Al Pacino leads a team of Nazi hunters in a brassy Amazon series stuffed with Holocaust pathos and comic-book sleaze.
(Editor’s note: this review is based on the first five episodes of the show, which is what was provided to critics prior to the show’s premiere.)
Amazon’s Hunters is a lot. That’s not bad, by any means, but it is a heads up. It’s funny and heartbreaking and stressful, a love letter to exploitation films, comic books, and revenge fantasies, and it is a lot. It’s also very much something that people need to see right now. Created and written by David Weil and produced by Jordan Peele, Hunters was inspired by his grandmother’s stories about World War II and the Holocaust, stories that Weil saw as a battle between good and evil (much like the comics that the show references and draws visual inspiration from). Nothing is as simple as good versus evil, of course, but Hunters does an excellent job of addressing the battles head-on.
Set in 1977, the show revels in its primary NYC setting, full of grit and cigarettes and flickering subway car lights, and the visits to other locales are given equal ‘70s glory by production designer Curt Beech and set decorator Cathy T. Marshall, with loud wallpaper and lights shaped like grapes and so much carpeting. The most real and lived-in location is the modest house where 19-year old Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman) lives with his grandmother Ruth (Jeannie Berlin). After Ruth is murdered and the police handwave her death as a burglary, Jonah is approached by Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), who knew Ruth from their time in a concentration camp and who, Jonah comes to learn, is the financier and now leader (in Ruth’s absence) of a group of Nazi hunters. While the Hunters are working from a list of Nazis who were active during the war and are now living in the United States, it becomes clear that there is a wider network at play and larger stakes than even the Hunters had suspected.
The Hunters themselves are a classic ragtag group, consisting of Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvany), an English nun and former spy (who gets to wear the most wigs); Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone), a street-smart divorced mother and lockpick; Joe Torrance (Louis Ozawa Changchien) a Vietnam vet and the muscle; Mindy and Murray Markowitz (Carol Kane and Saul Rubinek), Holocaust survivors and weapons experts; and Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor), an out of work actor who is…also part of the group. None of them are too pleased when Jonah wants to join the gang, but when he demonstrates his Batman-esque codebreaking abilities (World’s Greatest Detective, after all), he is begrudgingly allowed along. All of the Hunters are great, relishing their archetypes while still making them feel like real people. It’s not entirely clear yet why Lonny is on the team, but he’s trying his best.
Meanwhile, FBI Agent Millie Morris (Jerrika Hinton) has become involved in an investigation that begins to bring her closer to the Hunters’ activities. Millie has a lot on her plate, as a black woman in the FBI, she’s clearly an object of ridicule for her peers, and is given her initial murder investigation by her supervisor mostly to get her out of his office. The plotlines, generally gathered, are three: Jonah, meeting Meyer and his team of Hunters and joining them (complete with a “learning to fight” montage we’ve seen two hundred times before), Agent Miller slowly piecing together that there are Nazis among us, and the various activities of the Nazis as they plan to bring about the Fourth Reich, led by The Colonel (Lena Olin), along with Biff Simpson (Dylan Baker) and Travis Leitch (Greg Austin).
Travis is…a problem. An errand boy/assassin/cleaner for the Nazis in America, he’s very about the part of his job where he gets to kill people. He also, because he’s a creepy weird killer, likes quoting children’s books at people while he’s threatening them, singing show tunes during gunfights, and menacing little children on airplanes. We’re obviously not supposed to like Travis, it’s clear no one especially likes Travis, but a lot of time and plot is spent on and with him, and despite Austin’s excellent work, it sometimes feels like Travis wandered in from some other show. What will he do as the plot progresses? Likely something unpleasant.
The show neatly skirts the ever-present pop-culture idea of the Nazi as “evil genius”. Movies, television, and video games alike have given us the Nazi as zombies, necromancers, cunning sadists, and mad scientists; what has been approached less frequently is the depiction of Nazis as people. Not in a “people are people, no one is born a villain” sense (something which Jonah and his friends debate early on as they exit a showing of Star Wars), but in the more frightening and sadly more relevant sense that these are regular people who did appalling things, things that could happen again.
Nothing is as simple as good versus evil, of course, but Hunters does an excellent job of addressing the battles head-on.
The Nazis of Hunters are, at least on the surface, just folks. They throw parties, they own businesses, they have families. They’re also unrepentant persons who did horrific things to other human beings, things that they continue to defend or weakly try to excuse. (Oh yes, there is absolutely a “just following orders” from one individual) They’re cruel and they’re organized and they should undoubtedly be punished for what they’ve done and stopped from what they are going to do, but they aren’t manifestations of supernatural evil and Hunters benefits from it.
Who is allowed to enact vengeance? And what does it do to the person who is enacting it? For all of its musical cues and snappy one-liners, Hunters doesn’t glamorize its titular team’s actions. People wince, they look away, they wonder out loud if they’re doing the right thing. Following one experience with the Hunters, Jonah promptly vomits all over his shoes, feeling that, since the target hadn’t personally affected Jonah or his family, he was wrong to be part of the revenge. Jonah has to ponder if getting a killer’s blood on your hands is really a crime. Hunters knows that it’s all right to punch Nazis, but it wants you to think about the consequences as well.
- Carol Kane is, of course, fantastic.
- None of the Nazis can hide anything worth a damn. Everyone just has a desk drawer full of Iron Crosses or incredibly visible swastika tattoos.
- The flashback sequences set during the Holocaust are riveting and devastating, and by far the most important parts of the show.
Hunters premieres February 21st on Amazon.