Let’s face the facts: The Predator franchise now unconditionally joins a list of other iconic genre brands, including Alien and Terminator, which need to be put to rest permanently. At least the latter two have given us two authentic classics apiece: poor Predator gave us one hell of an action/sci-fi hybrid in the heady days of the 1980s, but with the exception of 2010’s entertaining and underrated (if not exactly classic) Predators, this particular monster action saga has produced a whole lot of dross. And we can add director and co-writer (with Fred Dekker) Shane Black’s The Predator to that list.
John McTiernan’s original Predator (in which Black was a member of the cast) was a taut exercise in genre-crossing, blending action, horror, and sci-fi into a polished B-movie featuring one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best and most engaging early performances. While the premise sounds silly on paper (mercenaries vs. monsters in the jungle), McTiernan’s pacing, the chemistry of the cast, and the careful doling out of information and even glimpses of the memorably conceived Predator itself (whose face we don’t see until the film’s final few minutes) gave the movie a relentless and suspenseful forward momentum that has kept it and its title creature in the zeitgeist for decades.
But like its cousin, the Alien franchise, the Predator series has suffered from filmmakers undoing what McTiernan did by showing us the monster(s) way too early and often, spooning us too much information about them, and peppering the succeeding films (including the woeful Alien vs. Predator couplet) with mostly cardboard stand-ups instead of even half-formulated characters. The more we’ve seen and learned about the Predators, the less we’ve cared and felt the electric sense of dread that permeated that first exercise so long ago.
This time out, Black and Dekker introduce us right off the bat to two Predators duking it out in space, until one of them zips away through a wormhole and ends up crashing his ship into an Earth jungle. There he makes quick work of two members of a U.S. special ops team, but their leader McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) survives and manages to steal two pieces of Predator tech, which he promptly mails to himself at his P.O. box back home as evidence in case he’s silenced.
The Predator itself is captured and transported to a secret lab in the States (conveniently located near a suburban school — there’s no real sense of geography in this thing) by Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), a nefarious government agent who is trying to piece together what the Predator was doing here and recruits biologist Casey Brackett (Olivia Munn) to help. Meanwhile, McKenna’s box of alien goodies is redirected from his P.O. box (due to unpaid bills) to his home, where his young son (Jacob Tremblay from Room) opens it and begins playing with what he finds inside, alerting the captured Predator and the super-sized, enhanced opponent who has now tracked him and his valuables to our world.
McKenna finds himself debriefed and made part of a group of soldiers all either charged with crimes, suffering from disorders, or both, but when the Predator captive escapes from the lab, McKenna and his instant teammates — including Brackett — race to reach his son before either of the Predators or Traeger can get there.
You would not be wrong to think this all sounds like a reasonable enough narrative for a Predator movie. But the introduction of so many people and plot threads makes the movie more convoluted than it needs to be, and the fact that almost every major character in the movie either acts like an asshole or is a full-on asshole for most of the running time — with many of them slinging an unfunny succession of one-liners that get more grating as the film trundles on — doesn’t do a whole lot to keep us interested in their fates.
The worst has to be the ramshackle team of military misfits assembled on the fly by Holbrook’s McKenna. The character is rather generic (missing most of the sinister Southern charm that made his antagonist in Logan interesting to watch), not to mention stupid (who mails alien armor to a post office box?), but he’s Tom Cruise compared to his buddies. Played by good thesps like Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele), Thomas Jane (The Expanse), and Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), these guys are just collections of tics and outbursts whose disorders — ranging from PTSD to Tourette’s — are played for laughs.
The scene in which they introduce themselves to Munn’s Brackett — five men hovering menacingly over an unconscious woman on a motel room bed like they’ve never seen one before — with a series of tasteless jokes and comments was one of the most cringe-inducing sequences I’ve seen on film this year, especially since these are the guys we’re supposed to be rooting for. It’s not amusing in the slightest, it’s tonally jarring (even in a movie that is heavier on comedy than usual for this franchise), and it’s insulting to the sole female character who has anything pro-active to do in the film, showing us that Black still has a long way to go when it comes to his male-female interactions (but we kind of knew that).
But then again, it’s been 30-plus years since Black made the splashiest of screenwriting debuts with Lethal Weapon (still the gold standard of buddy cop movies), and during that long span of time he has mostly written or directed one mediocrity after another (although it’s not one of my favorites, his Iron Man 3 turned out very well, I suspect, because of the usual focused Marvel supervision).
Black’s previous offering before The Predator, The Nice Guys, was supposedly in his wheelhouse — a snarky Hollywood buddy detective caper — but even that was mostly unfunny, overlong, and pointless. He seems completely uninterested in any genre outside the cop/action mode, to the point of condescending to both the material and the fans, which results here in a drastically dumbed-down 107 minutes even by Predator standards.
He doesn’t even seem particularly inspired when it comes to shooting the action scenes, which are haphazard and not even completely coherent (I’m still not sure how a couple of major characters met their deaths). The Predator effects are solid enough, even if there’s a couple of shots that shout out “man in suit,” and there is certainly an ample amount of gore and blood on display. There’s also far too much music, with Henry Jackman’s score (which references Alan Silvestri’s original theme often) blasting almost constantly to the point of distraction.
Tone-deaf, sloppily written, and indifferently directed, The Predator leaves us with one last slap, a coda that kind of negates the whole concept of what these monsters are and why they keep coming after us. And of course, this drivel sets up a sequel, which we will hopefully never see. It’s time for the Predator to lay down his weapons and go to his rest — like his fellow 1980s cinematic totems, the Xenomorph, and the Terminator, there’s nowhere else for him to go.
The Predator is out in theaters this Friday (Sept. 14).