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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 punchline. For a while Shepard disappeared altogether, 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 Hunting Party involves 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 (a nickname earned dodging bullets) are seen gathering tales in every war-torn country to which they can book a flight. 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.
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 news reader), 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 convinces his old pal Duck to join him in one last adventure. He 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 author Sebastian Junger) try to pull off just what Simon, Duck and Benjamin attempt here.
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 on screen 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 has finally found his style — and it's noisy and sentimental and crude and a total goddamned blast.
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