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A Message to ‘Hunters’: Let Al Pacino Cook

He’s at his best when he’s going Maximum Pacino. So why do we get so little of it in the new Amazon Prime series?

Amazon/Ringer illustration

Al Pacino kibbitzes through the first 4.5 episodes of Hunters, Amazon Prime’s misbegotten new series about a wacky crew of anti-Nazi brawlers in 1970s New York, before he lets the mask slip, just a little. You know it’s coming, and so does he: the braying, the bombast, the awesome silliness, the extravagant disruption of Maximum Pacino.

The United States in the ’70s is rife with Secret Nazis, see, plucked straight from a vanquished Germany and clandestinely resettled by our own government to foil the Russians as the Cold War dawns. (Some of this is not fiction.) Nazis put us on the moon, see; they’re also secretly plotting the Fourth Reich in their spare time. (Hopefully, most of this is fiction.) Pacino, playing the suspiciously serene and mumbly Meyer Offerman—introduced as the “millionaire bankroller, master plotter, and chief vigilante” of the ragtag anti-Nazi bridgade—aims to annihilate these chumps by any means necessary, including tying one up and forcing her to [redacted].

Yeah, forget it. Don’t ask. From the punishing 90-minute pilot onward, Hunters thrives on lengthy scenes of various tied-up people (a Nazi, half the time) absorbing lavish brutality from various leering inquisitors (a Nazi, the other half of the time). The specifics, inevitably, are some combination of gross, cruel, and stupid. Just know that if you willingly slog through the first five hours of such encounters, then you, like this particular lady—a Nazi propagandist known as Tilda Sauer, renamed and rebranded in America as [thinking emoji] a conservative political strategist—get what you deserve.

Suffice it to say that Offerman and two members of his wacky crew (Tiffany Boone’s underwritten Blaxploitation queen and Josh Radnor’s overwritten B-movie boor, respectively) have got this lady tied up and [redacted] as her old black-and-white footage of Nazi rallies is [thinking emoji] projected right onto Offerman’s face as he demands her real name. She won’t budge. And finally, he gets well and truly pissed.

“I WANT TO KNOW!! WHO YOU ARE!!” thunders Al Pacino, who has mercifully ceased, in this moment, to be his character. Yes. Oh god yes.

“That’s right, TILDA!! SAUER!! TILDA SAUER!!” thunders Al Pacino. Finally. Fuck ’em up, Al. Chew up so much scenery that they’re forced to halt production.

But no, all we get is more [redacted]. “Again and again and again until we loosen the screws in the BACK OF HER TONGUE!” thunders Al Pacino, but pulling back now, powering down, slipping the mask back on. Five hours of Season 1 still left to go. He’d better save his strength. You’d better do the same.

Amazon Prime’s Hunters, which dropped its first 10 episodes Friday, is both not good and not shy about its influences, starting (and possibly ending) with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The gleeful Nazi-crushing revenge fantasies. The necessity, then, of lavishly staging various fictionalized Nazi atrocities to stoke our thirst for that revenge. The resulting lurid mix of whimsy and horror is so clumsy (and lurid) it gets harder and harder to tell the whimsy from the horror. On Sunday, no less an entity than the Auschwitz Memorial Museum denounced one especially vivid scene in the Hunters pilot—a human chessboard whose pieces are concentration camp prisoners forced to slash each other’s throats as those pieces are “taken”—as “dangerous foolishness and caricature” that both diminishes reality and emboldens real-life Holocaust deniers to continue denying it.

“Why did I feel this scene was important to script and place in series?” wrote Hunters writer-creator David Weil in a lengthy response more thoughtful and measured, at least, than the show itself. “To most powerfully counteract the revisionist narrative that whitewashes Nazi perpetration, by showcasing the most extreme—and representationally truthful—sadism and violence that the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews and other victims.”

The representationally truthful part is less important than the plain old sadism part, alas. For Hunters, the cruelty is the point. But it’s not really Weil’s show. Jordan Peele, as executive producer, is a far flashier name with an established mastery of social thrillers that gives this show some intellectual cover it doesn’t deserve. But far flashier still, of course, is Pacino, here making his true Streaming Wars debut after a handful of well-regarded 2010s HBO movies wherein he portrayed Jack Kevorkian, Phil Spector, and Joe Paterno. (Respectively.) (Name a more iconic trio.) Your disruptive old buddy Al is one of the few remaining Hollywood megastars whose presence on a plain old TV show qualifies as an event. He’s the best reason to start watching Hunters and, quickly, the only reason to keep watching it, just to see if Maximum Pacino ever shows up, just to see if he can save this stupendously unpleasant show by trying to destroy it.

Hunters jumps around both geographically and chronologically, from a mid-Holocaust concentration camp to Jimmy Carter’s White House to garishly color-saturated Florida to lovingly gritty Brooklyn to Secret Nazi–populated Alabama and beyond, which necessitates lots of giant Mindhunter-style title cards like this one.

