Hunters is a tribute to a tribute. As Quentin Tarantino borrows from pulpy exploitation revenge thrillers of the '70s, Amazon's new series about a strike force of Nazi-killers borrows from Tarantino. Almost everything in the drama-black comedy-thriller -- the revenge fantasy plot, the period setting, the pop culture references, the kitschy ironic asides, the profane dialogue, the over-the-top violence -- is cribbed from the director's playbook. "Misirlou," the song from Pulp Fiction, is used on the soundtrack at one point. The Nazi-revenge plot is reminiscent of Inglourious Basterds. It's all pretty shameless. Hunters directly imitates Tarantino's distinctive style but lacks his sophistication and mastery of craft. A Tarantino film can make you feel like you've seen all these puzzle pieces before, but never assembled in this way. Hunters makes you feel like you're watching a really long Tarantino knockoff that lacks the director's humor and audaciousness. It has visual panache, but the story doesn't coalesce.
The series, which debuted Feb. 21, tells the story of Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a 19-year-old Jewish kid living in Brooklyn in the summer of 1977, a frequently dramatized dark period in New York City's history that's so picked over it's a cliché unto itself. He lives with his grandmother, Ruth (Jeannie Berlin), a Holocaust survivor he calls "Safta." Their worlds revolve around each other. They have no other family, and in the pilot they both tell each other, "Everything I do is for you." After one scene, she is murdered by a mystery man, and Jonah becomes fixated on finding who did it and getting revenge. At her funeral, he meets Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), an old friend who was in Auschwitz with her and is now a rich man of power and influence. As Jonah gets to know Offerman, Offerman begins to reveal the truth about Jonah's Safta, which is that they were working together to find and kill Nazi war criminals living covertly in America. They did it with the help of a kooky team of mercenaries, including insecure master of disguise actor Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor) and kvetchy husband-and-wife tech experts Mindy (Carol Kane) and Murray Markowitz (Saul Rubinek). Offerman's mantra that "revenge is the best revenge" appeals to Jonah, and he joins the team.
Meanwhile, FBI agent Millie Malone (Jerrika Hinton) begins investigating the murder of a NASA scientist from Germany, which she suspects is connected to the murder of another scientist from Germany, and she starts to piece together that the victims were Nazis, and someone is targeting them. Also trying to figure out who's killing the Nazis is a savage young American neo-Nazi named Travis Leich (Greg Austin), on the orders of a mysterious woman known only as the Colonel (Lena Olin), who is working to bring about a Fourth Reich.
One of the big names being used to promote Hunters is Jordan Peele, the red-hot writer-director-producer. He executive-produces Hunters through his Monkeypaw Productions, but it's not really his show. The creator is David Weil, a young writer who has written several acclaimed spec scripts but who had never had a show or movie produced before Hunters. Weil runs the show with Nikki Toscano, who has written and produced for shows like 24: Legacy and Revenge but has never overseen a production of this scale. It feels like they weren't able to do exactly what they were trying to do with the writing. The dialogue has a tryhard, wound-too-tight quality. The quips are too long and too crude, with a lack of rhythm. "It's like the entire guest list of Freddie Mercury's annual Vaseline party," Lonny Flash says while looking at headshots on display in a Nazi record producer's house. "That's where I got that accidental hand job from Peter, Paul, and Mary. Classic PP&M." It's too much. And dialogue like that is oppressively constant.
The subject matter is clearly very personal for Weil -- he has described the show as a tribute to his own Holocaust-survivor grandmother -- which makes it work less well as a Tarantino homage. Part of what makes Tarantino's films of the past decade or so fascinating is the way he's able to take horrifying historical events that he has no strong personal connection to, like slavery or World War II or the Manson murders, and use his distance from them to ironically rewrite them in a way that feels sacrilegious but still respects the horror of what actually happened. It's insane that he tries it, and even more insane that it works. David Weil is not Quentin Tarantino. He is not insane. He can't ironically distance himself from the Holocaust, and so there is a solemnity to Hunters that clashes with the Tarantino-esque black-comic violence. It feels weird to say it, but Hunters would benefit from taking the Holocaust less seriously. When Brad Pitt carves a swastika into a Nazi's forehead, we're supposed to get a sick thrill from how wrong and how right it is. When a naked old woman who was a Nazi chemist gets gassed to death in her garish Florida bathroom -- one of the earliest of many gruesome torture and/or murder scenes in Hunters -- it's not totally clear how we're supposed to feel. Are we supposed to laugh? Are we supposed to be horrified by how far the hunters are willing to go for revenge? Are we supposed to feel like this fictional Nazi we just met got what she deserved? All of the above?
The part of Hunters' writing that works best is the way it repurposes the superhero origin story archetype, a Tarantino-esque move that the show makes feels like its own. Jonah's death-of-a-family-member inciting incident has echoes of Spider-Man, that other New York City teenage superhero, and Batman, which Jonah's crudely nicknamed friend Bootyhole (Caleb Emery) points out. Offerman gathers his team together like Professor X, and they meet in a room they call the Batcave. Jonah even has a superpower: He's a brilliant codebreaker. Hunters makes the Jewish subtext of superheroes and their creators explicit in a refreshingly clever way.
The other big name being used to promote Hunters is Al Pacino. The show is the legendary movie star's first series regular role, and his performance is good for late-period Pacino. He's more believable as a strange old man with an Eastern European accent than he is as Midwestern German American Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman, but he's still unmistakably Al Pacino. He may have brought some of his scarves with him from home. And he's very much in the "and Al Pacino" end of the opening credits supporting role. The main character is Lerman's Jonah Heidelbaum, which is Hunters' biggest problem.
Jonah is very difficult character to have at the center of the show, because he's really, really unpleasant. Offerman accurately calls him "a little sh--." He's crude and petulant and always angry. He peppers just about every sentence he speaks with four-letter words to a degree that feels forced. He never smiles. His ill temper is understandable, considering what he's gone through, but it doesn't make him fun to watch or someone to root for. He's a charmless character with only one dimension, and Lerman's surly performance amplifies it. A Tarantino antihero needs to have charisma. Cliff Booth probably killed his wife, but you can't help but like the guy.
Hunters is long and feels it, too. Of the five episodes sent for review, they're all at least a full 60 minutes, with the premiere stretching out to 90. For that kind of time commitment, you might as well watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a couple more times. Get the real Tarantino thing instead of an imitation.
TV Guide rating: 2.5/5
Hunters is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.