Yes, ‘The Predator’ is a bit of a mess. Given Shane Black’s involvement, it pains me to admit this. It scores points for being a passable piece of counter-programming following months of largely PG-13 fare. But that was not enough to match my high expectations.
There’s a lot of blood, guts, crass humor and machine guns; all essential parts of anything that wishes to rub shoulders with John McTiernan’s 1987 classic. But there’s a reason the original Predator is as close to perfection as can be. It’s mainly that primal sensibility that rips through our gut and the masterclass in harnessing mood and tension. The only way from those heights was down, as we have seen over the years. Best case scenario, you tweak the template a little and serve up something like the Adrien Brody-led ‘Predators’; smartly expanding the world but maintaining a certain amount of intrigue.
I don’t want to begrudge Black putting his own stamp on affairs, but he gets too cute here, and that coupled with the now-expected studio interference make the end product unsurprising. Change is a constant in real life, but in cinema, sometimes there’s grace in simplicity. Ridley Scott didn’t get this memo ahead of ‘Alien: Covenant’ and neither did Black here.
The biggest problems here are embodied in the gag that questions the tag “Predator”. “That’s not a predator; that’s a sports hunter” someone whines. “Predator is cooler,” is the retort. Very true. But that question shouldn’t have come up in the first place, and it rears its head again over the course of this film that lifts the veil completely of the dreaded alien race.
Some education: The Predator (or Yatuja) over the course of three decades, has been this imposing agile alien with mandibles and chilling camouflage technology that enjoys the hunt as much as your next psychopath. There was a simple dynamic between man and Yatuja that subtly interrogated the former’s affinity for violence, especially apt in the 80’s when a certain American machoism ruled action cinema.
That was all the world needed, not the convoluted story that dabbles with climate change, intergalactic migration and genetic splicing, among other things in the latest Predator entry. The Predators are assigned relatively complex motivations, marked by what remains a MacGuffin till the very end of the film.
Just recalling the plot is a bit of a chore. I guess at the centre of everything is an autistic child. 11-year-old Rory McKenna (Jacob Tremblay) finds himself browsing through some Predator tech and inadvertently paints a target on himself. In pursuit are a couple of Predators and the shadiest corners of the government, led by Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown); who is a key cog of the intricate military infrastructure devoted to studying the Predators.
A day or two before, Rory’s dad, an elite army sniper named Quinn (Boyd Holbrook), had crossed path with one of the Predators while on a mission in Mexico. After things go haywire, he gets his hands on some of the wounded alien’s tech, some of which he sends home via post as proof of this encounter. Nonetheless, he is still arrested and headed for a military jail to keep a lid on the whole alien sighting.
In custody, Quinn meets up with a ragtag crew of broken, PTSD-stricken servicemen also on their way to a scrap heap. This actually angles ‘The Predator’ closer to 2010’s ‘Predators’ than it thinks.
Time spent with them offers the most joy. Among the notables, we have the movie star-ready Trevante Rhodes as Nebraska, who is in holding for trying to kill his “C/O”; Thomas Jane as a worn out soldier with turrets syndrome who hasn’t been in action for a while and Keegan-Michael Key, a profane chatterbox named Coyle.
To ask how they wound up in the bus together is to invite a migraine. This is before we even get to biologist Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), who just happens to on the retainer of a government agency that studies extraterrestrial killing machines. But in faux-Dirty Dozen style, they band together to do battle with Predators while being hunted by Brown’s Traeger, who is truly loving being a villain.
Still in risk of a migraine, here’s a snapshot of what goes on in the clunky second act; Halloween, a trick or treat gone horribly wrong, Olivia Munn’s character being treated like a mermaid, Predator bloodhounds, shootout in a school field, Predator on Predator violence and baby Rain Man.
As all this unfolds as we are bludgeoned by dialogue and quips filtered through an R-Rated sieve. A lot of its funny and enjoyable so I guess it’s quite unfair to complain. But it felt like this was the only card Black could rely on after his vision was compromised; a temporary distraction from the fact the story was close to rubbish.
The action and ultraviolence were also major disappointments. Too many night scenes and manic editing made the battles as incoherent as the plot. There was a deficit of perspective and a disregard for a sense of time and space as action sequences unfold at certain points. There isn’t a single memorable kill and chunk of the significant deaths are stuffed in the final act, one of which, quite ridiculously, will be missed with a blink.
The attempts at nostalgia are hit and miss. The iconic ugly mofo line lands quite well, with little fuss. For the oft-misunderstood ‘get to the chopper’, not so much. I can’t say that there is a definite tone. The crass levity, while welcome, ultimately works against the film, negating the dread and thrills. So what we are left with, unfortunately, is another bastard child of a brilliant piece of cinema and trail of wounded Predator fans.