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Bosnia's ugly truths overwhelm grim farce of 'Hunting Party'

Richard Gere (left) and Terrence Howard track a war criminal in Bosnia in 'The Hunting Party.' Richard Gere (left) and Terrence Howard track a war criminal in Bosnia in "The Hunting Party." (Karen Ballard/Weinstein co.)

The dwarf Serb thug really existed, according to the end titles of "The Hunting Party," and there's the movie's underlying problem. When something seems too bizarre to be true, that's generally how it plays onscreen.

Richard Shepard's ironic romp through postwar Bosnia revels in such odd touches, though. The film's a comedy-drama about US journalists tracking a war criminal, and if that sounds like an exceedingly tricky tone to pull off, you're right. It worked reasonably well for Shepard's last movie, the arch neurotic-hitman tale "The Matador," but genocide's hard to decorate with the trimmings of dark farce. "The Hunting Party" wants to get at political truths through audaciousness, but it keeps bumping into that problem of taste, only to back down.

At least Richard Gere is in full gallop as Simon Hunt, a TV journalist legendary for having an on-camera meltdown in 1994 while reporting on a Serb massacre. Immediately canned, Simon has disappeared into the broadcast backwoods while his loyal cameraman, Duck (Terrence Howard), is called back to New York and rewarded with a desk job.

Cut to five years later, and Duck is back in-country with preening anchorman Franklin Harris (James Brolin, playing it majestically dim) for an anniversary feature. Out of the woodwork appears Simon, grayer and worse for booze. He has a story, though - a lead on an interview with "the Fox" (Ljubomir Kerekes), the genocide's chief architect and a man on the run from the international community.

Will Duck shed the suit and tie to go back into the field with his mentor? He has to or there won't be a movie. Coming along for the ride is Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg, of "The Squid and the Whale"), an earnest young intern with a network executive father. Against Duck's better judgment, the three pile into a battered car and head into the mountain stronghold of the Fox, an effete type surrounded by a ring of fanatical killers. If a UN peacekeeping officer (Mark Ivanir) wants to assume our boys are CIA officers preparing a hit on their quarry, so much the better. It's possible, too, that Simon has another game plan tucked away.

"The Hunting Party" alters idiots-abroad shenanigans with far more trenchant matters - death squads killing pregnant women and children, for one - and the mix barely congeals. In his favor, Shepard knows how to juggle high-spirited goofiness with tragedy, and the film careens from laughter to the sharp intake of breath. Gere gives the part his all as the journalist gone gonzo, but he's still fundamentally miscast, his inherent mellowness failing to give Simon the necessary Hunter S. Thompson edge. Howard, by contrast, looks as lost in the movie as Duck is in Bosnia.

The film's based on a 2000 Esquire article about five journalists who set out to find the real Radovan Karadzic, and we're assured that many of the wilder, woollier elements in the script actually occurred. It doubtless makes a great tale told round the bar. Told on the screen, though, where you can see the real-world ghosts pressing in from the background, "The Hunting Party" muffs the timing. It's not springtime for Bosnia yet - not by a long shot.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

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The Hunting Party

Written and directed by: Richard Shepard

Starring: Richard Gere, Terrence Howard, Jesse Eisenberg

Playing at: Kendall Square, Cambridge, and suburbs

Running time: 109 minutes

Rating: R (strong language, violent content)

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