Arnold Schwarzenegger’s original Predator from 1987 is pretty much as good as red-meat Reagan-era action movies would ever get. In fact, it’s right up there with the holy trinity of The Terminator, RoboCop, and Die Hard. And the director of the latest Predator sequel, Shane Black, knows that as well as anyone. Probably better. After all, he was in it. Back before he became the hottest (and best compensated) spec-script writer in Hollywood thanks to Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, he played one of the film’s expendable he-man mercenaries – a wise-cracking, four-eyed member of Ahnuld’s jungle wrecking crew who bites it early on. So it’s safe to assume that the Predator franchise holds a special place for him.
So much so that now, 31 years later, he’s chosen to wager some of his post-Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, post-Iron Man 3 comeback capital on resurrecting it. Black knows there’s a lot to live up to here, and also really nothing major to lose since the franchise’s previous sequels have all been varying degrees of hot garbage. There was basically nowhere to go but up – a nice position to be in. Unfortunately, his new film makes Predator 2 look like The Godfather 2. Not only is it utterly unnecessary, it’s also surprisingly bad.
Too jokey by half, Black’s The Predator can’t decide whether it wants to be an all-out ‘80s action throwback or a smirking smart aleck comedy. It ends up being both and neither. Like in the original three decades ago, the characters are a ragtag posse of warriors battling an alien killing machine with Rasta dreads and a nasty habit of ripping the spinal columns out of its victims. And Black has filled the screen with a crazyquilt of colorful loony-bin B players (Trevante Rhodes, Thomas Jane, Keegan-Michael Key, etc.). But they aren’t given much to do other than deliver Black and Dekker’s (that’s co-writer Fred Dekker) signature rat-a-tat “your mama” punchlines. For example: “Hey, do you know how you circumcise a homeless guy? Kick your mother in the chin…” Needless to say, this sort of thing worked a lot better 30 years ago.
The Predator kicks off with a strike team (led by Boyd Holbrook’s gruff sniper Quinn McKenna) getting ready to storm the jungle compound of a Mexican drug cartel. But before they can execute their mission, a spaceship rips through a breach in the sky and crash lands nearby. In the wreckage, McKenna finds the helmet and arm gauntlet of one of the predators. The sole survivor, he escapes and mails the alien gear home to the States, where his on-the-spectrum son (Jacob Tremblay) discovers its sci-fi powers. Meanwhile, a team of government baddies (spearheaded by Sterling K. Brown, one of the film’s few highlights) not only want the extraterrestrial goodies, but also want to know what McKenna knows. And so begins a race to both battle and understand these alien hunters and why they’ve decided to visit Earth now. Olivia Munn, as a brainiac biologist, is on hand to provide thickets of cornball exposition.
Holbrook, who was in Logan and brings to mind a sort of thrift-shop Charlie Hunnam, is fine enough as the film’s central hero. It’s not his fault that he doesn’t seem to know what tone Black is after with the film. I’m not sure Black knows. But the string of action scenes swirling around him are both nonsensical and unimaginative. Frankly, they’re also kind of cheesy. A towering super-predator who comes looking for McKenna’s son is joined by a pair of shoddily rendered CG hunting dogs that look like something that chased Rick Moranis around Central Park in Ghostbusters.
It doesn’t take long for The Predator to spiral into campy, comic nonsense and aimless carnage that’s bound to leave fans of Schwarzenegger’s original (guilty as charged, if it wasn’t already clear) irked, and everyone else confounded. You can love or loathe the action movies of the ‘80s, but what you can’t do is poke fun at them while piggybacking on them. The Predator isn’t a dumb movie exactly. But it’s not a smart one either. What it is, is something uncomfortably in between: a satire of a franchise that was already in on its own macho joke. Even worse, it’s open-ended enough to tease a sequel that I suspect no one, whether they’re an action aficionado or an agnostic, will ever want to see come to fruition. C-