After Pulp Fiction became something of a phenomenon in 1994, there was a period where producers and filmmakers were practically tripping over themselves to follow its lead. The end result was a steady string of Quentin Tarantino knock-offs – overwritten crime films with “quirky” characters spouting “cool” dialogue. In many ways, Hunters, a new series created by David Weil and debuting soon on Amazon, feels as if it time-traveled to the present from that particular era. By the time a goofy montage unfolds scored to Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” – the surf guitar song that blasted over the Pulp Fiction opening credits – I started to wonder if Hunters would have any personality of its own.
The premise is solid: It’s the late 1970s, and America has been infiltrated by Nazis. The majority of the country is oblivious to this, but one small group of people have caught on. They’re the Hunters, a rag-tag team that has the market cornered on Nazi hunting. It’s a comic book-style scenario that Hunters leans into more than once, to the point where one character refers to the group as “Jew-perheroes” (more on dialogue like that in a bit).
Tradition dictates that we, the audience, can’t just simply jump directly into a world like this. We need some sort of surrogate, and we get one in the form of Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a New York kid who lives with his beloved grandmother (Jeannie Berlin) while dealing a little pot on the side. Jonah’s entire world is thrown upside down when his grandmother is murdered during a break-in. The cops think it was a robbery gone wrong, but Jonah isn’t so sure about that. And he’s right, of course. His grandmother was onto the existence of Nazis hiding in America, and was targeted as a result.
Enter Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), an old friend of Jonah’s grandmother who takes Jonah under his wing. Meyer is the Professor X of the Hunters – their wealthy leader and guardian. As for the team itself, it features sarcastic, ass-kicking nun and former MI6 agent Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvany); the super cool, blacksploitation-inspired Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone); a bickering elderly couple (Saul Rubinek and Carol Kane) great at codebreaking; Joe (Louis Ozawa), who seems to be the most skillful killer of the bunch; and Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor), a washed-up actor turned master of disguise. All of the characters are appropriately quirky and slightly exaggerated, a decision that the show seems to think is endearing when it’s anything but.
There’s nothing wrong with creating larger-than-life characters like this, but it helps if the material knows how to balance them out. Hunters, however, is a smorgasbord of tones, going for both over-the-top comedy and horrifying sorrow. Cartoonish splash-page montages exist back-to-back with unflinching flashbacks set in concentration camps. It takes a deft hand to encompass material like this – and that deft hand is severely lacking here. Instead of relying on character-and-world-building to pull us into this story, Hunters saddles itself with painfully on-the-nose moments, such as a scene where a Nazi recruit (Greg Austin) is doing his laundry at a laundromat, where he comes face-to-face with an African American woman. She notices a swastika tattoo on his shoulder, and he notices her noticing. While separating his clothes he glares at her and snarls, “When you don’t separate the whites from the coloreds, the coloreds always bleed.”
That’s about the level of subtlety at play here. And when Hunters isn’t stumbling with moments like that, it’s forcing painfully “cool” or punny dialogue on its characters. “I would’ve mazeled her tov!” the perpetually horny Lonny says, while another scene has someone else referring to the snooping Jonah as “Shylock Holmes.” You get the picture.
But it’s not all dire. When Hunters stops trying to be so quotable and idiosyncratic, it manages to conjure up some powerful moments, such as Jonah becoming perturbed by the violence he’s surrounding himself with; or in particularly brutal and unflinching flashbacks to the Holocaust. And while most of the supporting players are left adrift by poor character development, Pacino is pitch-perfect. In his later years, the great actor has developed a reputation for going big. But Pacino is surprisingly reserved here, playing Meyer as someone perpetually weary. Lerman is also quite good as Jonah, and he and Pacino have some strong, mostly quiet moments together. But Jonah is never that interesting, and once he introduces us to the world of the Hunters, his character starts to feel extraneous.
The flaws behind Hunters are too large to overlook, and yet the show is admittedly rewarding. Yes, you’ve seen all the Tarantino-style tricks the show throws at you before. And yes, the dialogue is bound to make you roll your eyes more than a few times. But the show’s angle of fascists gaining power in America while a group of people decide to finally fight back – and kick some Nazi ass – is undeniably entertaining, even cathartic. It’s too bad the show doesn’t have much else to offer.
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