The Predator is a true 80s throwback
Wait a minute. How did this happen? How did I follow this movie from the moment of its conception all the way to opening day and not know that Tom Jane was one of the stars? That can’t be possible. Ever since Shane Black was attached to direct, and the inimitable Fred Dekker was given scripting duties, I’ve been waiting for the return of one of my favorite dumb franchises. I knew Keegan-Michael Key would be there, as would Olivia Munn, the kid from Room, and the dude who plays Theon on Game of Thrones. But nobody saw fit to let me know that the one and only Tom Jane, star of Boogie Nights, The Mist, Deep Blue Sea, and Dreamcatcher would be trading blows with a Predator!! And ya know what? I’m glad. Because when his leathery face appeared and started spouting expletives, it kind of blew my mind. Predator dogs, super Predators, and crazy space tech are all well and good, but for my money, there’s no special effect on this planet better than the mere inclusion of Tom Jane.
Ok, “fully on-fire stuntman” remains the best effect, but second to that is the inclusion of Tom Jane.
If we don’t include the dumb-but-underrated* AVP movies, The Predator marks the fourth entry in a now 31 year old franchise, which began with the deceptively smart Predator (it’s a Vietnam allegory, folks), followed with the sequelitis-affected Predator 2, and culminating with the odd-but-fun Predators just eight years ago. So in a way, this new entry, simply titled The Predator, is sort of a reboot. Well, at least that’s what my brain has been trained to expect. But here’s the thing. This feels a lot less like the meta joke it has every right to be, and much more like a movie ripped directly from the 1980s action canon. Sure, there are a handful of nods to previous entries (someone does remark that everyone needs to get to the chopper), but none are done with the wink and nod approach which has become so common as to be boilerplate. Nope, this is a head-banging, rocket-paced “people vs monsters” flick with all the subtlety of a kick to the nuts. And since it’s Shane Black behind the camera, it feels very genuine.
Black appeared as one of the camo-clad victims in the original film, and cut his chops in Hollywood writing stuff like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. He recently has become a bankable director as well, with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which almost singlehandedly resurrected Robert Downey Jr. from movie jail), and The Nice Guys, both of which draw upon his own experience in Hollywood. With The Predator, his career comes full circle. He is now directing the property which first put his face on screen, and writing alongside Fred Dekker, with whom he collaborated on The Monster Squad so many moons ago.
By the way, The Monster Squad outclasses The Goonies in every way. Don’t @ me. Or do. I don’t care, because you’re wrong and you will never convince me otherwise.
The plot is a bit convoluted, which is a shame since all we really needed was for a Predator to fight against people for two hours, but I’ll give it a shot. Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is a sniper who, while on some sort of mission, runs afoul of a Predator. During the scuffle he manages to obtain some alien tech, which he mails to a P.O. Box. Unfortunately for him, he hasn’t kept up payments on his box, and the package is delivered to his home, where his young, Asperger’s-afflicted son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) activates the machinery, effectively sending a beacon for other Predators to find him. Please be advised that within the reality of the movie, the creatures are explicitly referred to as “Predators.” In typical Shane Black fashion, this title becomes a jokey refrain. You see, since Predators hunt for sport rather than survival, they should really be called “Hunters.” But that’s how nicknames work. Once one sticks, it sticks.
Meanwhile, Professor Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) is nabbed by some government folk to take a look at a sedated Predator they’ve captured, as well as some tech that they’ve been researching since Predators started showing up on Earth back in 1987. One thing leads to another, and now the monster has broken free from the lab (in perhaps the film’s finest set-piece) and begun making his way toward young Rory.
Meeeeeanwhile, McKenna has joined up with a group of fellow badasses to hunt the Predator down and do action stuff for a bit. They link up with Bracket, and then the meat of the movie happens. Meaning carnage, quips, and more carnage. It’s a lot of legwork to get there, but the pacing is so breakneck and the dialogue is so funny that it doesn’t feel like a slog. And really, all you need to know is that Predators kill people, and these people have guns. It’s okay to zone out and cheese at the ridiculousness on display. There’s a villain by the name of Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), a no-nonsense military man who talks shit and chews Nicorette (an update from the chainsmoking villains of the 80s). He’s the type of slimy jerk with no motivation outside of evil. He’s as Reagan-era of an antagonist as they come, and it’s a blast to watch him serve only his own greed while marching toward what we hope is a gruesome defeat. I won’t say more.
The ragtag group of heroes is fun to spend time with, much in the same way the original gang of Predator fighters were back in the day. It’s all smack talk and “yo mama” jokes, and my boy Tom Jane even has a very insensitive, very funny case of Tourette’s. Yes, you can fully expect that Shane Blacks handling of mental illness is as classless and inaccurate as can be, WHICH IS TOTALLY ON BRAND FOR AN 80s ACTION FLICK.
The real standout here? Olivia Munn, who I typically don’t find very engaging, brings a wit and energy to the screen that a male dominated film desperately needs. She even gets the best action beat of the whole thing. If this franchise moves forward, and the ending suggests that that’s the intention, I’d love to have her carry it.
For the most part, the action is clean. Even when things get dark, it’s blocked and shot with a good amount of clarity (at least compared to many modern blockbusters), and even in the moments where it cuts too quick or doesn’t quite pop the way it should, everything is moving forward so quickly that you’ll have forgotten you missed anything within seconds. Much like its 80s forbears, the action beats here aren’t meant to be clinical so much as they are meant to be big, brutal, and growl-inducing. Yes, growl-inducing. More often than not, someone would get impaled by Predator weaponry resulting in the entire crowd doing a Tim Allen-esque “ohhhhhhhohohohhh.” ‘‘Twas grand.
Where the film fails is in the small ways it breaks free from the 80s mold, meaning that the rubbery CGI looks a bit wonky at points, especially when it’s used to depict the classically tactile Predator blood. When shown on their own, the spaceships look fantastic. Set against flesh and blood actors, the seams begin to show. It’s hardly the most egregious thing in the world, but these flashes of modernity feel antithetical to what I’ve come to love about the series. Alas, it is 2018, and when we’re this deep in a franchise, you have to go big or go home. I’ll take big.
Even the light expansion upon Predator lore (begun in Predators, credit where its due) which hints at the larger societal concerns of the Predator race are a welcome addition that serve to keep things fresh while keeping the door open for further developments. It helps that these expansions of lore are employed to further the plot of the film rather than just serve as set dressing to beef up a sparing movie, which this easily could have been.
Overall, The Predator is a welcome addition to the end of summer dumping ground. As we approach the awards hungry final quarter of 2018, it’s nice to have one final dumb blast to push us into the season. This is a film made by a team that clearly cares enough about the brand to put everything they have into it rather than just keeping it afloat until the next chapter gets green lit. It’s a bit messy, a lot silly, but it’s exactly what anyone with an interest could want out of a Predator flick.
Welcome back to the box office, Fred Dekker!!!
*It’s Alien vs Predator. Just what masterpiece were you expecting???
The Predator opens in Philly theaters today.