Amazon’s Hunters is a tough piece of work to judge, at least after the five episodes screened for critics. I have to dole out some credit for this outcome. It’s easy enough to enjoy the premise, given that the series follows a ragtag group of Jewish Nazi killers led by Al Pacino, in his first regular TV role and reinvigorated after The Irishman. The show somehow doesn’t directly hit the target, but it’s hard to dislike it. This is confounding but not infuriating. Mostly, it’s confusing. Let’s start with a question.
Do you recall those fake trailers nestled within the Grindhouse double feature helmed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez? Of course, you do. Those trailers were over-the-top and gleefully tasteless. People gasped and laughed and recoiled, but they watched the ultraviolent trailers rather than take an intermission. Whereas it’s highly doubtful that Edgar Wright’s Don’t, Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women Of The SS, or Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving would have drawn attendees in feature-length form. The trailers’ appeal came down to their condensed format. Anything longer would have been counterproductive and too much. Rodriguez’s Machete (starring Danny Trejo) yielded two films that did, well, okay, but by and large, these trailers knew they were gimmicks and only worked for the few minutes that each gimmick could properly sustain.
Hunters is a lot like those trailers, only stretched into a series of grindhouse-y, hour-long episodes that launch with a 90-minute premiere. It’s not only inspired by Tarantino’s work (obviously, Inglorious Basterds, which was inspired in part by The Dirty Dozen) but by comic books. Batman and Spider-Man metaphors abound. Nazis have infiltrated the government and must be stopped. There’s, um, an inexplicable scene where Logan Lerman’s character, Jonah Heidelbaum (who even works in a comic book store), leads a synchronized dance to “Staying Alive.” It’s… a lot.
The show is executive produced by Jordan Peele, which (like the premise) is enough to stoke initial excitement. He subverted expectations by rising as a horror visionary after his Comedy Central run, and he’s proven that stepping outside the Hollywood box is only as impossible as one believes. His Get Out and Us scripts were laced with provocative and mind-bending commentary on what folks only pretend are post-racial times. Peele did not write Hunters, and I have to wonder how much involvement he had with crafting the story. He’s got his hands in a lot of places right now. Look at his IMDB for the long list of things he’s produced and executive produced over the past few years. He’s busy, and even Jordan Peele cannot do all the things at once.
The lead creative mind of Hunters would be David Weil, who wrote the series while drawing influence from his grandmother’s Holocaust and World War II stories. There’s not much subtlety (or commentary) to be found within how his characters handle the hunting of Nazis. It’s super violent and ultra pulpy, and this is very much a tribute to exploitation films, but there’s a twist. It’s more of a love letter to Quentin Tarantino’s take on exploitation films. And as folks know, Tarantino projects are love letters as well. It’s complicated, rather than complex (like Tarantino’s work), and the “knockoff” aspect is strange because a tribute to pastiche is an odd thing to tackle, in 2020, decades after the wave of Tarantino imitators of the mid-to-late 1990s And Hunters is entertaining, sure, but it’s never going to be credited for sharp-witted writing or nuance. Honestly, I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel after watching the mayhem unfold. And that’s a difficult position to take when, obviously, taking out Nazis is a goal worth rooting for.
The series is carved with a blunt knife is what I’m saying. Led by Pacino’s wealthy Meyer Offerman, not Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine, the show plays in both a gritty and over-stylized manner with Jonah being the new recruit to Offerman’s group. Jonah’s experienced a great tragedy not unlike that of Peter Parker, and his friends are worried that he might go to the dark side. That’s something to be worked out over time, I imagine, but Jonah joins a group that includes a bunch of (also) gritty, over-stylized characters like Roxy (Tiffany Boone in an enormous afro wig), Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvaney in super spy mode), Vietnam vet Joe (Louis Ozawa), Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor), and a married couple who adores firearms, Murray (Saul Rubinek) and Mindy (Carol Kane).
Tonally, it’s more than a little bit off. The revenge scenes generally translate as sadism for the sake of it. A Nazi scientist gets gassed in her own home. Another one is forced to eat feces in a scene that plays out for far too many minutes. It feels heavy-handed and shocking for the sake of nabbing those labels, but it’s certainly not audacious or daring. It’s not Tarantino, and Hunters doesn’t stand far enough apart from attempting to clone Tarantino to qualify as anything else. It’s a colorful, laminated photocopy of Tarantino with a bunch of comic book references tossed in as spices. That might be enough to reel people in, but will it make them stick around for the whole season? I honestly don’t know. Again, Hunters is an alright series, but the episodes are lengthy and not a breezy watch. There’s so much TV out there right now that I have to wonder whether Hunters would have been better as a movie. Or, you know, a grindhouse trailer.
Amazon Prime’s ‘Hunters’ streams on February 21.