Flashy, Splashy 'Hunters' Is More Fun Than It Should Be

Feb 21, 2020
Originally published on March 5, 2020 9:44 am

Can you make a habit of killing really evil people — say, unrepentant Nazis hiding in America — and still hold onto your soul?

That's one of the biggest questions at the heart of Amazon Prime Video's electric new series Hunters. It's a splashy story about a scrappy band of investigators tracking down a secret cabal of Nazis in the 1970s that occasionally is a lot more fun than it should be, given the subject at hand.

The show begins with Dylan Baker chewing scenery as Biff Simpson, a crude-talking under secretary of state holding court in a setting that couldn't be more steeped in Americana: a backyard cookout.

But when one of the guests drops her own façade, revealing she's a Jewish woman from overseas who recognizes Biff from his past, Simpson admits he was once a Nazi officer — before silencing her for good.

"I'm so glad I didn't gas you in the camps," he purrs before shooting her. "This is so much more delicious."

It's a flamboyant, surreal scene that epitomizes the tone of Hunters. At times, the action is flashy as a comic book, as producers — including Get Out mastermind Jordan Peele — present a story about Nazi hunting that feels like Batman-meets-the-Dirty-Dozen, as directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Each member of the team is a specialist, from a working actor/disguise artist to a husband and wife team of weapons experts. But they're also pretty damaged people, with demons that spark a lot of the show's humor and in-your-face irreverence.

Stories like this often benefit from introducing a newbie character — as others explain the situation to him, they also explain it to the audience. In Hunters, that character is Logan Lerman's Jonah Heidelbaum, a comic book store clerk who likes to debate naïve ideas about heroism and villainy and Star Wars bad guy Darth Vader.

"Vader doesn't get up every day looking to destroy the galaxy," Jonah tells his pals. "He gets up every morning believing he needs to save it ... The only difference between a hero and villain is who sells more costumes at Halloween."

Hunters' motley crew includes a husband and wife team of weapons experts and a nun, among others.
Christopher Saunders / Amazon Studios, Prime Video

But it's not long before Jonah's simple cynicism is turned on its head. His grandmother is killed inside their home, and Jonah meets a man who knew her when they were both imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp — Al Pacino's wealthy businessman Meyer Offerman.

As Jonah notes, dropping another comic book reference, Meyer has "Bruce Wayne money." He is a wizened Holocaust survivor with a thick Yiddish accent, who has assembled a secret team aimed at unmasking Nazis hiding in America. He had a special connection to Jonah's "savta" — Hebrew for grandmother — including her in the vigilante group.

And he's well past worrying about the morality of exposing and executing Nazis who escaped the fall of the Third Reich.

"We survived the greatest mass eradication in human history," Meyer says to Jonah in a secret room inside his mansion that, indeed, feels a bit Batcave-like. "And we arrive home to find the people who did this to us; they are our neighbors. So tell me: What should we do? Shake hands? Turn a blind eye? ... The greatest single gift of the Jewish people is our capacity to remember."

As you can tell from Meyer's monologue, the messages in Hunters are subtle as a sledgehammer. The secret Nazis crow about how Americans are too busy fighting among themselves to see them coming. And Meyer warns Jonah that history is rarely fully in the past; instead, new people keep repeating it, hoping for a different outcome.

We've seen this type of vengeance story before. But 'Hunters' tone makes it feel unique and entertaining. -

At times, it seems the show isn't sure whether it wants to make you laugh at this misfit band of vigilantes or jolt you with horrifyingly visceral flashbacks to the concentration camps (one scene where prisoners are used as human game pieces and executed in a living chess match, is particularly brutal). Viewers can sometimes feel a bit of tonal whiplash, as the story lurches from one extreme to the other.

The show references everything from blaxploitation films to pulpy B-movies with an over-the-top attitude that leaves little room for nuance. Still, over the five episodes I saw, the plot moved a little slowly for my taste, as we learn the Nazis have their own grand plan afoot.

Pacino, in a rare TV series role, is the marquee name here. But Logan Lerman's Jonah is the show's backbone. His struggle over whether to take on the burden of vengeance for his grandmother's murder offers one of the show's few subtler questions, allowing Lerman to shine as performer.