Amazon Prime

Yeah. Our hero is the young, brash, irritating comic-book nerd Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), driven by tragedy into the grandfatherly embrace of Meyer Offerman and his erratic band of Nazi-hunting misfits: Kate Mulvany as the ass-kicking nun, Louis Ozawa as the haunted Vietnam vet, Saul Rubinek and Carol Kane as the codebreaking grieving parents, etc. There is a skeptical but dogged FBI agent (Jerrika Hinton), and a cold-blooded Nazi assassin (Greg Austin), and a warmer-blooded Secret Nazi posing as [thinking emoji] a folksy Southern politician bending President Carter’s ear. (That’s Dylan Baker, pre-chewing the scenery until you-know-who gets warmed up.) It’s a whole lot—so much, in fact, that every character is somehow both overwrought and underdeveloped. Your ballast, then, is Pacino, who introduces himself with the line “In a world of diarrhea and constipation, it’s OK to be a normal piece of shit sometimes.”

Meyer Offerman is, as irritating young Jonah points out several times, the Professor X figure, the shrewd ringleader and the Yiddish-spouting ocean of relative calm. He speaks in eye-rolling thesis statements, from “You should read the Torah more—it is the original comic book” to “You know what the best revenge is? Revenge.” Pacino channels a broad, goofy, Mel Brooks sort of Jewish-icon energy even when it’s time to get his Tarantino on: “We have trials ahead,” he intones as the endless pilot grinds to a close. “A growing list of vermin. So let us get to cooking these Nazi cunts.”

For the record, that’s right before we meet the Head Secret Nazi, in the person of a regal Lena Olin: “You expected a man, didn’t you?” she scoffs. “Well, jeepers creepers, I’m a dame.” You come to long for these moments that are merely stupid, if it means a respite from the cruel and the gross. The best acting Pacino does is when he coughs up a little of his drink (Johnnie Walker Red on the rocks) to better sell Lerman’s quip, “I’m more fucked than a sea cucumber at a mermaid orgy.” (This is a different line from “Shit’s fishier than a mermaid’s cooch at a dolphin orgy,” which someone else says earlier. It’s a motif!)

Even in Pacino’s moments of action—stabbing a simpering, Nazi-abetting bank manager in the hand, say, and murmuring, “It’s your life if you’re quiet”—are remarkably underplayed. “I want to suppose that his restraint is a function of his boredom,” is how The New Yorker’s Troy Patterson puts it; Hunters has gotten mixed reviews thus far, most of which regard Pacino’s role with gentle bemusement. (The New York Times: “He’s fine.”) The question is whether the show would be better off if its flashy leading man was willing to risk being worse.

After all, the Al Pacino experience, which now stretches past the half-century mark, is defined by both outright all-time American Cinema transcendence (pick from, like, 20 movies) and his valiantly exhausting efforts to redeem absolute trash (pick from at least a dozen). It so happens that he’s on a furious upswing at the moment: There is no funnier 2019 movie scene than Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman sneering, “I’m sitting in a room full of fuckin’ idiots!” then rushing to keep Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran from storming out: “That didn’t apply to you!” The time is nigh, theoretically, for Al’s episodic-TV debut, but for all its puzzle boxes and headfake double-crosses, the main question Hunters leaves you with is, why’d he pick this?

Given the channel’s clearly chummy relationship with Pacino, it’s tempting to rewrite recent HBO history just to sneak him in the mix somewhere. Al Pacino as Succession’s Logan Roy, thundering “BOAR ON THE FLOOR!” Al Pacino as Barry’s Gene Cousineau, purring, “I would like you to rock me like a baby.” Al Pacino as Watchmen’s imperious Adrian Veidt, murmuring, “Israel is desolate, and her seed is no more, and Palestine has become a widow for Egypt.” Al Pacino in Chernobyl; Al Pacino in Curb Your Enthusiasm; hell, Al Pacino as the mythic new Prince of Dorne. Al Pacino anywhere but here, doing anything but this.

You’ll probably take it, though; the issue with Hunters is how much, precisely, you can take. That the show cast a world-famous Italian Catholic as a Jewish superhero is quite the flex, though this modest casting controversy has since been drowned out by, y’know, other ones. But as Season 1 lurches toward its flamboyant if somewhat conventional climax—the usual looming terrorist disasters and ticking bombs—there’s only one incendiary device onscreen that truly holds your attention, a genuine threat that might also be a salvation in disguise.

Maximum Pacino. It’s still in play; the whole point is that it’s never not in play. Restraint is not this man’s natural state, and that goes quadruple, sadly, for the show with which he’s chosen to make his modern television debut. But when the shit truly starts to go down in Hunters, there’s the Jewish grandfather we never thought to wish we had, quietly seething and delivering tough-guy dialogue it’s entirely possible he’s delivered in some movie before, verbatim (“The blood spilt tonight is gonna be on your hands! On your hands!”). If you even make it to that point, you’ll want much better for him, as you likely have many times before. But it’s worth sticking around, maybe, just to see whether the mask ever slips for real.