Written by: Fred Dekker & Shane Black (screenplay), Jim Thomas & John Thomas (characters)
Directed by: Shane Black
Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, and Olivia Munn
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"They're large, they're fast, and fucking you up is their idea of tourism."
As the latest entry in a 30-year-old franchise, The Predator is expectedly preoccupied with evolution: far from a remake (or even a “soft reboot”), Shane Black’s much heralded return to the series is a direct sequel looking to push the mythology to its next phase—or at least postures as such. In truth, it’s a front that quickly grows ironic as it becomes clear that The Predator is the most unabashed, straightforward monster movie this franchise has produced thus far. For all its rambling, sometimes convoluted plot developments, its chief thrills involve a goddamn space alien descending from the stars to wreak gory movie havoc on Earth. Black and co-writer Fred Dekker bring their trademark wit and banter to the proceedings, but make no mistake: this is Predator imagined as a raucous splatter movie, a formula that proves to be mostly thrilling until some third act stumbles leave you with the impression that this is a compromised—or at least ruthlessly hacked up—version that’s arrived in theaters.
To be fair, there’s a nagging sense of that early on, as the film whisks you right into the action, with a Predator craft hurtling towards the Earth, soon to interrupt a sting operation involving Mexican drug cartels. Perched behind a rifle is Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), an expert marksman whose aim is usually true when he’s not interrupted by a spaceship crash landing right in the middle of a mission. Obviously curious, he frantically investigates the crash site, only to have his entire team obliterated by a mysterious creature sporting impossibly advanced technology. Somehow, he not only survives the encounter but also conquers the beast: sensing that he’ll need evidence, he swipes from of the tech before evading a government task force (headed by Sterling K. Brown) assigned to clean up these incidents, which have grown more frequent in recent years.
It’s a setup that’s ripe enough for a full movie, but that’s not even the half of it here. Hell, it’s barely a third of it, as McKenna’s fugitive act dovetails into an entire, sprawling ordeal that captures nearly a dozen other characters in its web. Eventually, he’s captured, but not before he’s able to ship off his stolen wares to his estranged wife (Yvonne Strahovski) and autistic son (Jacob Tremblay). When the latter mistakes some of the tech as a video game, he inadvertently captures the attention of another Predator craft, which swiftly makes a beeline to their suburban Georgia neighborhood, just in time for Halloween night. Still more plot lurks nearby at a secret government facility devoted to researching the alien species, where all hell breaks loose once the first Predator revives and leaves the place in shambles. Only McKenna—now hooked up with a group of fellow ragtag “loonies” and a biologist (Olivia Munn)—is reasonably equipped to deal with the fallout, which also involves—
Actually, no, I think that’s going to have to suffice: obviously, this is a shaggy, rambling movie that finds itself elegantly juggling various threads masquerading as plot. It’s more accurate to consider them wheels of momentum, greased here by both crimson and day-glow splatter: yes, there’s a sense that it eventually charts a new direction for the franchise, but it also feels like an afterthought. Some of this owes to Black and Dekker’s breathless delivery: after being reunited for the first time in 30 years, it’s almost as if the old pals are making up for lost time with a script full of half-formed ideas. I have to imagine a good chunk of their pitch just involved the two of them bouncing ideas off of each other: “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if a Predator interrupted Halloween festivities?” “How about a group full of foul-mouthed oddballs boasting two members prone to obscene outbursts involving vaginas?” “Remember the kid offering candy in Predator 2? Imagine a character like that being integral to the entire plot!” “Also, what if we had a huge fucking super-Predator as a mid-movie twist?”
You get the picture: it’s nothing if not enthusiastic in that specifically juvenile way that made this duo’s older work truly sing. At times, The Predator does too, even if Fox’s marketing did thwart the element of surprise in regards to the new alpha beast turns the film on its head a bit. Luckily, Black and Dekker’s script manages to stow away some intriguing wrinkles later on to give the impression that this franchise is hurtling forward with these new ideas that are being flung against the wall in the hopes that something sticks. To be honest, few of them really do, mostly because the duo invests most of their energy into transforming Predator into a demented sandbox for their splatter movie ambitions: heads are stabbed, sliced, pummeled, exploded, and/or sent rolling with reckless abandon, while guts are strewn throughout various Georgia locales.
Obviously, this is a series that’s never lacked for this sort of thing: it’s always been a stealth splatter movie lurking within the confines of 80s and 90s action movies, and The Predator turns that dynamic inside-out a bit by foregrounding the gory mayhem. Fans have always been divided on this franchise’s genre status, with some taking the position that it’s more of an action/sci-fi jaunt, and others pointing out that it does involve a monster from outer space claiming its victims' skulls as trophies. I generally truck with the former (I didn’t review Predators here back in 2010 on the grounds that it was more of an action movie) but won’t really rail against the latter line of thinking, so I kept an open door policy with The Predator. About a third of the way through (at which point over a dozen bodies had been sufficiently obliterated), there was little doubt: this is the closest the series has come to embracing its monster movie roots and would feel right at home alongside the Eurotrash “Alien on Earth” riffs that emerged following Ridley Scott’s landmark film.
