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Amazon's Hunters is a fast, frenetic show that’s all over the place — emotionally, violently and conspiratorially

  • "On the one hand, Hunters seems (and plays) like pulp fantasy," says Hank Stuever of the Jordan Peele-produced Amazon Nazi-hunting series "On that pesky other hand, here in 2020, there have been shootings in synagogues and a rise in anti-Semitic speech and hate crimes. Because even the most self-evident truths have gone blurry, Hunters can sometimes feel powered by contemporary outrage. But the show...also struggles to find a sure footing between two disparate tonal tracks. Quite a bit of Hunters dwells in that vividly imaginative space suggested by Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds (and more recently, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit), in which Hitler’s lingering reach is converted into a campy menace and battled back with physical skills, cunning espionage and assorted heavily armed hokey-ness. At the same time, Hunters frequently flashes back to the Holocaust itself, where a younger version of Pacino’s character, Meyer Offerman, survives Nazi torture and begins to conceive of a lasting revenge. In these scenes, the mood dial switches to a Schindler’s List mode in intensity and horror. Well into the 10 episodes (five of which were made available for this review), you’ll have one scene where disco kids shimmy to the Bee Gees on the Coney Island boardwalk, and then, in another scene set 35 years earlier, it’s point-blank executions at Auschwitz."


    • Hunters tries to be a tale of Jewish identity — but it doubles as torture porn for neo-Nazis: "Hunters is a conundrum," says Aja Romano. "Though its heavily stylized ’70s aesthetic places it squarely within the mode of 'Jewsploitation' popularized by similar stories of semi-satirical Jewish revenge (like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), it takes its storyline too seriously to be effective as a pastiche. Instead, in its eagerness to depict its subject through the pivoting lenses of gleeful satire and high melodrama, Hunters usually shifts into empty provocation. Hunters’ creator, TV newcomer David Weil, based Hunters in part upon his grandparents’ experiences as Holocaust survivors. That seems like a set-up for powerful storytelling. But as I watched Hunters, I worried that the show might be far more effective at titillating and arousing Nazi sympathizers than it is at speaking to the Jewish community. For all of its emphasis on Jewish traditions, rites, storytelling, and myth-making, Hunters gives its villains ample room to argue their points."
    • Hunters is the kind of show that will challenge you -- aesthetically, narratively, and morally: "It’s a comic-book-styled drama, like the ubiquitous origin stories of Spiderman, Batman, and Superman, but it’s rooted in the real horror of the Holocaust and the double-edged sword that is violent vigilante vengeance," says Matthew Gilbert. "Created by David Weil and executive produced by Jordan Peele, the show is audacious, tonally complex, not always in control of its message, visually arresting, and, particularly in its grim flashbacks to the brutalities and the courage in the death camps, moving. It will surely offend some, as it draws Nazis into a broad genre-tinged entertainment — but that bold move, part of the origin story of Golden Age superhero comic books themselves, as well as the conversations it will trigger, are part of the show’s power. I doubt anyone will watch Hunters — with its flashy 'Bam!' and 'Pow!' action sequences pushed up against the bottomless sorrows of the Holocaust — and shrug."
    • It's hard to decide if Hunters is quality TV, but it is fascinating: "After seeing five episodes, I'm still struggling to decide if the show is quality TV, and if I like it or not," says Daniel Fienberg. "What I'm sure of is that I find it fascinating and while I may not necessary want to recommend it, I want to talk to people about it, so I guess that's a recommendation of a different kind? This is a ballsy, unnerving, entertaining, overreaching show, one likely to provoke and annoy in equal measure. It may require an almost Talmudic level of study to determine if Hunters is good or bad for the Jews, but I'm willing to participate."
