War is … a living.
At least it was for Simon, a hotshot television journalist who dashed from battle zone to battle zone, dispensing images of armed conflict to his viewers in two-minute segments. He lived on adrenaline and stand-up news shots, his only companion a trusty cameraman called Duck—so nicknamed because he screamed the word so often.
But then, one day in Bosnia around 1995, Simon saw one corpse too many and snapped during a live broadcast. His semi-coherent, swear-ridden rant got him fired and sent him to media purgatory. Five years later, an unkempt Simon scrapes out a living as a freelance correspondent, paying his own way to the-war-of-the-moment and filing reports to small networks in Poland and Jamaica.
But now Simon has a plan. He tells Duck he has a feed on where The Fox—the Bosnian War’s most notorious war criminal—is hiding these days. Never mind that “every bounty hunter from here to Chuck Norris” has been searching for the guy. Simon says The Fox is hanging out near a small town called Celebici, near the Montenegrin border. And he’s determined to infiltrate The Fox’s intimidating security network and snag an exclusive interview with him. Or capture him and get the $5 million bounty. Or maybe both.
Duck figures it’s the longest of long shots but agrees to join Simon’s quixotic quest—for old-times’ sake. And Benjamin, the pampered son of a network vice president, decides to tag along, too.
Simon saves someone’s life, even with the understanding that it could cost him his own. [Spoiler Warning] Though he goes about it in dubious ways, Simon wants to bring a diabolical war criminal to justice. And, as the audience discovers later, he’s not in it for the money.
Duck’s motivations to join the chase are more based on brotherly love than an altruistic sense of justice. Unlike Simon, Duck’s career is flying. He’s the main cameraman for his network’s nightly news cast—a high-paying job that rarely requires him to dodge bullets for his next check. He was about to fly to Greece, where his girlfriend is waiting for him, when he meets Simon again. But when his scruffy-looking partner asks him to participate in his bizarre scheme, Duck still elects to go along—in part because there’s an off chance it could all be true, but more because of his faith in, and old friendship with, Simon.
The phrase “ethnic cleansing” goes hand-in-hand with the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, most often referring to the atrocities perpetrated against Bosnia’s predominantly Islamic population. The film stresses several scenes in which Muslims are the victims of the war’s often systematic genocide. It doesn’t mention the religious affiliation of the perpetrators (predominantly Christian).
The Hunting Party makes it clear that some Serbs see The Fox not just as a hero, but as a nearly supernatural figure. Duck warns Simon that “The Fox is their god. People protect their god.” One Serbian waiter tells the journalists, “[The Fox] is everywhere. He knows everything. If you corner him, even God cannot help you.”
Duck says that Bosnian whiskey uncorks a “devil” that “sits in a corner, just laughing.”
Duck telephones his girlfriend, who answers while dressed in a skimpy bikini. When Duck tells her he’ll be delayed a couple of days, the girl says that if he could see the way she was dressed, he’d take the next flight out. “I can wait, but I don’t know for how long,” she says.
When he calls a few days later, she’s still dressed in a bikini as she suns herself on a posh cruise ship—and enjoys slaps on the rump delivered by one of the boat’s guests. Another guest is seen lounging on the boat, topless, breasts fully exposed.
Simon moons the news camera; an obscene phrase is scrawled across his backside.
Duck gets involved in a heavy make-out session with one woman. Later he’s shown sitting in bed, apparently naked, with another. (She’s lying on her stomach, her bare back exposed; he’s sitting up, his lower parts obscured by covers.) He also chats with Simon while Simon takes a bath. (Simon’s shown from the shoulders up.)
Characters reference sexual organs with a host of coarse terminology. Duck compares covering war to an erection. There’s talk (some of it joking) of sodomy, rape and prostitution.
[Spoiler Warning] It becomes evident that Duck and Simon were involved with two Bosnian women at some point, and Simon’s relationship turns serious. We see the two kiss and touch each other, and while the camera stays focused squarely on their faces, we learn that their relationship led to the woman becoming pregnant. …
Later, Simon finds her corpse, her pregnant belly pocked with bullet holes, her pants pulled down—suggesting that the Serbian soldiers raped her before or after killing her. Two soldiers sit nearby and laugh.
It’s nearly redundant, then, to say that the casualties of war are sometimes graphically depicted in The Hunting Party. We see dozens of corpses lying in rubble, as well as a bloody, dismembered leg.
Scenes from Simon and Duck’s early days together feature gunfire and explosions. In addition, the film repurposes footage from an old Chuck Norris flick, in which Norris rises from murky waters and pelts a primitive-looking building with gunfire. (The building explodes.)
