“One of the great science fiction horror films, often imitated, but never properly duplicated, not even by its own sequel.”
– Robert Cargill, Film.com: “The 10 Best Movies of 1987″(August 2, 2007)
*[I saw The Predator on 10 September 2018 at the AMC Kabuki 8 in San Francisco, CA.]
There’s a moment early on in Shane Black’s The Predator where I thought to myself “Where have I seen this before?” No, it wasn’t the intentional callbacks to the previous entries in the franchise (the film is a proper sequel to those, even putting a spin on the mandatory “ugly motherfucker” line), nor was it kids-in-basements-and/or-clubhouses trope that often appears in Shane Black flicks. It was the fact that the plot of this movie revolves around an extraterrestrial gauntlet that makes its way to Earth, beeps & boops all manner of fancy ways, attaches itself to an unsuspecting Earthling, and is used in defense against some pretty angry extraterrestrials that want it back.
That’s right: this movie is an R-rated version Jon Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens (a fact driven home by Black’s final sequel-baiting scene to this flick, in which he seems determined to remind everyone he directed an Iron Man sequel, which he did after two Jon Favreau entries).
And that’s the major flaw running through the nearly two hours of this “only adequate” movie: Shane Black – who set off a new trend of how action movies were written – made a sequel to Predator – a decade- and genre-defining classic that can only be compared to its predecessors because it really has nothing of its own to show. When the best you can say is “At least it’s not Alien vs. Predator,” it just shows you how low the bar has been set.
Captain McKenna is an excellent sniper. With numerous confirmed kills and a Silver Star to his name, to say the man knows how to hunt would be an understatement. But when his mission to take out a cartel leader is interrupted by a crashing alien ship, the rules of engagement instantly change. When his superiors find out, he’s dismissed and lumped in with “Group 2”, a collection of combat vets determined to be mentally unstable.
This is when government Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown) takes possession of the alien gear, enlisting the help of Dr. Casey Bracket to figure out just why this creature – merely the latest of its species to visit Earth – decided to show up now.
Before we know it, the interference of these Earthlings draws some unwanted attention from above. It isn’t long before Group 2, Traeger, Bracket, and even McKenna’s son Rory all become involved in a battle that holds the future of the human race at stake.
Y’know why the first Predator is such a great flick? It’s not just the excessive gore, the hilarious machismo, or the unique creature design by the late, great Stan Winston (with input from his good friend James Cameron). There’s also the fact that the film takes its time. It gives us enough time in the jungle with these characters to build up a creepy atmosphere and an audience rapport. Shots linger and savor every nuance of the frame. When the action does occur, it’s cut in a way that’s exciting without being indecipherable. And, like Jaws, it limits the amount of screentime for its monster, making its revelation all the more terrifying.
But where Predator was something of a slow burn, The Predator is impatient. From its opening frames, Black is dead-set on getting the action moving and giving the eponymous alien as much screentime as any of the human characters. The latter can be chalked up to the original film and franchise now being 31 years old, but it was still Black’s job as writer/director to build up an air of danger around the monster. I honestly don’t know what his excuse is for the post-Michael Bay erratic action and editing?
And then there’s the fact that Shane Black stumbles in the two areas where he of all people should thrive: dialogue and character. Hell, the whole reason Shane Black appeared as an actor in the original Predator was because the studio wanted him on set to punch up the script’s dialogue (whether or not he actual did is a matter of some debate). Before Tarantino showed up in the next decade, Black was Hollywood’s go-to guy for script-doctoring catchy turns-of-phrase into action flicks. Here, he just sounds like, well, a writer trying (and failing) to sound like Shane Black. None of it flows or pops. If you’ve seen the red band trailers for this flick then you’ve heard the dialogue get as good as it can. The guy who rewrote Hollywood machismo now writes characters who sound like some butt-hurt Alpha-bro’s dumb idea of what “being tough” sounds like.
And then there are the characters. In short, there aren’t any. Oh sure, the cast is full of recognizable faces – Theon Grayjoy from Game of Thrones, that chick who played Psylocke in that shitty X-Men sequel, that-Black-dude-who-used-to-do-that-show-with-Jordan-Peele-but-now-he-does-tv-spots-for-insurance-or-whatever – but they’re all interchangeable. Every last one of them. Lead actor Boyd Holbrook (McKenna) is essentially a mannequin with dialogue we have to spend the whole goddamn flick with him. I saw the film just a few hours ago, but I can’t remember a single thing about these folks, except for what cliché they represent to the plot: Main Character; Man Character’s son (who has autism or Asperger’s so he can read “Predator-language”); Woman; Evil Gov’t Guy; Predator; Bigger Predator; and Predator Dogs. Everyone else is just inevitable cannon fodder. Hell, even McKenna’s son Rory finds himself tormented by the very kind of school bullies who have never existed anywhere except in Hollywood movies and tv shows – I’ll bet if these kids had names (they’re never mentioned in the movie) they’d be “Bulk ‘n Skull”.
And I’d be remiss not to mention how lame the sexual politics are in this movie. Look, I grew up on ‘70s and ‘80s action flicks, so I’m not averse to overblown displays of masculinity. But Shane Black seems to be taking cues from Troy Duffy, a guy notorious for imitating Black’s style. This movie seems to exist in an alternate 2018 where women never joined the military and should never be handed guns, lest they shoot themselves (which Olivia Munn’s “Dr. Bracket” does, albeit with a tranquilizer dart). It’s really no surprise that Black cast a known paedophile in a role only to have him hit o Munn’s character (the scene has since been deleted and was not in the screening last night): the whole film has a ridiculous “Bros before Hoes” vibe that regards women as a necessary evil rather than, y’know, people.
Even if that weren’t ridiculously misogynist and outdated, it’s sub-par Shane Black. This dude gave Charlie Baltimore from The Long Kiss Goodnight; this guy gave us that genuinely moving scene at the start of The Nice Guys with the kid covering up the naked dead woman in front of him; this dude wrote the little sister of The Monster Squad as the emotional core of the film. In other words, he’s better than this.
Look, there are some good things about this movie: occasionally the dialogue will offer a bon mot that can make me chuckle and the actors at least try their best with the paper-thin “characters” they’ve been given. But each and every person involved in this flick has done much better work elsewhere.
As a lifelong lover of genre films, I was overjoyed when I heard Shane Black would be commandeering a Predator sequel. Having now seen the final product, I can now that that’s all it is: just another Predator sequel.