Some Mild Spoilers AhoyStepping into the theater to watch a screening of “Predators,” I was struck by a feeling that wasn’t quite anticipation. It was more like timid hope; hope that I wasn’t about to watch yet another stripping of dignity from a film franchise that has never lived up to its potential.
The first “Predator” film is a classic genre picture, and maybe the most macho movie ever. “Predator 2” and the “AvP” films, on the other hand, don’t come close to capturing the original’s perfect blend of adrenaline and terror.
So where does “Predators” rank? I’m happy to report it lands squarely in the runner-up spot, directly behind the first movie. It’s an atmospheric, single-minded actioner that wastes little time or dialogue in getting to the point.
The movie is as lean as Adrien Brody's new action figure physique. The opening shot, with Brody in free fall, tells you all you need to know about what kind of film you’re about to see. This is a film with places to go, people to kill, aliens to reveal.
Brody sums up the movie’s purpose when he’s asked why he’s traipsing through the jungle.
“So I can figure out who threw me out of a f__ing airplane.”
The foundation of the story comes from a 1994 Predator script producer Robert Rodriguez wrote. Director Nimrod Antal took the premise and ran with it.
Eight people, all but one an expert in killing people in various ways and for differing reasons, are parachuted onto a strange planet, inside a gaming preserve. “We’re being hunted,” one of them says at one point. Hunted by what, they’re not quite sure.
You have your Alpha Dog mercenary lone wolf (Oscar winner Brody) turned into the de facto leader of this not-so-merry group, which includes a female Israeli Army sniper (Alicia Braga), Mexican drug cartel killer (Danny Trejo), Russian military guy (Oleg Taktarov), Sierra Leone death squader (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), Yakuza enforcer (Louis Ozawa Changchien) and a death row inmate (Walt Goggins).
As a doctor also stranded, Topher Grace is the odd one out. He's there mostly for comic relief, as is Scoggins. Playing a death row serial killer, he also gets to utter the most inappropriate bit of dialogue uttered in a film this year.
These are not very nice people. One gets the impression from the single-sentence back stories each character gets, that they were chosen for the hunt partly because they are good at what they do – killing – and maybe because the Predators know most people on Earth won’t miss ‘em. They're predators back home. Now they're getting a taste of their own medicine.
The most sympathetic character is Braga’s sniper-with-a-conscience. She butts heads with Brody, who infuses his role with a demeanor so ice cold, it could be used to make Slurpees.
The film does step into a screenplay landmine when Laurence Fishburne comes into the picture. Portraying a soldier who has spent one season too many away from home (the predators bring in new 'game' each hunting season), Fishburne appears to be channeling his memories of Brando from “Apocalypse Now.”
The decision to allow him to talk to an imaginary friend in his hidden enclave short-circuits the dead-serious atmosphere the film had worked so hard to create.
Fortunately, Brody is able to keep it together.
In the shape of his life, he definitely looks the part of the mercenary Royce. This is a guy who has no problem using his new teammates as bait. What I liked most about Brody here is that he embraced the unlikable qualities of his character. He’s a gun-for-hire. Trust shouldn’t come easy for him.
The screenplay starts to go off track once the inevitable one-by-one elimination of the group begins (and that plays out in exactly the order you would expect it to). A couple of senseless storytelling turns near the end almost ruin an effective climax.
But aside from possessing the coolest handle in the DGA, Antal displays a good eye for action. The shoot ‘em up scenes are well staged (watch for a subtle homage to the first film’s classic moment when Dutch and his team unload about ten million rounds into the jungle) and well armed. No skimping on bullets here. The end battle is also impressive.
Even better, the first half of the movie has a palpable tension. The original movie worked so well because it was as much a horror film as an action movie. The audience had no idea what was out there, hiding in the jungle. Same thing here.
We get glimpses of the cloaking blur in the trees, but it's a long time before the Predators show themselves. When they do, it’s in their hunting camp, which looks like the setting of a Frazetta painting.
We meet three new super-sized Berserker Predators, Mr. Black, Falconer and Dog Handler. These new creatures are much more dangerous than before, with better weapons. Like metal tracking falcons, more wrist rockets and Predator dogs.
Let me repeat that. Predator Dogs. A tip of the hat to longtime Rodriguez collaborators KNB Effects Group for creating an impressive lineup of Predators. The only CGI aspect of the creatures were a few visual enhancements.
Antal provides a few glimpses into the mythology of the species. The hunting planet is where the different races of Predators go to refine their skills and prove their superiority over the others. That’s why the Predator ‘model’ from the 1987 movie is here, an outdated representative of the species, a T-800 compared to the T-1000.
In this era of reboots, remakes and adaptations, it's nice to see a sequel made by people who actually give a damn about the source material.
“Predators” pays its necessary respects to its ancestor, without going overboard. While there are no lines of dialogue that even approach the audaciousness of “I ain’t got time to bleed,” the film has attitude to spare. It also provides nice cinematic redemption for the title creature.
The ending clumsily sets up a sequel, like most movies nowadays. There’s enough here to warrant a return visit to this world. Just bring lots of ammo.Have you seen Predators? What did you think?