    • Hunters is an extremely aggressive TV show on pretty much every level: "It’s aggressive in tone, and jarring in its many tonal shifts," says Jen Chaney. "It’s often extremely violent. Its evocation of its primary era — the summer of 1977 — is as loud as an 8-track of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack cranked to the highest possible volume. (Sometimes Hunters actually does crank up songs from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack at a high volume.) All of which makes it odd that one of the least aggressive things in this new Amazon series is Al Pacino...There’s plenty of revenge to go around in this ten-episode drama, created by first-time-series creator and showrunner David Weil and executive-produced by Jordan Peele. In general, there’s a lot of a LOT to go around in Hunters, which strives for serious drama and LOL comedy while engaging in wild action sequences one moment, then depicting wrenching flashbacks to the Holocaust in the next. It’s a streaming series that goes out on many limbs but, based on the five episodes offered for review, doesn’t have the sense of equilibrium to hold its balance on any of them."
    • Hunters should work with its unassailable premise and Al Pacino -- but it's more Jojo Rabbit than Inglourious Basterds: "Placing itself alongside such contemporaries, Hunters starts with a built-in disadvantage. (Quentin) Tarantino is an undisputed master who synthesized decades of moviegoing into a modern vernacular; Watchmen dared to confront the prejudice woven into the fabric of American society," says Alison Herman. "Hunters’ antecedents also comment on and engage with the influences Hunters itself uses merely for aesthetics. Working class outer-borough teen Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), conscripted into Meyer’s scheme after the murder of his grandmother Ruth (Jeannie Berlin), has Peter Parker written all over him, a comparison Hunters immediately makes explicit; Jonah derisively refers to Meyer as 'Professor X,' while Meyer calls the Torah 'the original comic book.' But where Watchmen explored superhero mythology’s toxic consequences and Basterds celebrated cinema as a means to assert control of a narrative, Hunters lets its references simply lie there. The show isn’t trying to say anything about these concepts, only deploy them for maximum effect—a convenient metaphor for its treatment of larger themes like retribution and justice. Too often, Hunters tries to be Inglourious Basterds but lands somewhere in the vicinity of Jojo Rabbit."
    • Hunters is like a George Clooney Batman movie directed by Quentin Tarantino: "Hunters is a strange show, all aestheticized violence and infantile philosophizing, like a George Clooney Batman movie directed by Quentin Tarantino," says Sophie Gilbert. "The style is big and loud, as befits the 1977 setting; the superhero references are endless; the Holocaust is invoked and re-created in flashback sequences so many times that the show has to invent new atrocities for the Nazis to commit (the old ones being apparently not enough). One character is referred to as 'a real-life fucking Jewperhero.' A psychopath shoots a flamingo in a fit of pique. All the while, Hunters labors to emphasize its own moral depth, even as its main theoretical concern comes down to a fairly basic question: Is it okay to kill a Nazi?"
    • Hunters' main flaw is trying to be Tarantino-esque while infusing the show with humanity and realism: "Hunters tries to straddle both worlds, appealing to our childish urge for uncomplicated cause-and-effect narrative while forcefully extracting pathos from one of history’s greatest atrocities," says Shane Ryan. "In doing so, the writers gesture limply in both directions and create something that is, from a moralistic standpoint, insipid. Which is not to say you won’t enjoy it, at least a little. The two episodes I watched were not entertaining enough for me to keep going, but nor were they so dull that I felt the time spent was totally wasted. I’ve written before that there is a tendency among a certain type of liberal to view American politics as a comic book with arch-villains and superheroes doing battle in a realm somewhere above the reach of human influence. The desire for uncomplicated arcs culminating in the emphatic delivery of justice is of great appeal to this mindset, and it’s far less damaging to indulge that appetite through the means of a shallow TV show than through actual politics."
