Back in 1987, nobody could have anticipated the impact of “Predator” on moviegoers. The ‘80s were a revolving door of ultra-violent hyper-masculine action films (even ones featuring the era’s biggest action star, Arnold Schwarzenegger). But “Predator” rose above most of the pack, and exploded in popularity, fueling spin-off movies, video games, and comic books. Despite many attempts, Hollywood has yet to recapture the magic of the original, instead delivering sequels with mixed, at best, results. Enter director Shane Black and his latest movie, “The Predator.”
“The Predator” has all the tools to deliver a worthy successor to the original film: a stacked cast, updated special effects, and the pulpy sensibilities of its filmmaker. Black is a Hollywood screenwriting extraordinaire who practically wrote the book on the action genre’s most adored clichés. If anyone has what it takes to deliver the thrilling, violent, action movie rush fans are hungry for, it’s Black.
Right out the gate, the director wants his audience to know this movie isn’t playing around. The action kicks off with an intergalactic dogfight as two Predator ships light up the cosmos. One of these ships rips a hole in space, slips through, and goes careening towards Earth. The crash disrupts a mission by U.S. sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), who tangles with the creature before stealing some of its gear. With a secret military agency hot on McKenna’s tail, he ships the alien hardware back home where it’s intercepted by his super-genius son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), who sets off a tracking beacon. With a bigger, nastier, uglier Predator looking for his son, McKenna recruits a team of dysfunctional soldiers to escape the secret agency’s clutches and protect Rory before it’s too late.
Black earned a name for himself churning out violent crime flicks like “Lethal Weapon” and “The Last Boy Scout.” If you look past his flashy tendencies, the director’s films reveal him as a down-low sentimentalist. Sure, he populates his films with killers, hustlers, and shakedown artists, but Black’s stories are about broken people running out of shots at becoming whole – look no further than “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “The Nice Guys.” “The Predator” places Black right in his comfort zone, mixing bravado with bromance.
“The Predator” knows exactly what type of picture it is. This is an action-filled, popcorn movie with no aspirations for anything more. This movie throws caution to the wind in service of creating 2-hours worth of brain-melting thrills. Black knows his genre tropes inside and out and he loves throwing out cliché setups and then subverting your expectation for the payoff. Most often, he does this for laughs. Whenever you think you’re going to see a heroic moment, the director pulls the rug out in service of a joke. This tactic never cheapens the movie, though. “The Predator” has a wild, if not completely ridiculous, conceit and self-awareness is part of the fun. Black’s real skill here is repeating this trick without cheapening the movie’s stakes. His script is irreverent one moment and cold-blooded the next.
“The Predator” recreates the elements viewers enjoyed in the original film while also updating it for the modern era. The biggest throwback is the misfit team of soldiers. Black has a murderer’s row of talented actors at his disposal and they all get at least one moment to shine. These characters each have quirks that define and endear them to the audience. Whether it’s doing card tricks or having Tourette’s, each soldier feels distinct. Black is like the Aaron Sorkin of potty-mouthed anti-heroes and “The Predator” is a feast of spit-take worthy one-liners. Sterling K. Brown is deliciously over-the-top as the movie’s villain, spouting insane dialogue with ruthless vigor. Olivia Munn’s Casey Bracket also holds her own with the fellas. She is as fast with a trigger as she is with a quip, and we finally get to see some of the badassery her “X-Men” role as Psylocke failed to deliver.
The original Predator was a 7-foot man in an unwieldy suit. Just watching him lumber around in the steamy jungle added to his otherworldly presence. The alien hunters in this film come in two models. The CG version possesses a level of speed and agility that makes old Predators seem to move like Ford Model T’s. But despite its hulking frame, it’s not as imposing as the other version, a guy in a suit. Version 2.0 is at its best when lurking out of the frame, yanking someone into the treeline, or crashing into a shot. When the CG version is on full display, the creature faces the same problems as most rendered characters, feeling superimposed and weightless. To the film’s credit, it makes excellent use of sound mixing to deliver thundering impacts each time the creature takes a step or unleashes a roar.
Overall the movie’s computer effects are disappointing. There are moments when the CG is grainy and looks like they could use one more layer of textures. And the big action moments feel too much like watching an animation. Fortunately, the action plays out in such compelling ways that skin textures and color timing cease to matter. The set-pieces are intense, loaded with gore, and filled with creative kills. This new Predator has yet to meet a body mutilation it didn’t like.
Thirty-one years after the original Predator eviscerated its way through a Central American jungle, torturing Schwarzenegger and Company, fans finally have a worthy successor. While “”The Predator” is no threat to surpass its predecessor in the action movie pantheon, it presents a distinct and satisfying flavor. Credit goes to Black for not playing it safe and pandering to audiences by repeating all the same beats we’ve already seen. Insanely violent, packed with off-color jokes, and of course, sentimentality, “The Predator” is one of the most enjoyable popcorn flicks hitting multiplexes this fall season. [B+]