In the second episode of Amazon’s pulpy new drama Hunters, a team of anti-Nazi vigilantes, led by concentration camp survivor Meyer Hoffman (Al Pacino), confronts a former concentration camp commander who now lives a posh life in late-Seventies America. Hoffman’s group surrounds the Nazi and reads testimonials of the many atrocities he committed against his Jewish prisoners during World War II. It is a chilling moment, powerful because of its solemnity.
And then Hoffman proceeds to torture the man by blasting Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” at such a loud volume that his ears begin to bleed.
Welcome to Hunters, a show that lives in the extremes. It can be sober and thoughtful in one moment, gleefully trashy in the very next. At times, the energy of its grindhouse pastiche can feel addictive; at others, it just seems like the work of someone who’s sat through Tarantino movies too often. It’s rarely dull — especially compared to Amazon’s previous series about Nazis infiltrating America, the sluggish The Man in the High Castle — but often seems to rely on its borrowed style as the entire point of the thing. Throughout the half-season Amazon made available to critics, I toggled back and forth between thinking the show was good or bad — occasionally in the same moment.
Produced by Jordan Peele and created by David Weil, Hunters takes place in a 1977 vision of New York ripped more from the movies of the era than from reality. The afros are big (particularly on Roxy Jones, a member of Hoffman’s team played by Tiffany Boone), the clothes loud (especially the ones worn by the team’s Lonny Flash, an insufferable actor played by How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor), and the disco and soul music pumping. In one scene, Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a young Jewish man whose grandmother (or, as he calls her, safta) Ruth (Jeannie Berlin) was in the camps with Meyer, gets high in Coney Island with his friends and performs an elaborate production number to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” It has no bearing on anything that happens before or after, but Weil and his collaborators are surely fans of Saturday Night Fever, so in it goes. Heck, even Pacino’s own movies get quoted, like a scene where Lonny attempts to distract some bank guards during a heist by doing the “Attica! Attica!” chant from Dog Day Afternoon. (Or maybe he’s quoting John Travolta’s homage to it in Saturday Night Fever?)
As Jonah attempts to move through a life dominated more by talk of comic books and Star Wars than his Jewish heritage, he discovers that the war followed Ruth and Meyer to America, and that there are Nazis — hundreds, maybe thousands of them — infiltrating our country at all levels. And it’s up to Meyer’s ragtag group — which also includes spy-turned-nun Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvaney), Vietnam vet Joe Torrance (Louis Ozawa), and married weapons experts Murray (Saul Rubinek) and Mindy (Carol Kane) — to find and stop them all.
“The Talmud is wrong: Living well is not the best revenge,” Meyer tells Jonah. “You know what the best revenge is? Revenge.”
There is a lot going on in this show, which also includes Dylan Baker as a member of Jimmy Carter’s cabinet who isn’t what he seems (and in certain shots looks like the Joker) and Jerrika Hinton as an FBI agent whose investigation runs parallel to Meyer and Jonah’s. It’s so much that Weil opts to open Hunters with a 90-minute premiere episode that frequently buckles under its own weight. The kinds of thrillers that inspired the series tended to be lean and mean, where Hunters can feel like a project where every pitch made its way into the final version. The later episodes move a bit more briskly, though, and also deploy more stylistic flourishes to help with the exposition. The full team, for instance, is introduced in a combination of a bar mitzvah candle-lighting ceremony and a collection of exploitation movie trailers; Murray and Mindy’s movie tagline is “A couple of Chabad-asses.”
But even the style can become numbing, particularly as the sequences pile up of Nazis being punished in karmically appropriate ways. The fifth episode goes so heavy on torture-as-poetic-justice that a long break may be required after. And all the flourishes and homages also undercut Weil’s attempts to more sincerely examine the atrocities of the Holocaust and the lifelong pain and guilt felt by its survivors. One concentration camp flashback is shot in black-and-white, until finally a single object is presented in color, like the little girl’s red coat from Schindler’s List; suddenly, the scene is less about the suffering of the people in it and more about the filmmakers’ love of Steven Spielberg.
Pacino’s mere presence foregrounds the Seventies affection of it all, though his performance is a mixed bag. His Eastern European accent is broad verging on caricature (Rubinek and Kane both sound more natural), but this is for the most part a more understated Pacino than we often get these days. Logan Lerman is the show’s actual lead, and holds his own against his older co-stars. Still, the degree to which any of this cartoonish mayhem feels real is largely a credit to the gravity Pacino provides in certain moments.
That Amazon only made the first five episodes available for review could just be spoiler paranoia. (The screeners were accompanied by a long “do not reveal” list.) Or it could be that a show that’s already barely in command of its own tone and characters spirals completely out of control in its second half. Whether the series is directly aping Seventies B-movies or viewing them through the filter of Tarantino, many of its influences tend not to end well. Proceed with caution, and maybe bring some headphones in case things get dangerously loud.
Hunters debuts February 21st on Amazon Prime Video.