Al Pacino Leads a Gang of Nazi Killers in Amazon’s Slyly Political Grindhouse Thriller ‘Hunters’
In another example of how grindhouse is back in vogue, Amazon delivers “Hunters,” a show about Nazi killers roaming 1970s New York. It walks and talks like a B-movie, but with a serious anti-fascist message. Overseeing the production is Jordan Peele, who has mastered the art of meaningful yet bloody entertainment with his own films “Get Out” and “Us.” As a producer he gives “Hunters” the same kind of tone, where over the top violence drives home a story that isn’t so much about the past as it is about the present.
It’s 1977 and a Jewish kid named Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman) tries to make some money by running dope. He does it to provide for him and his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor named Ruth (Jeannie Berlin). One night he hears someone break into their apartment and from the stairway witnesses the intruder, a man in a black hat, shoot Ruth dead. This sets Jonah on a quest for revenge fueled by the frustration that the local cops can’t seem to find any leads. Then Jonah is approached by an enigmatic older man, Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), who knew Ruth during World War II and constantly quotes the Talmud. While snooping around Offerman’s lavish home, Jonah discovers that the old man is running an underground group hunting for fugitive Nazis hiding in the United States. He’s gathered a team that includes couple Murray and Mindy (Saul Rubinek and Carol Kane), stealth Joe Mizushima (Louis Ozawa), suave Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor), cool Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone), and enigmatic Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvany). While Jonah learns about the group’s methods, FBI agent Millie Morris (Jerrika Hinton) is investigating the mysterious murders of several German expatriates, which could lead to a major conspiracy involving not only Nazis hidden by the U.S. government after the war, but an ongoing plot to build a Fourth Reich.
“Hunters” plays like an anti-Nazi fantasy culled from the daydreams of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Don’t expect a serious take on the efforts after the war to track down fugitive Reich officials. We even get flashy intros for the members of Offerman’s team with blazing titles, funk music and exaggerated weapons. The opening scene of the pilot is a blood-soaked howler where a Jewish woman at a barbecue recognizes the host, Biff Simpson (Dylan Baker), as a clandestine SS official and starts screaming “Nazi! Nazi!” Simpson then proceeds to slaughter everyone while switching to a German accent. Simpson is part of an underground fascist group led by “The Colonel” (Lena Olin), who plans to build a “Fourth Reich” from within the U.S. government with the help of minions such as Travis Leich (Greg Austin), who carries out blackmail and assassinations. There are moments of unabashed ghoulishness, as when an old German woman takes a shower an ends up getting “gassed.” Agent Morris later discovers she was an exiled Nazi working for NASA. Offerman sounds like a knife-wielding prophet, quoting scripture and Jewish history before torturing a Nazi with ultra-loud music in a recording studio. Even the soundtrack defines on the nose. The German villains all love Wagner while the Jewish fascist hunters quote “Fiddler on the Roof” and we also hear “Cabaret” tunes like “Mein Herr” in someone’s living room. Even concentration camp moments are pushed to grindhouse extremes, like a flashback where a deranged Nazi arranges prisoners into a human chess board. This isn’t cheerful satire like Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” but something closer to Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds,” where it’s all about giving Nazi scum their due.
Where the Jordan Peele touch truly comes in is in how “Hunters” never feels like cheap exploitation. At times it can seem like the plot is being stretched out too much for TV length, but there are worthy ideas and themes here. The show goes down various avenues, sometimes all at once, but they are engaging. Like “Jojo Rabbit,” this isn’t so much about the past as about today. As with his movies, Peele and the show’s team are obviously making references to our current predicament. Morris and Offerman’s team discover the fascists never went away and have in fact now fused with many elements in the U.S. government. The land of the free has become a nest for racist fanatics. Some of the concentration camp moments are extreme in a B-movie way, but they go to the heart of racism’s pathological horror. Peele knows that a good grindhouse film is about something at heart other than just cheap thrills.
It’s not too difficult to guess where the plot of “Hunters” might be headed; it borrows from every spy movie, thriller cliché. What matters is what it has to say. By the fourth episode Jonah is confronted with the consequences of seeking revenge. First when he gets the chance to nearly kill a Nazi begging for his life, who describes having just being a boy when the Reich was in power, to when a close neighborhood friend gets unintentionally caught in the crossfire of his new life. Is it worth responding to fascist terror with more killing, or at least of a vigilante sort? “Hunters” is smart enough to give the plot a bit more complexity than just violence for its own sake. Lots of Nazis get knives through their throats, some get comic bookish evil, like a toy maker who taunts Jonah and tells him to moo like a cow, but it’s not pointless. Evil is both frightening and absurd.
The performances are examples of how pulling off good schlock is not easy. Al Pacino in a sense has the easiest job. He’s the wise, cool-headed ring leader, like an old Jewish grandfather exacting justice. Everyone else has to play the grindhouse equivalent of a superhero. Josh Radnor is lots of fun as the vain Lonny Flash and Dylan Baker switches from white picket fence American to psycho Nazi with terrifying ease. Jerrika Hinton as Millie Morris does her role well, although at times it feels like the obligatory cop all these shows require to give some kind of law enforcement balance to the renegades operating on their own. Lena Olin is a devilish charm as the main villain trying to keep Hitler’s legacy alive. For Logan Lerman this is a role that allows him to be both action hero and vulnerable youth, he gets to explore the fun of becoming a Nazi hunter while being forced to grow up. A standout supporting role is Caleb Emery as Jonah’s friend Arthur, who gives the show a “Stranger Things” buddy vibe.
“Hunters” delivers a satisfying grindhouse binge while cementing Peele’s status as a producer of slyly political pop art. We have fun cheering on Pacino and his gang as they take down the Nazis hiding within the streets of New York City, but between the lines the message is quite clear: The fascists never went away, and could be living just down the street or in Washington, D.C.
“Hunters” season one begins streaming Feb. 21 on Amazon Prime.