takes and surprising twists.