By Dan Cava
September 13, 2018
In the original Predator, actor Shane Black has a small but, in retrospect, prophetic role. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the star of the 1987 action/horror classic (the human star, at least) but in his limited screen time as the soldier “Hawkins,” Black spouts a few profane wisecracks, wields a gun, and gets messily eviscerated by an invisible interstellar invader. Shane Black’s main job in Hollywood has been writing and directing unusually witty action movies (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys); and now that he’s the director of his own Predator movie, he’s basically taken the characteristics of Hawkins and infused them into a feature-length film. 2018’s The Predator is funny, bloody, juvenile, and more than a little messy.
This is not a reboot, but a sequel in the mode of other previous Predator movies where the monster, not the surrounding cast, is the mainstay. Thirty years after the isolated events of the first film, another brutal space barbarian crash lands on Earth near yet another set of military personnel. A savage scuffle ensues, and sole survivor Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook, Narcos) manages to incapacitate the Predator. The alien is brought back for observation under the auspices of Project Stargazer, a secret government outfit headed up by a dastardly d-bag named Traeger (Sterling K. Brown, The People vs OJ Simpson). A scientist named Casey Beckett (Olivia Munn, X-men: Apocalypse) gets involved, as does Quinn’s estranged wife and kid, and a ragtag but noble bunch of imprisoned ex-soldiers as not just one but two Predators start terrorizing.
The Predator is a blast, but it’s handling of an arguably overstuffed story is the movie’s most glaring drawback. In the best way, there wasn’t a whole lot to keep track of in the 1987 original. There was a jungle, there was an alien, and there were a number of humans who were still alive or not. The simplicity is part of the movie’s goofy, masculine, stoic charm. Black’s new installment successfully updates the goofiness (it’s easily the funniest of the franchise) and at least tries to update the masculinity. But The Predator could use a little more of that old school Predator elegance. There is a simplicity somewhere at the core of The Predator, but it’s burdened at times by a clutter of dangling details and mishandled story connections.
This is a surprise, given the filmmaker at work here. Of all the things Shane Black’s work is criticized for, laziness is usually not on the list. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys, both of which he wrote and directed, wield elaborate storylines with little effort. Iron Man 3 is the most complicated of the Marvel solo movies. It’s also the best (Don’t @ me). Making dense plots work better than they should is kind of Black’s thing.
It’s not the complexity here that’s the issue. It’s the lack of cohesion. The most frustrating part of putting together a 1000-piece puzzle is realizing that a handful are missing. I left the theater feeling like those missing pieces are somewhere on the editing floor. A scene near the end contains one of the hastiest transitions I’ve ever seen in a movie, like the camera battery died in the middle of a shot. The comings and goings of various characters was a source of head-scratching conversation for many of us after the movie. “Did that one guy die?” “How did she get there?” Reports of reshoots surfaced earlier this year; and we know for sure that at least one scene was deleted at the last minute because it contained a questionable casting choice. Did that scene also happen to contain a plot point?
Black has not made another action/horror/suspense movie; he’s made an action movie. The violence is constant, concussive, and excessive, as it should be. Long, loud action sequences span most of the movie, each featuring a testerone-y mini-climax where the bloody debris of bad dudes and space demons euphorically fly through the air. The gore is bountiful, a sick but genuine genre attraction. Black’s R-rated dialogue (written with co-writer Fred Dekker) is crassly clever, adding a lightness often missing from this stern and self-serious franchise.
The Predator is aided by a fantastic bit of casting. Boyd Holbrook as Quinn is the steady presence at the center, a tough guy with a twinkle whose contained charisma never outshines the rest of the crew. Olivia Munn combines the fierce intellect she showed in The Newsroom with physical prowess, the furthest thing from a damsel in distress. Sterling K. Brown’s irresistible charm is subversively effective in reinforcing his character’s villainy. And with character names like “Coyle,” “Nebraska,” and “Baxley,” the convicts that come to Quinn’s aid are as good a rogue’s gallery as any, including comic genius Keegan Michael Key, Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes, and Thomas Jane from Hung.
Of course, there are some nice nods to the rest of the franchise. Like its thirty-plus year old grandfather, the movie starts in space and ends in the jungle. Familiar Predator iconography is trotted out, utilized, and occasionally even explained. Heat vision is as heat vision does, so there’s no lack of that. Original composer Alan Silvestri’s staccato, minor-key theme music is sprinkled liberally throughout the movie. There were Predator “dogs” in 2010’s Predators, and there are new and different Predator dogs here. And rest assured, someone says “get to the chopper.”
It should be enough to please fans, but modern fandom is thorny as hell, so who knows. When it’s not tripping over its own slippery storytelling, The Predator bears enough of the Shane Black stamp to make it a fresh, if flawed, addition to the franchise.
Star Rating: 3 out of 5