The war in Bosnia may be over by the time Simon et al begin looking for The Fox, but as they get closer to Celebici, the locals start shooting at them. Suddenly it looks like Simon’s lark may get everybody killed. (The Fox is rumored to have 50 security guards, headed by a psycho who has the comforting phrase “I was dead the day I was born” tattooed on his forehead.)
A huge truck hits their car from behind, forcing them off the road. A bunch of Serbian gangsters threatens to shoot them, and the head of the gang grabs and painfully squeezes Simon’s private parts. Both Simon and Benjamin are threatened by an axe-wielding killer. Even a Serbian waiter squeezes off a few rounds as the trio drives away.
[Spoiler Warning] Simon, Duck and Benjamin are at one point rescued by the CIA in a brief but violent shootout, during which their assailant is shown getting hit in the head with a bullet. We later see his corpse with a pair of bullet holes in his stomach, and blood pooling around his head.
The Fox kills a fox, and his accompanying friend lifts the animal’s corpse off the forest floor.
The f-bomb is dropped in this war-torn flick nearly 100 times, not counting possible uses in unintelligible (to me) Eastern European languages. The s-word is trotted out 25 times, with various other curses (“a–,” “h—,” “d–n”) and obscene references to sexual organs blasting the script. God’s name is misused at least 10 times; Jesus’ name is misused five.
When they arrive in Celebici, Duck and Benjamin ask Simon what he’s going to do next. “I’m going to do what any good journalist does when he gets to a new place,” he says. “I’m going to find a bar.”
Indeed, Simon spends a good chunk of the film drinking. He raids Duck’s hotel minibar, buys a round of drinks for dubious Serbs and, at an awards banquet, looks a little tipsy. And he’s not alone. Duck initiates Benjamin into the world of journalism by getting the young fellow completely soused. Benjamin staggers through the hotel hallways and, after shouting Duck’s name in jest while pretending to duck, dashes into his room—presumably to throw up. Simon and Duck are shown drinking with their Bosnian women companions.
Simon’s infamous on-camera meltdown is rumored (erroneously) to be the product of him being either drunk or high or both. He does refer to wanting a quaalude, and Duck strums out The Ramones’ tune “I Want to Be Sedated” on a guitar that bears a picture of a marijuana leaf.
Simon smokes a cigar, and a few extras are shown, in passing, toking on hookahs. But its cigarettes that are the smoke of choice in Bosnia.
Simon steals and freeloads with alarming frequency. He asks Duck to pay for their food, then pockets the money Duck leaves at the table, claiming he needed it more. He sleeps in Duck’s hotel room because apparently he doesn’t have his own. To start paying back a loan Simon took from a Serbian gang, he hands over Duck’s guitar. Simon eventually buys Duck another guitar, but to do so he uses $100 he borrows from Benjamin.
The Hunting Party is based on American journalist Scott Anderson’s Esquire article, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” According to Anderson, there were five journalists, not three, who on a whim decided to chase after Dr. Radovan Karadzic, one of the Bosnian War’s most notorious architects. He says the journalists were indeed mistaken for a CIA hit squad. And that they did get close to Karadzic.
The film concludes with a cheeky montage designed to separate fact from fiction. Sort of. But since it opened with the odd declaration, “Only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true,” audiences are largely left to sort things out for themselves.
While retaining some of the outlandish bureaucratic silliness of the original Esquire article, this Richard Gere-led retelling can’t quite bear to approach the story as simple farce. Actually, it’s hard to discern whether the filmmakers wanted to make this a comedy, tragedy or political commentary. It’s M.A.S.H. gone awry. It’s a romance that ends with death. And it—along with Simon—bemoans the horror of war even while relishing it.
It should also be noted that this film (as did the original article) explicitly hypothesizes that the United States government doesn’t really want to find these war criminals. How can the most powerful force in the world—the script asks—fail to find The Fox in five years when three journalists, operating on a hunch, bumble their way to him in two days? And, at the end, it’s suggested with a snide wink that maybe it’s because so much time and effort is being put into looking for Osama bin Laden. (Ouch.)
I’m not going to pursue the specific agendas and ethics of war, journalism and the United States government here. They deserve more thought, time and space than a movie review can deliver. And for that matter, more thought, time and space than a movie allows, too.
The ethics of a movie’s content, however, are another matter. And you don’t need to scavenge much in The Hunting Party to find profanity, obscenity, nudity and some gratuitously brutal images of war. It’s a story that dwells on and depicts immorality even as it tries to moralize—an irony most likely not lost on Scott Anderson.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.