There's an interesting premise in the beginning of Richard Shepard's "The Hunting Party," which stars Richard Gere and Terrence Howard as war reporter Simon Hunt and his cameraman, the aptly named Duck. Dodging bullets and bombs to get their daily footage for the evening news, the two are the war-zone equivalent of ambulance chasers, going from conflict to conflict filming carnage by day and capitalizing on the war widows by night.
Their lives would be ample material for a story, but the movie has other aspirations. Gere and Howard are soon turned into international journalism's Starsky and Hutch, on the trail of a Serbian war criminal called The Fox. The movie's entertainment value doesn't end here, and neither do the performances of its stars. But the ensuing mix of fact and standard action is a disappointment, as if Mel Gibson and Danny Glover reunited for "Lethal Weapon 5: The Hunt for Bin Laden."
Had the movie focused on its initial premise, which included scenes like Gere's Simon wistfully wishing for a Quaalude while squatting behind a bombed-out car, the results could have been very interesting. What does war look like to ordinary people who just happen to make their living by it? But "war reporter" is not so much a job in this movie as a timely plot device. Simon, winner of numerous awards for his work, has a breakdown on a day that just happens to be about 10 minutes into the film. Reporting on a particularly vicious bit of violence by the Serbian army against a remote Muslim town, he begins ranting on live television. Aside from some profanity, his words aren't all that disturbing, and it's hard to tell if it's what Simon says or the fact that he drops his modulated reporter voice that gets him in hot water. But Simon is canned nonetheless. The important thing is that it advances the plot.
Cast adrift, Simon wanders off into freelance oblivion while Duck, who's been narrating all this, gets promoted to the plum job of lead cameraman for the evening news. Simon, he tells us, all but vanishes, while Duck gets a dump truck of money and women for making the anchorman look good. As the years and wars roll by, Simon pops up here and there for various Third World news agencies, and Howard is ensconced in the cushy heaven of New York City celebrity. Does he miss the thrills of his former life? No, he says, lying next to one of dozens of women he regularly beds. But this is a movie and he has to go back anyway, reuniting with Simon during a five-year anniversary celebration of the end of the Bosnian War. Here he learns of Simon's plan to find and capture The Fox, who remains at large despite a $5 million reward.
"The Hunting Party" is based on a news article that ran in Esquire (by American journalist Scott Anderson). Evidently a real group of journalists tried to capture a Bosnian war criminal. When these men took action, it was after a long night of boozing and ended up in a mess of mistaken identity and unfulfilled dreams. This would have been a good ending for Simon and his crew, but writer-director Shepard insists on making heroes out of them. Simon and Duck include a young son of the network VP in their plans, meet a United Nations contact convinced they are CIA and come face to face more than once with their intended prey before it's all over. And then, like so many movies, it isn't over after all.
The movie's other obvious bit of symbolism is far more bizarre. Shepard keeps showing us clips from the Chuck Norris "Missing in Action" series. This allusion, repeated several times, is truly odd considering it reflects what many people in the audience could be thinking while watching "Party" -- that it's often exactly like one of the endless string of "Rambo"-inspired movies that flourished in the 1980s. Gere comes off very well as the quixotic figure in Simon, and Howard is serviceable as a sidekick, but "The Hunting Party" eventually loses sight of these people.
The second half is a typical story of brave American vigilantism, complete with post-modern self-references that include those Norris clips. Shepard's aim is in the right place with our billions in surveillance technology, we should catch those darned war criminals but the intentions of his movie are never plain. "The Hunting Party" ends up in the same cloudy realm of the misplaced efforts and unclear motives it rails against, missing in action indeed. (R) 103 min. S