We've seen this type of vengeance story before. But Hunters' tone makes it feel unique and entertaining — speaking to the danger of complacency about the strength of democracy, alongside the hazards of forgetting the Holocaust's bitter lessons.

This story was edited for radio by Ted Robbins and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A band of scrappy investigators in the 1970s unearths a secret cabal of Nazis in the Amazon Prime drama "Hunters." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show, which debuts today, is unique, so much so that Al Pacino's presence in the cast isn't the most interesting thing about it. And be warned - there are spoilers ahead.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Hunters" opens with a scene that couldn't be more steeped in Americana - a backyard cookout held by the U.S. Under Secretary of State Biff Simpson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HUNTERS")

DYLAN BAKER: (As Biff Simpson) Biff Jr., kiddo, lay off your sister or no "Six Million Dollar Man" tonight.

DEGGANS: But when a guest's Jewish wife realizes who he really is...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HUNTERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Call the police. Call the police.

DEGGANS: Biff reveals he was once a Nazi officer in World War II just before silencing her for good.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HUNTERS")

BAKER: (As Biff Simpson) I'm so glad I didn't gas you in the camps. This is so much more delicious.

DEGGANS: It's a flamboyant, surreal scene with expert scenery-chewing by Dylan Baker playing Biff. It also epitomizes the tone of "Hunters," a story about a group of investigators tracking down Nazis hiding in the U.S. during the mid-1970s. At times, the action is flashy as a comic book as producers, including Jordan Peele, present a story about Nazi-hunting that feels like Batman meets "The Dirty Dozen" as directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Each member of the team is a screwball specialist, from a working actor/disguise artist to a husband-wife team of weapons experts. Such stories often use a newbie character. As others explain the situation to him, they also explain it to the audience. In "Hunters," that character is Logan Lerman's Jonah Heidelbaum, a comic book store clerk in New York who debates with his buddies' naive ideas about heroism and villainy centered on "Star Wars" bad guy Darth Vader.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HUNTERS")

LOGAN LERMAN: (As Jonah Heidelbaum) Vader doesn't get up every day looking to destroy the galaxy. No, no. He gets up every morning believing he needs to save it.

HENRY HUNTER HALL: (As Sherman Johnson) Yeah, but he's still a murderer, dude.

CALEB EMERY: (As Arthur McGuigan) Yeah.

HALL: (As Sherman Johnson) So is Batman, Booty.

LERMAN: (As Jonah Heidelbaum) The only difference between a hero and a villain is who sells more costumes at Halloween.

DEGGANS: It's not long before Jonah's simple cynicism is turned on its head. His grandmother is killed inside their home, and Jonah meets a man who knew her when they were both in prison in a Nazi concentration camp, Al Pacino's wealthy businessman Meyer Offerman. Turns out Jonah's safta - Hebrew for grandmother - worked with Meyer as part of a secret group unmasking Nazis hiding in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HUNTERS")

AL PACINO: (As Meyer Offerman) We survived the war. We survived the greatest mass eradication in modern history. And we arrive home to find the people who did this to us - they are our neighbors. So tell me, what should we do?

DEGGANS: I'm guessing he won't just shake their hands and offer forgiveness, especially since the Nazis have a secret plot of their own underway. The messages in "Hunters" are subtle as a sledgehammer, so the secret Nazis crow about how Americans are too busy fighting amongst themselves to see them coming. Pacino is the marquee name here, but Logan Lerner's (ph) Jonah is the show's backbone as he struggles over the moral question of seeking vengeance.

"Hunters" also features visceral, horrifying flashbacks to scenes in concentration camps, including a brutal chess game where prisoners are used as living game pieces and executed. That somber tone can feel jarring compared to the lighter comic book feel of other scenes, but as authoritarian leaders rise in real life across the globe, "Hunters" speaks to the dangers of being too complacent about the strength of democracy and forgetting the bitter lessons of the Holocaust.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHANGHAI RESTORATION PROJECT'S "JESSFIELD PARK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.