During his 1980s and ’90s heyday as a frightfully prolific star of blood-and-thunder direct-to-video fare, Wings Hauser once aptly described his target audience as “the microwave-burrito guys at 2 a.m. with a beer in their hands” — and, presumably, a VCR remote switch nearby. Nowadays, that audience can digitally stream their B-movies of choice. But while the favored cuisine of these undiscriminating customers might have changed, the cinematic product they consume remains pretty much the same, albeit enhanced by better production values and, with all due respect to Mr. Hauser, superior star power.
All of which brings us to “Warhunt,” a modestly diverting mashup of WWII actioner and horror thriller that would not have been out of place on a New Release shelf at Blockbuster not so terribly long ago. Wait, scratch that: It would have been a standout on the shelf, if only when compared to the many lesser titles stocked around it. (Rest assured: This review has been written by someone who watched a lot of those other films, and ate a lot of nuked burritos, back in the day.)
Working from a serviceable script he co-wrote with Reggie Keyohara III and Scott Svatos, director Mauro Borrelli wrings a largely satisfying amount of suspense from a clichéd premise that, like countless other films and movies in this subgenre, is fantastical fiction inspired by historical facts surrounding Adolf Hitler’s purported obsession with the supernatural. The main players are game and invested in their roles, with two parallel plotlines that are individually anchored by actors who hold our interest and, better still, earn our respect by maintaining perfectly straight faces. A wink here or a smirk there, and the whole kit-and-caboodle could have collapsed into laughable nonsense way before “Warhunt” finally does run off the rails. You still might chuckle from time to time, but not as often as any plot synopsis might lead you to expect.
We’re in 1945 Germany, and a U.S. military aircraft has crashed-landed behind enemy lines in the Black Forest after an ominous run-in with crows. The plane happened to be carrying a MacGuffin — er, top-secret info pilfered from the Nazis — so the flamboyantly eye-patched Major Johnson (Mickey Rourke) sends a team of his soldiers off on a mission to retrieve said info and, if possible, secure any survivors. Led by the battle-tested, seen-it-all Sgt. Brewer (Robert Knepper), the team races to find the plane wreckage before a Nazi search party does.
As it turns out, however, they needn’t have bothered to rush. While they approach the crash site, Brewer and his men find most of the Nazis — or, as Brewer insists on calling them, “Jerries” — drained of blood and hanging from treetops. One of the very few surviving Germans, shellshocked and barely coherent, indicates that he and his comrades were waylaid by witches.
Brewer dismisses the claim as superstitious nonsense. This, of course, is a big mistake.
Right from the start, Walsh (Jackson Rathbone), an intelligence operative added to Brewer’s outfit at Johnson’s direct orders, is far less willing to disregard the German soldier’s story. And as some of the American soldiers begin to act strangely and/or die messily, he does his best to explain why they’re discovering victims who have had ancient magical symbols carved into their flesh or, worse, been mistaken for edible wild game. And yet, long past the point of reason — but just long enough to keep the narrative moving — Brewer continues to insist there’s a logical explanation for all the freewheeling weirdness. His obstinacy actually cues a line that, deliberately or otherwise, triggers the movie’s one big laugh, when Walsh asks: “You’re going to tell me that after everything we’ve seen, nothing seems strange to you in the slightest?”
Exteriors in Riga, Latvia, convincingly double for forest locales in 1940s Germany while Walsh and company pursue, and are pursued by, witches with a unique horticultural interest. Periodically, the scene shifts backs to a military headquarters where Johnson gradually reveals to an underling The Real Reason for the search and rescue mission, giving Rourke ample opportunity to, if not chew on the scenery, nibble it around the edges. As far-fetched (to put it mildly) as the witch hunt in “Warhunt” may seem, the movie doesn’t topple into absurdity until the final act, when Johnson gets up from his desk, supports himself with his cane and, all by himself, sets out to save his imperiled soldiers.
And even then, things remain at least watchable until the extended climax inside an underground Witch Central, where the final battle is so dimly lit and confusingly staged, you may be tempted to shout rude things at the screen. Or toss a burrito in its general direction.