★★★ out of ★★★★★ An entertaining and showy movie with a great cast and great dialogue, but an all too familiar been-there-done-that plot.
It’s a worthy member of a franchise that has a bit of an uneven track record. Shane Black returns to the franchise, this time behind the camera instead of in front of it. Remember, he played Hawkins, the wise-cracking radioman from the original Schwarzenegger-led franchise starter. Now he is the wise-crack writer and director for the latest installment of the venerable series. Points in the movie’s favor? This has, by far, the best dialogue of any of the Predator movies. The wonderful ensemble eats up the witty banter, and there are lots of great jokes that really snap, having the audience really engaged, particularly early in the film. The action in the film is quick, the stunts are great, and it’s nice and bloody… if at times is infused with action that is too frenetic to easily follow.
The characters are broadly stroked, easily identifiable members of a misfit team. Boyd Holbrook plays Quinn McKenna, a swaggering Peter Quill like smart-alec killer, who just happened to be the first contact with a Predator encounter while on a mission in Mexico. He’s captured by a shadowy covert military group, and after being interrogated is forced onto a prison bus containing a motley assortment of military cast-offs, half or wholly crazy, giving the movie the opportunity for some fun introductions. These oddballs team up when a Predator breaks out of the military lab on the base and provides a big distraction for the lot of them to make a run for freedom. Also joining them is the sexy, sassy and smart Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn… who always seems to play the smart, sexy, and sassy type). Munn might be the best female character in the whole series run, but sadly that’s more of an indictment of the franchise than a reflection of her acting prowess. Still, she gets off some great character moments. Perhaps my favorite character is Sterling K. Brown’s military stooge, who gleefully snarls his way through the movie, playing a military “Man in Black”, the villain foil that always appears in the Predator films… think Carl Weathers in Predator, Gary Busey in Predator II, and Topher Grace in Predators. I thought Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Jane were perhaps a bit too broad, and Alfie Allen was underused, but in the proud tradition of the series, you quickly understood who these characters were. There’s a good chunk of The Dirty Dozen at work here.
Going against the film is the general inability of the film to create anything substantively new to the genre. It reinforces how hard it is to come up with something creatively fresh, when visually you know what the monster looks like and does, and the camouflage and tracking elements that made the original so stunning is now expected and is not innovative anymore. The fellow Fox franchise Alien series seems to struggle with the same thing. How do you keep it fresh? We’ve seen all these beats before. The introduction of the crew, and establishing how interesting, brave, and badass these guys are… running into a nearly unstoppable alien menace who manages to whittle the survivors down, one by one until you are left with a mano-a-predator showdown finale. In truth, all of The Predator movies follow this rough script. The film does up the ante a little with the introduction of an even bigger version of the predator, which isn’t particularly scarier than a garden variety Predator. I’m one of those people who actually enjoyed Predator II, and I also enjoyed the Adrien Brody Predators installment. Didn’t love them, but I enjoyed them.
I do wish they gave the characters more story arcs. The most we get of story arcs are a few well-worn chestnuts:
The enemy of my enemy is my friend! Let’s team up!
I’m going to make good on my past shortcomings and sacrifice myself for the team!
We’re an odd couple, always bickering, but in the end, we’ll be best friends!
Don’t make fun of the person with the strange tics and behavioral problems, they may be special or gifted! (This goes for both Quinn’s son and the escapees.)
I’m an anonymous uniformed soldier lackey. Guess I am Predator target practice!
So, what do you do when you don’t have the benefit of having two muscle-bound will-be governors and a couple of new flashy special effects gimmicks?
I’ll go back to the script. Shane Black is the man responsible for the snappy dialogue for the Lethal Weapon films, and Iron Man 3, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and criminally underseen The Nice Guys. His script elevates it above the average action-sci-fi-horror flick. In the theater, I was sitting next to a couple of wonderful middle-aged ladies, who were not genre film buffs, but also managed to get early-screener movie passes due to a social club function. Once I told them that I was at the movie to review it, they were asking me what I wanted out of the movie. I responded to them that I was concerned about the film, in that the trailer didn’t seem to offer anything new, but I believed in the director, and that I just wanted this movie to be enjoyable. Halfway through the second act, the crew is holing up in a hotel room, in a scene which elicited peals of laughter from the audience, one of the women leaned over to me and whispered “Isn’t this fun?!?” and gave me a big ear-to-ear grin.
Indeed. This movie is FUN. Big, showy, nonsensical and kinda dumb fun that we’ve seen before, but there’s some comfort in that the producers and director know what at the heart of a Predator film makes it tick. I suspect fans of the franchise will enjoy this.
The Predator is Rated R for lots of potty language and visceral action. It opens in wide release on September 14.