After watching his comrades be hunted and torn down by an alien hunter, the human prey is ready to fight back. To throw off the hunter’s heat vision, the human has stripped off his shirt and smeared mud over his muscled body. He stands in the center of a trap, ready to lure the hunter into one final showdown.
“Do it now!” he bellows, taunting the hunter. “Kill me!”
For most people, the above description recalls an iconic scene from Predator, the 1987 action horror classic directed by John McTiernan, but the human I’m describing is not Major Dutch Schaefer, the hulking special forces agent played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rather it’s Royce, the decidedly lither mercenary played by Adrien Brody in the 2010 sequel Predators.
Some may argue that this callback captures everything wrong with the later movie. Half of the original’s fun involved watching meatheads like Arnold, Carl Weathers, and Jesse Ventura get torn to shreds by an elite hunter from outer space. No one expects a challenge from one of Wes Anderson’s repertory players or the guy from That ‘70s Show. And yet, it’s that surprising approach which puts Predators above the overheated nonsense of Predator 2 and the misplaced schmaltz of The Predator, making it the only worthy successor to the original film (at least until Prey, which is on Hulu now! ).
When Action Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth
To fully appreciate the legacy set by the original Predator, one needs to remember the state of 1980s movies. After decades of heroes like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, ‘80s action embraced excess. Big guys like Arnold and Sylvester Stallone carried big guns to make big explosions and drop big quips. Predator both celebrated and undercut these movies, playing like the most over-the-top ‘80s action film for its first half. McTiernan spends ample time not only showing us the heroes wreaking destruction but also bragging about their muscles and sexual abilities. But when the Predator arrives and decimates the commandos, the movie settles into its thesis: these guys may be big, but there’s always something bigger.
By 2010, things had changed. In the same year that Schwarzengger and Stallone would pioneer the “Geezer Teaser” genre with The Expendables, action movies were in a fallow period. With the spark of The Matrix extinguished by too many inferior pretenders, and The Raid: Redemption not coming for another year, action movies lacked a clear identity. There was no cultural milieu into which oncoming producer Robert Rodriguez and director Nimród Antel could ground their movie.
So instead of gathering recognizable action heroes, Rodriguez and Antel opted for character actors. Except for Danny Trejo and possibly Oleg Taktarov, Predators starred actors who would either become bigger names later in their careers, such as Mahershala Ali and Walton Goggins, or those known for dramatic or comedic roles, including Topher Grace and Alice Braga. They each play different examples of earthling killers: Ali as a death squad soldier from Sierra Leone; Louis Ozawa Changchien as a Yakuza assassin; Braga as a sniper in the Israeli Defense Force (because apparently dumb Americans can’t tell the difference between a Brazilian and an Israeli). They’re brought to a planet that functions as a game reserve, and the group tries to stay alive against the trio of Predators testing their skills.
Setting Up the Prey
On paper, Predators shouldn’t work. Despite the skill of the actors involved, they fundamentally play stereotypes. Taktarov’s Nikolai is a massive Spetsnaz soldier who carries a chain gun and gets sappy talking about his family. Changchien’s Hanzo remains stealthy and quiet, revealing the missing fingers on his hand and dies during an honorable duel with a Predator. They have as much cultural specificity as the boxers from Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out.
And yet, it’s that very silliness that makes Predators so effective. We see that most clearly with Brody’s performance as Royce, an ex-special forces mercenary who insists that he cares only about himself but constantly helps others in the group. The usually lanky Brody clearly puts on muscle for the movie and looks impressive during the requisite shirtless standoff at the climax. But he seems to be playing a parody of a tough guy, delivering all of his lines in a comical whisper. With his arched eyebrows and squinted eyes, it seems like Brody’s trying to communicate world-weariness, but instead, he looks confused by anyone who takes him seriously.
Throwing Brody’s performance into relief is a brief and glorious cameo by Laurence Fishburne as Noland, an air cavalry soldier who has been living on the planet for several years. Fishburne brings his formidable presence to the scene, filling up the screen as he chastises the others for making too much noise as they move through the jungle or admire his supplies. But as we come to realize that Noland is absolutely nuts, given to ranting at an imaginary partner, Fishburne brings all of his comedic chops, making for a scene that reveals the whole thing to be very silly. Whatever Brody and his fellow top-level actors were trying to say about the nature of teamwork or redeeming one’s past, Fishburne arrives to remind everyone that this is a movie about ugly aliens ripping out the spines of hapless humans.
The Element of Surprise
I know that sounds disrespectful, as if I’m enjoying Predators as a “so bad it’s good” movie perfect for Mystery Science Theater 3000. But in undercutting the pretensions of its characters, Predators follows the model of its excellent originator. In the same way that McTiernan spent 30 minutes pumping up his heroes only to tear them down, Rodriguez and Antel give these character actors time to quote Hemingway and meditate on the nature of humanity, only until a Predator arrives to rip out their spines. Whatever pretensions they may have had, the Predator arrives to put everything into perspective, bringing the high-minded proceedings down to pure survival.
This reversal maintains a key aspect of a good Predator movie, one that the other sequels—and the abysmal Aliens vs. Predators movies—forget. Fundamentally, they aren’t just about the hunt, not just about the battle between perfect alien killers and an array of macho humans. Rather they are about surprise, the horrifying revelation that whatever you think of yourself—super tough guy or high-minded character—there’s always something out there, ready at any second to do it now and kill you.