TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. On Friday, Amazon Prime Video is dropping its latest series called "Hunters." Set during Jimmy Carter's presidency, it stars Al Pacino and Logan Lerman in a story about a vigilante group tracking down Hitler-era Nazis loose in the United States. Our critic-at-large John Powers has seen the first few episodes and says the show is very much of our moment.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Although it's been 75 years since Adolf Hitler killed himself, we still can't get enough of the Nazis. Historians still ponder what made them tick. There's a fascinating new book on Josef Mengele by David G. Marwell. And pop culture still treats them as the gold standard in villains. Of course, in the wake of everything from "Marathon Man" to "Shoah" and "Schindler's List," Nazi stories now seemingly require a twist, like Quentin Tarantino offing Hitler in "Inglourious Basterds" or der fuhrer being the hero's secret pal in "Jojo Rabbit."
The desire to be inventive is obvious in "Hunter's," a jaunty new 10-part series available from Amazon Prime Video. Created by David Weil and boasting Jordan Peele as executive producer, this amped-up comic book of a show blends an old-school revenge saga with both a grim history lesson and forays into exploitation movie garishness.
The year is 1977, and Jonah Heidelbaum, played by Logan Lerman, is a brilliant young Brooklyn guy who loves comics and sells weed. His life changes forever when his beloved Holocaust survivor grandmother is murdered. Jonah is taken under the wing of her wealthy old friend, Meyer Offerman - that's Al Pacino - who informs him that there's a powerful network of former German Nazis living in the United States. To track them down, Offerman has created the hunters, a motley group that includes a sarcastic nun, a martial arts dude, a self-centered actor, a black power chick with a glorious afro and a comically bickering couple played by those enjoyable old pros Carol Kane and Saul Rubinek.
Of course, the hunters themselves are also being hunted, first by an honorable black FBI agent, Millie Morris - that's Jerrika Hinton - who catches their scent while investigating a murder in Cape Canaveral, second by that Nazi network, which is led by The Colonel. That's Lena Olin. Their dirty work is done by a murderous young American Nazi - he's played by Greg Austin - who enjoys inflicting pain and talks with the smug hatefulness of an Internet troll. Though Jonah wants to avenge his grandmother, he has a lot to learn. Here, after Offerman rescues him from a Nazi torturer, he discovers more about his grandmother than he expected.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HUNTERS")
LOGAN LERMAN: (As Jonah Heidelbaum) Who are you?
AL PACINO: (As Meyer Offerman) It's in this place (ph).
LERMAN: (As Jonah Heidelbaum) Who the [expletive] are you, CIA, Mossad?
PACINO: (As Meyer Offerman) (Non-English language spoken) No, I work only for myself, though I suppose I represent 6 million clients.
LERMAN: (As Jonah Heidelbaum) Why was she saying she was after him?
PACINO: (As Meyer Offerman) Because she was. We both were. You know that photograph you stole from me, your grandmother took it the day before she died. She would never let us pursue anyone without her verification.
LERMAN: (As Jonah Heidelbaum) Pursue? Pursue who?
PACINO: (As Meyer Offerman) Nazis, Jonah - damn, gold ribbon, grade-A Nazis.
POWERS: Now, I'm not a purist who thinks it wrong to depict the Holocaust. It can be done. And I wouldn't want to have missed, say, Art Spiegelman's graphic novel "Maus" or Laszlo Nemes' "Son Of Saul." Yet there are responsibilities when you're dealing with the extermination of 6 million souls as a matter of policy. Even if you're well-meaning, it's easy to go astray telling that story, as Steven Spielberg did when he played a shower scene for suspense in "Schindler's List" or Taika Waititi did in the kitschy "Jojo Rabbit," in which a cute Hitler coexists with people being hanged on the street. That said, it's not impossible to tackle history's cruelty in a live-action comic book. HBO's "Watchmen" did that just a few months ago with great seriousness and intelligence. "Hunters" isn't up to that level.
While Jonah's story does keep you watching, its creators appear worried that we won't be sufficiently entertained. And so there are cartoonish performances, like Dylan Baker's slippery politician. There are moments of sadistic violence that feel like bottom drawer Tarantino. And there are bursts of '70s shtick that comport uneasily with upsetting death camp scenes that have been tweaked to feel new, yet merely present the same horrors we've been watching for decades. To its credit, "Hunters" has its mind on real things - unholy murder and the potentially unholy desire for revenge. And the series is played with genuine commitment by its stars. Lerman skillfully captures Jonah's growing sense of mission when he encounters a real life dark side that's far darker than Darth Vader's. As for Pacino, he knows better than to ham up the Holocaust. He's superb as Offerman, endowing him with a moral ferocity that gives the show a gravitas it doesn't always earn.
While "Hunters" takes place in the '70s, the show's most chilling character is the Nazis' ruthless young American enforcer, who pointedly gives the show its contemporary sting. Watching him in action, you can't help but think about the emboldened neo-Nazis who've become part of our national life today. Indeed, "Hunters" joins a list of recent works set in the past, including "BlacKkKlansman," "Watchmen," "Jojo Rabbit" and "Green Book," that aim to teach viewers a lesson about what happens when societies don't simply tolerate bigotry but stoke it. It may sound like an obvious lesson, but it's one that needs to keep being learned.
GROSS: Critic at large John Powers reviewed "Hunters," which drops Friday on Amazon Prime Video. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Claire Danes, the star of the Showtime series "Homeland," which is in its eighth and final season. She plays a CIA agent who's brilliant but is sometimes subject to erratic behavior because she has bipolar disorder. Danes first became known when she was in her teens starring in the series "My So-Called Life." I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF PETROS KLAMPANIS' "EASY COME EASY GO")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF PETROS KLAMPANIS' "EASY COME EASY GO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.