Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We’ve already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level.
The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don’t think Black’s really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn’t say of his three prior directorial efforts.
I mean, to a degree it does know what its – an unabashed B-movie on an A-movie budget. But unlike other Black pictures, there’s never a sense that character comes first, or even that his all-essential plot does.
It’s “how can I tinker with this franchise, Shane-it-up?” and that’s consistent throughout. The tinkering, in bare-bones terms, is of a fairly rudimentary nature; instead of military badasses against Predators (Predator, Predators), we have crazy military badasses. Instead of a standard-issue Predator, or one so young and inexperienced it can be bested by a permanently wheezing Danny Glover (Predator and Predator 2 respectively), we have a super Predator (“the Upgrade” in the screenplay), towering over the already beefy lad. And instead of a government team led by Gary Busey (Predator 2), we have a government team led by Sterling K Brown and featuring Jake Busey. Instead of Predator dogs (Predators, apparently set after this movie) we have… different Predator dogs. Instead of a jungle (Predator), we have a forest.
While I don’t wish to defame The Predator by association, in some respects it overtly recalls the abysmal AvP: Requiem, with its augmented Predators (the Predalien there) and relish in bringing destruction to an everyday environment. While there’s nothing as unpleasant as an alien erupting from the chest of a small boy, or one deciding to do the rounds of a maternity ward, Black ensures, as usual, that youngsters are imperilled in a very adult world.
Here, though, the least of the issues is Quinn (Boyd Holbrook, fairly forgettable, even when served up memorable one-liners) shooting bad guys very bloodily in front of son Rory (Jacob Tremblay). Rather, it’s the conceit that Rory, an aspergic kid (the assumption is he’s autistic, but if he is, he isn’t severely so on this evidence, while simultaneously having fantastically savant alien language skills), is the next evolutionary step. So much so that the Upgrade wants his DNA for the next upgrade.
Has Black been reading up on Indigo children? While the kid is integrated with the usual deftness in the early stages – see also Last Boy Scout, Iron Man Three, The Nice Guys – we’re firmly in the realm of cheese by the point everyone, in addition to dad (the military, the Upgrade), wants to find him. And not choice, ripe cheese.
The Upgrade is also an iffy decision, a lazy one on the part of Black and co-writer Fred Dekker that seems to evidence unprompted succumbing to the “more is more” sequel ethic, one which very rarely reaps dividends. There’s nothing particularly impressive about the creation, which recalls a Warcraft reject and begs even greater implausibility in terms of the feats required by humans to best it, since the original was more than enough to deal with in the first place.
Someone suggested the ideal way to make a Predator movie is to have it intrude upon a completely different movie. I think that’s probably right, as short of making the Predator actually interesting in some way in its own right, he’s essentially an SF version of the Jason/ Michael Myers character, defined by his body count.
Only Predator 2 delivered that to any degree, but it was too distracted by its pseudo-future of global warming and zoot suits to make it work; no one here’s given to quipping about the blip heat wave of ’97 or its iffy fashions, even though it’s canon. Black does throw his hat into the climate change ring, however, informing us the Earth will be suitable for Predators to colonise in another two decades’ time. So there’s that to look forward to.
There’s also a friendly Predator dog, which look like the design has been based on Draco in Dragonheart. It’s a cute idea, I guess, and creates a few yuks as it chases after balls (grenades).
With his band of military misfits, there’s often a sense Black’s trying too hard with the coarse badinage (Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Jane’s Tourette’s sufferer – the latter the possessed of the kind of tic you’d have expected from one of Black’s ’90s movies, but he’s nothing if not brazenly out of step). As such, Trevante Rhodes comes off the best by far, completely at odds to his inertly lumpen performance in Moonlight. They all survive for a surprisingly long time, yet are then picked off in a surprisingly redundant short order.
Holbrook replaced Benicio del Toro, and you really feel the lack of weight at the centre of the picture. He’s fine, but just being fine isn’t enough against an iconic creature (if nothing else, this should have been learnt from the AvPs; the surprise is that Adrien Brody carried off Predators).