    • It's hard to ignore the parallels with Watchmen: "Of course, creator David Weil was at work on this show long before Watchmen premiered," says Richard Lawson. "But it’s hard not to notice the parallels. Like Watchmen, Hunters takes an historical trauma—a great, defining crime of modern civilization—and investigates its ramifications, its concentric ripples, through the lens of comic-book pop art. Hunters is a violent show about reprisal, yes. But it’s also as much about how a sensational imagining of cultural pain can, strangely, work to heal that grief—or at least illuminate it. There’s something deeply moving about how Hunters allows itself to traffic in epic, weighty operatics, just as Watchmen did. In that way, both shows say some interesting things about the power of storytelling, about what an important role lore can serve in a community, right alongside the hard, bitter history. That’s Hunters at its best, a sad and yet propulsive portrait of the Holocaust’s horror as an almost living entity, seething under the skin of the world even some thirty years later. At other times, Weil’s instincts go more lowbrow, particularly when he tries to be funny. When it isn’t plumbing a well of agony and loss, Hunters wants to be an arch thriller-comedy of unlikely allies, a tone that clashes with the series’s more serious, mournful inquests."
    • Hunters is too cool and self-conscious for its own good: "Hunters’ part-pulp sensibility frequently veers into hamminess – and that’s on top of the discomfort arising from taking this approach to a historical trauma the size, weight and fathomless depth of the Holocaust," says Lucy Mangan. "This misjudgment is perhaps of a piece with the decision to cast Pacino as Offerman, over any number of equally qualified big-name Jewish actors. It’s not wrong, in any ineluctable sense but it does inspire a fleeting sense of unease and a feeling that moral duties may not be being discharged as fully as they should."
    • While the show does a lot of different things, one thing it doesn’t do is spend its time well: "The first episode is nearly an hour and a half long; each of the four that follow clock in at about an hour," says Joshua Rivera. "An inordinate amount of that time is spent mulling over a missed opportunity, longing for moments with the barely expressed rage of Pacino’s Offerman, or following any of the other Hunters instead of Jonah. It’s telling that, for all its stylistic quirks, the show is at its best when it’s playing it straight: the fourth episode, which tells twin stories of a bank heist and a couple’s desperate escape from a concentration camp, is among the best of the bunch and is delivered in a simple fashion. Like the eponymous team it follows, Hunters has a list of goals, and some of those goals are in conflict with one another. It wants to be a harrowing remembrance of the suffering of the Holocaust, a satisfying revenge fantasy, a sensational period piece, and a dark comedy. These can all be achieved together with skill, but only if the tension between them is acknowledged and addressed. Instead, the show shifts from tone to tone, more temperamental than genre-bending thrill ride."
    • Hunters reveals the limits of vengeance: "It is perfectly acceptable for historical fiction to fully abandon thematic accuracy — precision is a better standard, anyway, because what really matters is if the fictive world described can stand on its own terms," says Noah Kulwin. "But Hunters fails on those terms. It’s a bang-bang show that attempts to balance Big Short-style explanations of what really happened after the war with the cheap thrill of airholing Nazis, zooming in real close on the blood spatters. The show’s insistence on resolving these problems with more vengeance reveals an inability to confront a challenge for which Hunters is not equipped: What do you do about Nazis when you can’t punch them?"
    • It's a huge meal of a concept to swallow, one that is wildly ambitious if not always fully realized: "Bold, graphically violent and imperfect, the series tells a story of culture, religion, righteousness and revenge against a backdrop of blood, grief and excruciating pain. It's jarring and ideologically messy but infinitely watchable," says Kelly Lawler. "In the five episodes made available for review (out of a 10-episode first season), it's not clear what Hunters is trying to say about history, the modern resurgence in anti-Semitic violence or, at times, even its own characters. But it is evident that the creators and actors are firing every cannon in their arsenal trying to shout something, and there's still time to figure out what that is."