I can hear the faint cries of “what about Alien vs. Predator: Requiem?” from the peanut gallery, compelling me to remind everyone that nobody’s really ever seen that movie on account of it being shot within a dirty vacuum cleaner bag. In all seriousness, The Predator does feel like a mulligan for that film, at least in the sense that it’s driven by the same rollicking monster movie verve, though it’s punched up here by Black and Dekker’s snappy, smartass sense of humor. It works much better this time around not just because you can see the action, but also because the characters actually manage to leave an mark. Where you spend most of the two crossover movies wondering why the human characters even exist, this outing is more in the tradition of the solo Predator efforts, boasting a cast full of magnetic personalities that carries the film.
The Predator sports a particularly motley crew at that, one that moves away from the oily, testosterone-fueled machismo that especially defined the original film. With the exception of McKenna, this isn’t a seasoned crew of hardened, badass warriors: instead, they’re mostly broken, vulnerable men, their brains and bodies broken by the trauma of failed suicide attempts, Catholic guilt, Tourette’s syndrome, and the horrors of war. Not that Black dwells on this trauma, of course, as he takes an expectedly glib approach and allows the cast to embrace the absurdity of the scenario by zinging one-liners off each other throughout. While some of the humor is regressive—let’s just say there’s a running joke about someone’s name being “Gaylord”—a lot of it goes a long way in making this an endearing bunch of reluctant heroes. Black especially hearkens back to the first film’s sense of war zone camaraderie by highlighting the unlikely bonds forged between these men, a dynamic best exemplified by Thomas Jane and Keegan-Michael Key’s Baxley and Coyle, the unit’s two foul-mouthed rogues who supply dirty jokes and heartfelt solidarity in equal measure.
The film is weirdly heart-warming in this respect and made all the more so by the presence of Tremblay’s character, a precocious child dropped right into the middle of a bloodbath. Black especially is no stranger to such a storytelling wrinkle, having made it something of a hallmark throughout his career; as a result, it comes as no surprise that it mostly works here, especially since the younger Mckenna’s autism is treated (mostly) sensitively (the script seemingly can’t resist having one of the heroes casually tossing out the word “retarded”). In fact, it’s eventually treated as a crucial plot development within the attempt to expand the franchise mythology, all while reinforcing the film’s theme about heroism arising from unlikely corners: this is a Predator movie where many of the characters aren’t necessarily defined by uber-masculine displays of swagger and physical strength.
Of course, McKenna proves to be the exception as the lead, a quite frankly baffling development considering how dull he is compared to the more indelible personalities surrounding him. From a pure entertainment standpoint, I would like to have seen literally anyone else assume the lead role, especially Munn or Trevante Rhodes, both of whom prove to the most interesting. Holbrook is fine but there’s a blank vapidity to the role that emerges as the lead almost out of default obligation: of course the hyper-competent but otherwise forgettable badass of the group takes charge. This is especially disappointing since it runs counter to the film’s turn away from such a cliché: for all the world, it looks like The Predator will actually undercut or subvert the action movie machismo that rumbled through the previous outings, only to shy away and back down during an increasingly preposterous climax.
It’s at this point that The Predator becomes a somewhat ridiculous, overblown farce, full of over-the-top sequences and weightless CGI that feel at odds with the relatively intimate stalk-and-slash setup. The entire film reeks of studio tinkering throughout, with several abrupt transitions resulting in the nagging feeling that something’s missing; however, it’s most pronounced during the end of the film, where the herky-jerky action and jagged rhythms are too breakneck in speed. One character perishes so quickly that you’ll literally miss it if you blink, a demise made all the more unceremonious by the fact that the script seems to be setting them up for a later conflict in the film.
I would not be at all surprised to learn that Black’s original vision—at least on the script level—is a bit more coherent because The Predator feels almost surgically edited to climax with the most obvious, blockbuster filmmaking sensibilities, with the conquering hero resorting to outrageous stunts that just feel out of place here. The first two films especially thrived on a sort of gritty, tactile physicality, both of them boasting underdog heroes who barely survive through resourcefulness and perseverance; this one features a bland hero surfing aboard a Predator craft outfitted with a deadly force-field.
Then again, that’s evolution, I suppose: eventually, this is Predator updated for a modern age that almost demands escalation. Despite its best efforts to simply embrace the splattery simplicity of its premise, it eventually relents to the mantra that bigger is better: much like the latter Die Hard efforts, this is a movie that loses its way by forgetting its appeal in the first place. The Predator is a raucous, brutal, gore-soaked monster movie that balloons a bit too far beyond its means in its attempt to extend the mythology, a downturn best exemplified by its final scene, an awkwardly tacked-on coda that sets up the next phase of evolution.
Whether it’s Black and Dekker’s final, enthusiastic spit-balling or a hastily-written studio note, it lands with a thud: I find it hard to be too enthused about the implied direction a sequel might take since it promises more misguided developments centered around this film’s most forgettable character. Usually, I can at least admire such ambition; in this case, though, I’m perfectly okay with sticking to a formula that mostly just involves a monstrous alien ripping people’s spines from their bodies.
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