Everyone remembers how cool the original Predator was. Arnold Schwarzenegger, covered in mud and blowing up the jungle. So many quotable lines of dialogue ("I ain't got time to bleed!"). Guys getting turned into piles of guts or getting their spines ripped out. The Predator's infrared heat vision. And of course the Predator himself, all 8 feet of him, with his bad-ass armor and alien weaponry and gruesomely ugly face.
No question, Predator was one of the best action/horror/sci-fi movies of the '80s. But then Predator 2 came along and put the monster in the middle of Los Angeles, where he didn't seem to stick out so much. Arnold was gone, replaced by Danny Glover. Overall, not such a good movie. Then we had nothing for a long time, until finally they made two Alien vs. Predator movies. The dream matchup, right? Well, the less said about those two wastes of time and effort, the better.
So it seemed for a short time there that the Predator franchise was dead and, worse, not even one of the sequels was half-decent. But producer Robert Rodriguez had a plan. Better yet, he had a script—sure, he wrote it about 15 years ago, but he dusted it off, had some other guys spruce it up, hired a pretty good director and cast, and guess what?
We finally have a Predator sequel that doesn't suck!
That's right: Predators not only lifts the whole franchise, but it does the original movie proud. In a lot of ways it's as good as the first movie. It's not epic, world-changing, mind-bending art (see Inception next week for that), but it's a very solid, entertaining and suspenseful B movie, made the old-fashioned way, with action scenes you can follow, guys running around in monster suits and not computer-painted into the frame, and characters that you at least get a chance to know and care about a little before they get their spines ripped out—and yes, that little trick makes a return as well.
Predators starts off literally in midair as mercenary soldier Royce (Adrien Brody) plunges out of the sky and lands in a jungle with no clear idea how he got there. Others drop in right behind him, including Israeli Defense Force sniper Isabelle (Alice Braga), drug cartel enforcer Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), death row convict Stans (Walton Goggins), Russian soldier Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), African warlord Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), Yakuza assassin Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) and seemingly out-of-place doctor Edwin (Topher Grace). No one remembers what happened to them just before they got there, but they all seem to have been transported to the unfamiliar jungle with a purpose in mind.
That purpose soon becomes clear enough as the group encounters or evades a series of traps and challenges, including an attack by a pack of vicious dog-like creatures, before they realize that a) they're on another freakin' planet that's tricked out as a gigantic game preserve, and b) they're being hunted by a trio of Predators. Actually it's Royce who deduces most of this stuff, probably because he watched Star Trek and The Outer Limits when he was a kid.
Yes, sharp sci-fi fans wil recognize the basic plot here, which was used on the famous "Arena" episode of the classic Trek (remember Kirk battling the Gorn?), not to mention a not-so-famous but probably even better segment of the original Outer Limits called "Fun and Games." Hell, the idea even goes back to the 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game and the six or seven movies made from that. In other words, the plot has been around forever, but no one's done it in a while, so Rodriguez, writers Alex Litvak and Michael Finch and director Nimrod Antal have given it a fresh spin here.
And you know what? It still works. Antal takes his time and paces the movie well, developing a suitable atmosphere of tension occasionally punctuated by short, intense bursts of action. He keeps his cast on the move but keeps them talking as well, revealing just enough about themselves to at least make them seem like human beings, even if they've almost all been brought into the game because of their own skills at hunting and killing their fellow humans. A late entrance by Laurence Fishburne as Noland, a survivor of a previous hunt who's slowly gone batsh-t insane while hiding out for seven years, introduces a kind of creepy comic relief as Fishburne chomps on everything around him except his fellow actors.
The Predators themselves are characters too, and one of the movie's greatest assets is that they are played by actors and not by software files. The costumes are detailed, distinct from each other and realistic, and when Royce or one of the others goes against them, there's a feeling of substance, weight and power. The movie also gets a chance to expand the Predator mythology a bit, dropping a few clues about their interaction with each other, which isn't much friendlier than their attitude toward humans.
The cast is pretty solid from front to back, with Brody fulfilling the promise he showed in King Kong and stepping into full action-hero mode. He's in fighting shape, wields his weapons with confidence and even puts on a voice that approaches a Bale-like growl once in a while. Alice Braga makes for a tough near-equal while also acting as Royce's conscience, and each of the others also does an admirable job. Even Topher Grace isn't as annoying as usual, although we mean that in a relative way.
Is there anything that doesn't work? Sure. The Predator dogs, unlike their masters, are rendered through CG, and they pretty much suck. There's several shots of them leaping through the flora that are shockingly bad (what is it with CG in movies from 20th Century Fox? If it doesn't have James Cameron's name on it, you'd think the effects were done on a Commodore 64) and distract you from the otherwise good stuff going on. A very late-in-the-ballgame twist involving one of the characters doesn't quite ring true, and seems like it was inserted into the script just because the writers felt they needed one. We also wish that the climactic confrontation with the Predator was a little longer—it's not Iron-Man-and-War-Machine-vs.-Whiplash rushed, exactly, but a bit more action at the end could have made for a better payoff.
Now look, when they tally up the best movies of 2010 in a few months, Predators probably won't make a whole lot of those critics' lists. It's not profound (although the title's double meaning is a nice touch), it's not commenting on the ills of society, and it won't make grown men weep. But in a summer that's seen failure after failure—ranging from the disappointing Iron Man 2 to the truly abysmal The Last Airbender—Predators gets the job done with style and efficiency and without insulting your intelligence. It may not make you a "goddamned sexual Tyrannosaurus," but you'll be glad you saw it. Welcome back, Predator. We've missed you.