    • Hunters manages to be abusive to the audience: The Amazon series "is fixated in ways by which violence can be made weird," says Daniel D'Addario. "It features a vast conspiracy of Nazis embedded in the U.S. government, one of whom enters the series by committing a gruesome mass killing. It goes on to depict the baroque ways a team led by Al Pacino’s Meyer Offerman obtains revenge on their quarry, including force-feeding manure to a society matron as she pleads for mercy. Yuck! This scene, like many others on Hunters,” makes its point, then goes on making it long after the stomach has turned. This show seems to borrow much of its aesthetic from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds — a film about the gleeful process of claiming vengeance on Hitler’s footsoldiers — but it fails to get the alchemical balance right. Its nastiness, even as deployed against the world’s worst people, fugitives from justice, somehow comes to feel more like abuse of the audience. Its big bad, a young convert to the Nazi cause played by Greg Austin, is somehow both superhumanly powerful and easily evaded to the point where his perpetual reappearances carry little weight; its banter just isn’t funny enough." The comparison to Inglourious Basterds is unfair, but "it’s one the show requests," says D'Addario. "There’s a reason that merging wit, flair and joyful nastiness with the aftermath of the 20th century’s defining tragedy was so widely understood as an accomplishment when Tarantino pulled it off: Because it’s hard."
    • "Movie star" Al Pacino likes working in TV because it's "kind of dangerous": What was the biggest thing Pacino had to get used to in being a TV series regular? "Every two or three weeks, you have a new director," he tells the Los Angeles Times. "This is unusual and something I’ve never tried before. (Laughs.) But because the storyline, what it was about, was so unique, it felt almost appropriate. Almost. You don’t have the time to get used to someone. Some of the directors I responded to more than others. I don’t look at the footage I do. What I usually do, which I got used to doing for a while, is wait until a film comes together and then I offer feedback. My input comes then, not during the shooting, unless a director tells me I’m really on the wrong track. What I’m used to is having rehearsals. But the world has changed. There aren’t many rehearsals. But I like the idea of being in the moment, turning around and saying, 'What are we doing here? Where are we going?' That’s kind of dangerous, which I like in a way."
    • Hunters marks Pacino's regular TV series debut: Pacino says of his HBO work on Angels in America, You Don’t Know Jack and Phil Spector: "The HBO things were so much more like a film."
    • Logan Lerman on working with Pacino: "I mean, it was so cool to work with him," he says. "Just to spend time with him… ahh, I just love the man very much. The truth is that, beyond work, beyond what we do for a living and artistically, he’s just a great person. A very lovely soul and humble and hardworking, and someone that I just deeply admire."
    • Creator David Weil, who grew up with "casual anti-Semitism," says Hunters reflects the rise in anti-Semitic acts in recent years: “I think for a long time this anti-Semitism was kind of couched — people held it inside — but we’re seeing this expression of anti-Semitism and racism and xenophobia in incredibly violent ways," says Weil. "There’s an epidemic of this in our country and I think unfortunately Hunters is timelier than ever before."
    • Weil enjoyed Jojo Rabbit, but had one big problem with it: "It was incredibly vital. And I’ll go there: I absolutely adored Jojo Rabbit for many reasons, but my one big complication with it was that I felt like it portrayed the Nazis as buffoons," he says. "From Jojo’s point of view, I can understand that; that’s his experience, and we’re seeing it through his eyes. But in the more omniscient scenes, with the Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson characters—if those Nazi characters are buffoons, and they carried out genocide against millions of people, what does that make their victims? Do you see what I’m saying?"
    • Weil says Hunters' violence is an arc of the show: “In the beginning, it feels poppy-er, it feels more fun," he says. "Slowly our characters begin to feel, ‘What? It shouldn’t feel fun, it shouldn’t feel right,’ and it begins to tear at their souls. And so, we need that poppy-ness, we need that sometimes gratuity so it can slowly desaturate and become darker, more real, more urgent.” Weil's fellow co-showrunner Nikki Toscano adds that the tone is a constant balancing act: “I feel like any of the scenes that take place in the concentration camps are handled with a great deal of reverence. Obviously, we know violence existed during that period of time, but in those cases, we prefer to suggest it than to show it,” she says. “It’s also more powerful. Then, I think that there’s a lot of fun that we have with some of the violence that we dole out in 1977 New York. With every scene, there’s a careful amount of attention to what kind of violence we’re allowing that scene to employ based on who the target is.”

    TOPICS: Hunters, Amazon Prime Video, Al Pacino, David Weil, Jordan Peele, Logan Lerman, Nikki Toscano