"Only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true," reads a title card at the start of "The Hunting Party," Richard Shepard's film about journalists turned bounty hunters in postwar Bosnia. Which doesn't seem quite right. There are plenty of invented absurdities in there too.
The disclaimer refers to the movie's origins in a 2000 Esquire magazine article written by Scott Anderson, which told this incredible but true story: Reuniting in Sarajevo five years after the end of the Balkan war, a group of war correspondents got drunk and decided to try their hand at capturing the notorious Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic. In the process, they were mistaken for a CIA hit squad, got closer to Karadzic than was seemly (given the well-publicized multinational manhunt supposedly underway) and were intercepted by the actual CIA.
Turning a true story into a plausible one, however, isn't as easy as it sounds, and Shepard, who directs from a script he adapted, never manages to get beyond the premise. The script feels flabby and slapdash, full of interesting ideas but cursory and underdeveloped, from the torrents of expository dialogue to the newsreel footage that comes out of nowhere and the gratuitously bared breasts. (Though you have to hand it to the filmmakers for their how-do-we-wedge-these-in-here ingenuity.)
Richard Gere stars as Simon Hunt, a veteran war correspondent who loses his marbles on the air one night after stumbling on the fresh slaughter of an entire Muslim village. Fired from the network where he was a star, Simon becomes a stringer for increasingly obscure news outlets, while his trusty cameraman and sidekick Duck (Terrence Howard) is promoted to a cushy job as personal cameraman to the network anchor (James Brolin). Back in Sarajevo for the fifth anniversary of the end of the war, Simon approaches Duck and talks him into helping him land an interview with the elusive war criminal known as the Fox (Ljubomir Kerekes). Along for the ride and the explanations is Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg), a network bigwig's son on his first big assignment. It's not long before we learn that Hunt is hunting the Fox for reasons personal and gruesome.
Gere and Howard do their best to keep things afloat, and their charisma goes a long way in making this happen. The less-experienced Eisenberg (who was so wonderful in Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale") doesn't fare as well, having been saddled with the thankless role of millstone.
The biggest problem with the movie is the tone, which is by turns preachy, silly, mawkish and dark. Shepard has said that he was interested in setting a film in a postwar country, but in some ways "The Hunting Party" seems to want to do for the Balkan war what "Three Kings" did for Operation Desert Storm -- that is, highlight the absurdity of carnage in a contemporary setting with gallows humor. The problem is that the humor in "The Hunting Party" is just gallows-adjacent. It doesn't feel organic to the story. Finding humor in horror requires a level of remove that Shepard can't seem to muster. He takes sides and vents anger, turning Hunt into a martyr, for example, and the United Nations, CIA and network news into cynical buffoons. Black comedy becomes funnier as the action becomes darker and more perilous, but "The Hunting Party" fails to locate the absurdity in the central situations and goes for midget jokes instead. In the end, you're not sure if you're supposed to be watching "The Three Amigos" or "Hotel Rwanda."
"The Hunting Party." MPAA rating: R for strong language and some violent content. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. In wide release.