Even if you don’t count Netflix's The Irishman, TV has been very good to Al Pacino. Since the mid-90s, his film work has been — ahem — a challenge to his legacy. Movies like Two for the Money, S1m0ne, and 88 Minutes certainly weren’t winning awards, while Gigli and Jack and Jill were just a step above war crimes
But around 2003, Pacino started making appearances in high profile TV projects that reminded us he why he’s a legend. He almost seems like a different kind of actor on the small screen, or perhaps more like the actor he was in the 70s: One who’s interested in small moments, dense layers, and strange structures. That may be because streaming services and premium cable are the only places that will fund the offbeat projects he’s interested in, but whatever the reason, TV Pacino almost feels like a different artist than Movie Pacino.
That bodes well for Hunters, Amazon Prime’s high-concept drama about American Nazi hunters tracking and killing underground fascists in the 1970s. Pacino, in his first-ever series role, plays Meyer Offerman, a high-ranking member of the hunting brigade, and all indications are that he’s a perfect fit for the show’s mixture of menace, humor, and moral reckoning.
And while we won’t know for sure until the show premieres on February 21, Meyer Offerman already looks like a natural extension of the TV Pacino canon.
In all four of his previous major TV projects, he’s played real men with murky morals. (As it happens, all four were movies for HBO.) On the “good guy but also maybe a bad guy” scale, a Nazi hunter who murders in the name of justice ranks somewhere around Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who helpeded terminally ill patients commit suicide in the name of mercy. Pacino played Kevorkian in 2010’s You Don’t Know Jack, and eight years later he re-teamed with Jack director Barry Levinson for Paterno, playing disgraced football coach Joe Paterno. Both movies play like intimate chamber dramas, pulling us into the insular and often self-deluded worlds that these men created for themselves. Though Pacino’s performances have moments of his trademark explosive energy, they're rooted in introspection. He fills that containment with life, and in Paterno especially, he makes thinking dynamic.
Not that Pacino has to go small on TV. In Phil Spector, written and directed by David Mamet, he pushes the noxious (and possibly murderous) record producer to almost unbearable extremes. The movie was not beloved, but Pacino’s performance is exciting in its gross arrogance. And then there’s his work as Roy Cohn in Angels in America, Mike Nichols’ brilliant adaptation of Tony Kushner’s two-part play. Pacino thrives inside the movie’s heightened world, where even “real” people like Cohn deliver thundering arias in the midst of the AIDS crisis. He won an Emmy for his work, and he turned in a performance whose atomic-level energy and perfectly crafted technique stand alongside his work in The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon.
There seems to be a touch of Angels in Hunters, as well. It certainly comes across as stylized and aesthetically confident, and the 10-hour first season means it can reach for the same epic ambition as the four-hour Angels in America,. It will be exciting to see if the show can push Pacino to the same heights, making his TV career even more iconic.
All ten episodes of Hunters drop on Amazon this Friday February 21st.
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Mark Blankenship is a critic and reporter who has contributed to The New York Times, Variety, and many others. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.