‘Hunters,” the much-hyped Amazon series that premiered last week with Al Pacino as Meyer Offerman, a Simon Wiesenthal-type figure, is a dramatic story of Jews hunting Nazis in America. It follows two storylines: A Jew in 1977 sees his grandmother murdered in front of him and later learns a Nazi killed her after realizing she’d blown his cover as a mild-mannered German émigré to the U.S. Meanwhile, there’s a Nazi-hiding-in-plain-sight plotline; the prime villain is the under secretary of state, who murders everyone at his lawn pool party because an employee had the chutzpah to bring his survivor wife, who instantly recognizes him as “The Butcher” from the camps.
There is an archetype of the revenge fantasy film involving people who are historically oppressed, be they women, people of color, or Jews. Think of “Foxy Brown” in 1970s or “Hebrew Hammer” and “Inglourious Basterds” in the aughts. But unlike those earlier incarnations, “Hunters” isn’t funny or entertaining — it’s simply moralizing, a missed opportunity to probe the notion of whether Jews exacting a pound of flesh can be a moral act.
Revenge art can be gratuitously funny, violent or both. This is the oeuvre of Quentin Tarrantino. Instead, “Hunters” opted for the approach of an ’80s movie based on a Chaim Potok book. The pilot relies on the tropes of the citizen of humble beginnings who is called to action by the murder of an older loved one. It reminded me of Spider-Man or Batman, while it’s actually relying on the hero’s journey as explained by Joseph Campbell, the acclaimed literary critic who wrote powerfully about archetypes and myths that have transcended cultures. It didn’t work for me, though I did appreciate the nods to comic book superheroes, many of which were created in the ’30s and ’40s by American Jews as a creative way of responding to the anti-Semitic horrors occurring in Europe.
At 56 minutes into the 90-minute pilot, humor enters the room. Jonah Heidalbaum, played by Logan Lerman, beats Offerman at a game of chess, in two moves. He brags, “It’s called beating an old man at his own game.” Pacino gamely replies, “You’re what they call a little s—, aren’t you?” I don’t make light of the Holocaust, but I think that in today’s contemporary superhero genre — from The Avengers to Spider-Man to Ant-Man — humor is what viewers expect, especially when the subject material is ripe for dark humor.
“Hunters” stars two great actors who have played Jews before but are limited here by a weak script. In the film version of Philip Roth’s “Indignation,” Lerman played a Jewish man from Newark who fights anti-Semitism at his private Christian college in Ohio. Pacino notably played Shylock in the Public Theater’s production of “The Merchant of Venice.”
Correcting pop culture portrayals of Jewishness is a fool’s errand. But as a grandchild of survivors, I’m on my own quest, heroic or not, to set the record straight. Few grandchildren of survivors in Brooklyn called their grandmothers “Savta,” as happens here. Pacino’s Yiddish American accent is atrocious, especially when he misquotes the Talmud. And I was shocked when a visitor said goodbye to a mourner with “Baruch Hashem.” This is a revenge fantasy against anti-Semitism couched in a microaggression.
I expected more from a show in which the executive producer is Jordan Peele, director of the comedic horror film “Get Out” and part of the Key and Peele comedy duo. He is subversive in his humor and uses horror and comedy to undermine racism against people of color; I was hoping for something similarly artful.
The show is sensitive at times. The numbers tattooed on Al Pacino’s arms are purposely higher than the figure of 202,000 (the number of Auschwitz prisoners), so that there was no possibility that a real survivor’s numbers would be used accidentally. Lerman lives in Brooklyn near Avenue J and East 77th, where Jews lived in 1977, near the Flatlands and Canarsie neighborhoods. The opening scene has Lerman leaving the actual Kings Theatre on Flatbush after seeing the original “Star Wars.”
But it took 56 minutes for the pilot of “Hunters” to pick up steam, when a cast of characters is revealed to be part of the Nazi-hunting team. Even then, the moralizing heightens. The show offensively insinuates that being wealthy is a sure remedy for the mental wounds of the Shoah. Before Pacino kills a Nazi, one who had played a murderous game of chess with prisoners (in the made-up game, they became chess pieces and were forced to kill one another), he says, “You mistook us for pawns but we were kings.” Later, he announces that “the greatest gift of the Jewish people is our capacity to remember,” and that Nazi hunting is “a mitzvah, not murder.”
Of course, Shylock grapples with the moral gray area of a Jew taking revenge far more profoundly than Meyer Offerman does. It’s time to bid “Hunters” shalom.