As such, it’s left to Brown’s ruthless government stooge to make the biggest impact, and he more than pulls his weight (if the feed of the “sports hunter” gag is weak, the “Predator’s cooler” riposte is a winner) Strange then, how he’s dispatched in an offhand “Was that…?” moment. Tremblay seems set on playing precocious kids but is tolerably quite subdued.
Jake Busey, who’s always good fun, disappointingly gets little more than a cameo, while Olivia Munn makes exactly the kind of impression she always does: very little (Dexter‘s Yvonne Strahovski makes much more of a mark in a much smaller role as Holbrook’s ex). Her character is a science teacher, which doesn’t explain how she’s also a maximum kick-ass, but it does underline how frivolous and throwaway her presence is.
Black offers numerous “seemed like a good idea at the time” call backs to the original (“Get to the choppers“, “You’re one beautiful motherfucker“) but the most successful is Henry Jackman’s score, dutifully referencing the Alan Silvestri original. There’s refreshingly bona-fide prosthetics and animatronics on display (with the normal Predator – “like an alien Whoopi Goldberg” – at least), and more intestines than a Neil Marshall werewolf movie.
For the most part, I didn’t find the CGI as scrappy and off-putting as some reviewers, although there’s a definite unfinished feel to the climax on and in the Predator ship (recalling last year’s Alien: Covenant in dynamic). Ditto the reveal of the “Predator Killer“, a naff set up for a sequel we won’t get; I had a brief hope an unannounced Arnie would pop out of the cocoon. He did arrive at the end of the original screenplay, though.
The chief problem with the third act is how well-trodden and inessential it feels; The Predator isn’t a long movie, but the sufficiently involving first two-thirds become a chore during the final reel. There have also been criticisms of the editing, and it’s definitely an area – Iron Man Three aside – where Black has issues, most notably when it comes to action (although, the decimation of the lab is perfectly executed). Pacing too, as this feels like it’s in too much of a rush to find its feet at times.
Of course, The Predator isn’t going to be remembered – at least, in the medium term – for its content so much as the controversy created by Black casting pal Steven Wilder Striegel in a small, excised role. Striegel, a registered sex offender, shouldn’t have been acting opposite her, Munn decided, her position being that it’s fine for someone who has done their time to make a living as long as it’s nowhere near me (too): “You deserve to make money but not alongside me in a film“; fortunately, she’s not – yet – entitled to enact the laws in her home country. Although, to go by the manner in which her supporting cast and Black have been shamed into supporting her stand, you’d think she did. However this pans out for her as a big moment to finally get noticed above the parapet, it looks like it will help to torpedo the movie at the box office. Not that it would likely have gone great guns anyway (in that regard, I think non-presence Holbrook was the greater liability).*
I doubt Fox cares that much, with Disney prospectively buying them and prospectively putting both Predators and Aliens on ice (Fox clearly hasn’t a clue how to manage its franchises, so maybe it’s for the best). I don’t think I’d have been particular interested in seeing Black’s sequel to this movie anyway; I’d rather he stuck to churning out his pulp noir, quip-tastic originals.
The danger for him is that everything surrounding The Predator will have unravelled the good will Iron Man Three garnered. Downey Jr may have to come to his rescue again. The Predator may not be the best of the sequels – not a particularly high bar anyway – but it does reflect that the series (outside of the AvPs) is watchable, disposable popcorn fare; the original was only otherwise because it had John McTiernan at the height of his powers. Now, he’s such a persona non grata, he won’t even get a chance for Olivia Munn to object to having worked with him.
*Addendum 31/07/22: The question, beyond Munn’s personal preferences, might rather be one of whether rehabilitation is even possible in a town as rife as Hollywood. Does Black care? He habitually makes movies featuring minors, yet evidently feels no responsibility for preserving an appropriate environment in that regard, over and above doing his pal favours. Except when he’s called out for it.