On hybridized DNA, tough-guy chivalry, and Shane Black's voice in the age of the neverending franchise
The Predator 20th Century Fox
Director: Shane Black
Screenplay: Fred Dekker and Shane Black, based on characters created by Jim Thomas and John Thomas
Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Sterling K. Brown, Jacob Tremblay, Olivia Munn, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Augusto Aguilera, Alfie Allen and Yvonne Strahovski
Rated R / 1 hour, 47 minutes / 2.39:1
September 14, 2018
(out of four)
Consider Predator technology as a precious heirloom passed on from one generation to the next. In The Predator, a U.S. Army Ranger gets his hands on it - the silver lining of enduring a crash landing by an invading ship and the ensuing firefight - and frantically ships it back home, where it's intercepted by his 12-year-old son. The kid opens the package - various pieces of highly advanced, weaponized alien armor, helmet included - and starts tinkering with it. It's a toy, it's a Halloween costume, it's a science project. After a while he starts to get the hang of it, figures it out - occasionally too well - and puts it all to use.
Shane Black inherited the same toy. A co-star in John McTiernan's Predator over three decades ago, Black has now taken the reins behind the camera for the franchise's fourth installment (not including the Alien v Predator spinoffs, which I just made up and do not exist). But despite his considerable ambitions and affection for the material, Black never figures out exactly what to do with his new playthings. And you get the sense that too many other people tried to help him figure it out.
This doesn't feel like a Shane Black movie, exactly, but rather like a movie for which he wrote a half-discarded first draft or an uncredited rewrite. Since he was first announced as writer/director of what everyone involved surely hoped to be the catalyst for a new series of Predator installments, he talked about wanting to make this a true Event Movie. Something that would stand out amidst the annual barrage of ostensibly equivalent sci-fi movies. And yet the movie he delivered is, in most ways, exactly the kind of disposable action spectacle he was hoping to avoid. Even the recognizable Shane Black trademarks - the profane poetry of his banter tossed around amongst half-broken tough guys; the resolutely off-color barbs and the raw-nerve masculinity - feel like they've been shoehorned in, as if he's simply upholding his reputation while the machinery of the franchise table-setting - and the obligatory special-effects exhibition required to support it - sucks up most of the air.
The dialogue is at once The Predator's most enjoyable characteristic and its most conspicuously awkward one. That the writing, for the most part, is nowhere near Black's best work is no great crime, because even his B-material guarantees a handful of great lines. The issue is more that it doesn't flow with the narrative the way his dialogue typically does. Here they seem like two separate entities, and I'm not sure which one doesn't belong.
That's either a symptom of the shallowly defined characters throwing his witticisms so enthusiastically around, or the cause. Instead of his customary bantering buddy-movie duos, Black gives us a Dirty Half-Dozen of ball-busting, mentally unstable military prisoners whose only route to salvation is to save the world. But the film doesn't actually have time for all of those characters, so Black assigns them one character trait apiece. Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key) is a jokester; Baxley (Thomas Jane) has Tourette's; Nettles (Augusto Aguilera) is religious; Lynch (Alfie Allen) does card tricks; Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes) is a depressive with a death wish. And then there's our de-facto leader Quinn (Boyd Holbrook), the sniper who got caught in the crossfire of the invading craft in the first place and shipped the salvaged pieces of the Predator technology to his son Rory (Jacob Tremblay). I suppose his pivotal role in the plot makes up for the character's lack of personality otherwise. He's the one member of the group - who have nicknamed themselves The Loonies - who doesn't have a gimmick, except perhaps that he's the only sane one in this makeshift group of maniacs. When he first tells his new pals that he's been locked up because of an alien sighting, they assume he's as crazy as they are.
The Loonies are eventually joined by Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), a biologist and lifelong believer in extraterrestrial life (bordering on fangirl status), who is brought in by a secret government agency to advise in the experimentation and observation of a tranquilized Predator. The creature's slumber doesn't last long - our silly human methods of sedation are no match for his mighty hybridized alien/human DNA - he tears the lab apart and escapes, and Bracket manages to survive and find her way into the welcoming arms of that bus full of cheerful inmates who've just pulled off an escape of their own.
Once fully aware of the situation at hand, Bracket and the Loonies find a hotel to regroup, come up with a plan and, in her case, accidentally get shot with a tranquilizer dart. Black's best touch in the whole movie is the Loonies' reaction to her presence. As she sleeps on the bed and they wait for the tranq to wear off, they gently surround her with gifts - offering her creature comforts as an endearingly awkward attempt at chivalry. Their best stab at it, anyway. It's a charming comment on Black's own roughnecks, as if he sees them as deep-down solid guys instead of conveniently heroic dirtbags. Barely-housebroken boys with guns and gallantry, rather than the necessary evil of so many cinematic alpha-male toughs before them.
If only this were more of a hangout movie; we might have actually gotten to know these guys a bit better. Instead, The Predator is too anxious to throw them into one scene of action gibberish after another. Considering the subjective precision of McTiernan's handiwork on the 1987 original, the abominably edited action setpieces in this sequel make it seem even less credible as a part of the same lineage. Nimrod Antal's seemingly discarded 2010 effort Predators at least retained a certain tangible sense of geography.
That Jake Busey stars as a government scientist in a movie about a group of crazy people is Shane Black's self-awareness at its finest, but few other casting choices make much of an imprint except in small moments here and there. The standout is Sterling K. Brown as the pragmatically evil government bigwig Traeger - his domain is all things Predator - whose every pitch-perfect line reading is delivered through the most vigorous gum-chewing this side of Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross. As for the Loonies, if there's one thing we can learn from them it's that Trevante Rhodes can topline an action franchise anytime, anywhere. Best known for his performance as the adult Chiron in Moonlight - the emotionally restrained yet heartbreaking vulnerability; a complete mastery of subtle body language - he makes an effortless transition to the brash charisma and devil-may-care machismo of his would-be action hero. Get him a good scene partner and no one would have complained if The Predator were just Rhodes and the other guy talking shit and chasing down aliens for two hours.
Black's cinematic legacy is more or less secure, but his work is in a precarious spot. After making his name with scripts like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout in the late 1980s, his strengths and preoccupations haven't changed a lot. His great 2005 directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang saw him fine-tuning those gifts (and helping pave the way for Robert Downey Jr's comeback and thus modern franchise filmmaking as we know it). Current Hollywood is a very different Hollywood than the one in which he made his name. So much so that a movie as terrific - not to mention seemingly bankable, between Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe - as The Nice Guys found little mainstream interest, despite being in the same wheelhouse as the Lethal Weapon films that were such reliable box-office hits a couple of decades prior.
Black's survival, at least so far, has largely been reliant on lending his voice to studio brand names - first with Iron Man 3 (whose financial success was guaranteed no matter who was behind the camera) and now with this movie, which despite its '80s roots seems much more a product of post-Marvel studio ideals. It's been a long time since I heard anything about that Doc Savage project that Black has spoken so enthusiastically about - even after Dwayne Johnson supposedly committed to it (after which he committed to about two-dozen other projects that unfortunately seem to be higher on his priority list). That Black has now made a movie in which the attempted hybridization of two fundamentally discordant strains of DNA is cause for catastrophe is perhaps the exact kind of meta-commentary we should have expected.