Until 2005, Richard Shepard's was a lamentable direct-to-prop-plane filmography populated with such forgettable titles as Cool Blue, Oxygen, Mexico City, and The Linguini Incident, the latter of which was a heist film most notable for pairing David Bowie and Buck Henry — and that's not even a punch line. For a while Shepard disappeared, and out of frustration and sheer desperation he wrote The Matador — about an ordinary man (Greg Kinnear) beguiled by a burned-out hit man (Pierce Brosnan) — and sent it to Brosnan's production company, hoping for a few bucks. Only, it turned out to be the payday that resurrected a career: The Matador proved to be one of that year's most unexpected surprises, a platonic love story masquerading as a darkly comic shoot-'em-up.
The Hunting Party goes one step further — it's two buddies and a baby, as Shepard grows the family to include a young man unsure of what to make of the mayhem that comes with the writer-director's brand of male-bonding. The buddies are old colleagues who made their bones on the battlefield — a network-news war reporter named Simon (Richard Gere) and his cameraman Duck (Terrence Howard) — and their young charge is a freshly scrubbed network vice-president's son, Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg), eager to prove he's more than just the sum of his daddy's paycheck.
Early on, Simon and Duck (the latter, a nickname earned dodging bullets) are seen gathering tales in every war-torn country to which they could book a flight; they're hot shit in the hot zone, drinking and carousing their way through the graveyards. And like all war correspondents inhabiting satirical, cynical movies about their flak-jacketed ilk, they're having a blast, till Simon cracks up on camera during a live report from Bosnia, for reasons that become clear much later. Suffice it to say, there's a point at which the corpses begin to pull you into their graves.
And so Simon and Duck go their separate ways: Duck to a cushy New York gig as cameraman for the network's star anchor (James Brolin, a stiff-haired parody of every newsreader); Simon, to God knows where. They're reunited in Bosnia on the fifth anniversary of reunification, and as small talk turns to discussions of war crimes and the United Nations' failure to bring to justice war criminals brazenly listed in the phone book, Simon persuades his old pal Duck to join him on one last adventure. Simon has a bead on "The Fox" (Ljubomir Kerekes), a Serbian war criminal hiding deep in the woods, where he now hunts animals instead of men, women, and children. Duck thinks Simon just wants an interview; Simon wants much more from the man whose head is worth a $5 million bounty.
Despite their press credentials and the presence of sweet, innocent tag-along Benjamin, Simon and Duck are constantly mistaken for CIA operatives — hit men out to off the Fox. If all this seems ridiculous, it's important to note that The Hunting Party is based on a wonderfully breezy 2000 Esquire story by Scott Anderson, "What I Did On My Summer Vacation," in which Anderson and four fellow scribes (among them, The Perfect Storm's author Sebastian Junger) try to pull off just what Simon, Duck, and Benjamin attempt here. "It'd make a helluva movie," says a soldier at the end of Anderson's story — and it does, with Shepard only slightly altering the journalist's tale. (The filmmaker has considerable fun playing with the truth, going so far as so reveal what's fact and what's fiction before the end credits.)
Like many of the best movies about war and its lingering echo, from M*A*S*H to Three Kings to No Man's Land (the latter, set in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993), The Hunting Party is full of dark humor. Shepard is a master at finding the right tone, balancing the seriousness of his characters' purpose with the madness of their intentions. These are, after all, average men in search of a monster.
Shepard once again finds actors willing to go along for the bumpy ride: Gere, buried in somber, dead-eyed leading man roles till this year's The Hoax, hasn't been this alive onscreen since 1990's Internal Affairs, and Howard quickly ditches his silk togs for sandpaper nerves as he hangs on for dear life one last time. Eisenberg, a wonder in The Squid and the Whale, actually seems to grow an inch or two during The Hunting Party. But it's Shepard who's grown the most: With his soundtrack blaring rock obscurities and his camera jerking this way and that, he's has finally found his style — and it's noisy and sentimental and crude and a total goddamned blast.