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“Hunters” is always operating at an 11 out of 10.
That’s intentional, as the new Amazon series uses the tropes of 1970s B-movies and blaxploitation films to weave a parable about Nazi hunters finding, torturing and killing the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
It’s a huge meal of a concept to swallow, one that is wildly ambitious if not always fully realized in “Hunters,” starring Al Pacino, executive produced by Jordan Peele and created by newcomer David Weil (streaming Friday, ★★★ out of four).
Bold, graphically violent and imperfect, the series tells a story of culture, religion, righteousness and revenge against a backdrop of blood, grief and excruciating pain. It’s jarring and ideologically messy but infinitely watchable.
In the five episodes made available for review (out of a 10-episode first season), it’s not clear what “Hunters” is trying to say about history, the modern resurgence in anti-Semitic violence or, at times, even its own characters. But it is evident that the creators and actors are firing every cannon in their arsenal trying to shout something, and there’s still time to figure out what that is.
Al Pacino gets another chance to scarf up scenery in “Hunters.” (Photo: Christopher Saunders/Amazon)
Although blessed with the grumbly gravitas of Pacino as its top-billed star, “Hunters” is really about Jonah (Logan Lerman), an underachieving teen on the cusp of adulthood in 1977 who lives with his Holocaust-survivor grandmother in Brooklyn. One night, she is murdered by an intruder Jonah believes is a burglar.
At her memorial, he meets Meyer Offerman (Pacino), a genial, rich patriarch who reveals the truth to Jonah: His grandmother was killed by a Nazi, because she was hunting those hiding in the USA who escaped prosecution after World War II.
Meyer eventually lets Jonah in on his hunt, a systematic search-and-destroy mission for hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Nazis living and thriving in the USA. Meyer has put together a rag-tag team to help him on his quest, including husband-and-wife weapons specialists (Saul Rubinek and Carol Kane); an MI-6 operative turned nun (Kate Mulvany); and a buffoonish movie star (Josh Radnor, in yet another role as an insufferable egoist).
Their fight is to dismantle an organized ring of Nazis conspiring to bring about a “Fourth Reich” that includes Dylan Baker as a member of President Jimmy Carter’s Cabinet and a young sociopathic convert (Greg Austin) who carries out most of the dirty work. FBI Agent Millie Morris (Jerrika Hinton, “Grey’s Anatomy”) investigates one of the hunters’ kills, working in parallel to these two extra-governmental forces.
“Hunters” paints with a broad, cartoonish brush. Its Nazi-tracking team is introduced in a fantasy bat mitzvah sequence interlaced with action-movie posters and poses. Its violence is frequent and hard to stomach. The hunters are exacting their poetic justice, and their methods of pain skirt the line of overkill. (In addition to a scene of force-feeding horse feces, Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” is once played so loudly that ears bleed).
Interspersed with the mayhem are flashbacks to the Holocaust that include cruelties both expected and nauseating, as if to justify the Nazi hunters’ zeal, but their frequency borders on exploitation.
There are times when this brand of hyper-stylized, grindhouse storytelling is directly at odds with the seriousness of the subject matter, and others when the chaos appears to be an apt response to the unspeakable horrors that sparked it. “Hunters” offers a bit of unrealism to capture tragedy so vast it can feel distinctly unreal.
It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction to compare “Hunters” to Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” another irreverent story of revenge against the Third Reich. Weil and his directors, who include veterans of slasher-tinged series “American Horror Story” and “Preacher,” pay frequent homage not just to Tarantino but Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Pacino’s own oeuvre (a “Dog Day Afternoon” reference might make your head spin).
The series is sometimes more interested in its pop culture pastiche than in hunting Nazis: There’s a “Saturday Night Fever” parody, a spirited discussion of Darth Vader’s motives and frequent comic book references. It’s as if the writers were so excited to get the story on screen, they threw in every idea they had, whether or not it belongs in this particular playpen.
But there is a grotesquely addictive quality to “Hunters.” Revenge fantasies win that label because it is inherently alluring to see the bad guys get what’s coming to them. “Hunters” delivers on that promise: Pacino chews scenery in an overly exaggerated Eastern European accent while gunshots fire, blood spurts and evildoers see their evil undone.
It may not deliver on all cylinders, but there is enough of a spark to keep the car running.
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