Directed by Nimrod Antal
Starring Adrien Brody, Alice Braga, Topher Grace, Danny Trejo, Walton Goggins
Release date: July 9, 2010
Predators, the long-awaited second sequel to the 1987 sci-fi/action classic Predator that continued to further Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reputation as the decade’s preeminent action hero and introduced a memorable movie monster in the form of an alien hunter with a grotesque face and a nasty attitude, has a lot to live up to and a whole lot to make up for. It’s the third film in a franchise that was pronounced dead more than a decade ago after the subpar box office of 1990’s Stephen Hopkins-directed, Danny Glover-starring Predator 2 (a movie I really enjoy even though it can’t hold a candle to the original) and was buried even deeper by 20th Century Fox’s lackluster (and that’s putting it kindly) attempt to merge it with its moribund Alien franchise, a concept that worked beautifully in the novels and Dark Horse comic series, but failed miserably on the big screen.
For a while it seemed like the series’ devoted fans would never get the chance to see what a true Predator sequel could be, and that’s where Robert Rodriguez comes in. Back in the mid-1990’s Rodriguez, along with pal and frequent collaborator Quentin Tarantino, was the toast of the independent movie scene after his low-budget directorial debut El Mariachi became a small sensation and showed what a gifted and dedicated filmmaker could do with only a $7,000 budget and an unlimited imagination to make the movie. Hot off the success of El Mariachi, Rodriguez was courted by Fox to help revive the Predator series and Rodriguez wrote a treatment that was ambitious in scope and long rumored to contain roles for both Schwarzenegger and Glover’s characters from the first two films. It was called Predators and the treatment was put back on the shelf as Rodriguez focused on building his filmmaking career.
Cut to 2009 and with the Alien vs. Predator movies failing to catch on with fans, Fox decided to go back to the drawing board and revive both franchises individually with Ridley Scott taking the helm of a 2-part 3D prequel to Alien, the movie that kickstarted his own filmmaking career, and a desperate call placed to Rodriguez, now a successful director with the admiration of the studios, the love of fans worldwide, and his very own movie studio located in his hometown of Austin, Texas. Fox finally thought, maybe there was something to that Predators thing after all.
Predators opens not with a bang but a fall. A man wakes up to discover he’s falling from thousands of feet in the air rapidly to the ground. He tries to activate the parachute strapped to his back but can’t seem to do it until a strange device on his chest does the job for him. This is Royce (Adrien Brody), one of our intrepid anti-heroes. Pretty soon he’s joined on the ground by six other individuals dropped into some strange jungle for no known reason: Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), an enforcer for a Mexican drug cartel; Isabelle (Alice Braga), an Israeli sniper; Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), a Russian soldier; Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), a member of a Sierra Leone death squad; Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a Yakuza gangster skilled in the art of the Samurai; Stans (Walton Goggins), a death row inmate two days from execution; and Edwin (Topher Grace), a meek doctor and the only wild card in the bunch. Royce takes control of the ragtag group and attempts to figure out where they are, but it soon becomes clear that they have been left in a place not of their earth. They’re on an unknown alien planet, but the worst is yet to come. Soon the group comes under attack by unknown assailants packing high-tech weaponry including cloaking devices and shoulder-mounted laser cannons and yet the humans have not been brought here to simply be killed off violently. A master of hunting and killing humans like Royce can tell when he himself is being hunted. “This planet is a game preserve”, he says, “and we’re the game.” Now Earth’s most fearsome killers must square off with the universe’s deadliest hunters, and with the only reward being their survival they must learn to work together even though they may end up killing each other off before the Predators get their chance.
Despite being a flawed film that doesn’t always live up to its massive potential Predators still succeeds as a testosterone-oozing B-movie blast that pays sweet tribute to John McTiernan’s original 1987 action classic Predator while charting its own path. Like Freddy Vs. Jason it comes off at times like a big-budget piece of fan fiction, but I’d rather see something like that than an uninspired flick that reeks of financial opportunism. It took balls for Fox to admit the mistakes of the path by trying futilely to merge its Alien and Predator franchises without coming up with halfway decent stories and characters to inhabit those ill-advised films. The concept of having the two iconic otherworldly beasties do battle worked better on the comic pages, where you have multiple issues to establish each creature and let them play out their fight on a large canvas, than it did on the big screen. But a movie is a different arena and these days only one memorable monster can hold the attention of moviegoers at a time.
With carte blanche to do whatever he could to bring the Predator series back to its early, easily-discarded respectability Rodriguez hired American-born but previously Hungarian-based filmmaker Nimrod Antal, whose previous efforts included the award-winning import Kontroll and the surprisingly well-received genre efforts Vacancy and Armored, to direct the film while he took on the role of producer. Like Rodriguez Antal is a director who knows how to work with limited budgets and make the best of a few locations to maximize tension and establish palpable atmospheres to keep his characters on edge and the audience on their toes. Then Rodriguez broke out his 1994 treatment and handed it off to screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch for updating (and to leave out any potential cameo from either Schwarzenegger or Glover, as their lives these days are more devoted to their respective political causes). The result is a stripped-down adventure narrative derived equally from the original Predator and “The Most Dangerous Game”, the classic short story that has been adapted into film several times and has been highly influential on the Predator series, that powers ahead and at least has the good sense to give most of its characters a few dimensions and some likable qualities to make them a bit more than cyphers at the service of the plot. I wouldn’t mind seeing some of them in a movie without the Predators being involved.
Nimrod Antal keeps proving himself to be a director capable of staging muscular action on a budget substantially lower than most major Hollywood productions. Although there are no real standout action moments in the film (except for one I’ll get to in a moment) Predators under Antal’s direction moves at quite a fast clip and rarely bogs down except for an oddball middle section that has a unsatisfying payoff. There are more than enough explosions, chases, falls from great heights, and juicy kills on both the human and Predator sides to kill your eyes glued to the screen. Better writing in the character area and some deeper thought into the crafting of the plot might have raised this movie to the near-classic level of its predecessor, but for what it is it’s a lot of sweaty, macho fun that goes a long way towards removing the foul taste of inferior sequels and franchise crossovers from our mouths. The cinematography by Gyula Pados gives the film a hot and grimy look that casts the alien jungle in foreboding greens and browns and the editing work by Don Zimmerman keeps the action cracking. The unknown planet is a small marvel of creative design by production designers Caylah Eddleblute and Steve Joyner and set decorator David Hack, with more than a few visual nods to not only the original Predator but also its 1990 sequel and the original Alien (the rusted hulk of a Predator spaceship resembles the derelict craft designed by H.R. Giger for Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic). Kudos to Antal and Rodriguez for keeping the effects of Predators old school for the most part although there is still a lot of computer visual FX present it’s not noticeable and in fact they blend nicely with the creature suit and model work. Speaking of the suits, I got excited when it was announced that the visual wizards at KNB EFX, headed by the great Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, were going to be handling the creation of the Predator suits and it looks like my excitement was happily justified. These are some of the best looking Predators seen on screen since the original, not like the goofy-looking, rubber-mandibled football player Predators we got in the first Alien Vs. Predator flick, and the actors inside the suits do a helluva job, particularly Derek Mears, who as the “Classic Predator” has another iconic character to go alongside his turn as Jason Voorhees in last year’s Friday the 13th remake.
Antal also gets credible performances from his cast, starting with Adrien Brody. If your experience with Brody doesn’t extend beyond his wiry, intense performances in films like The Pianist and Summer of Sam then you may be surprised by his effective tough guy acting here. For the role Brody hit the gym and started taking Clint Eastwood Speech classes obviously to make his voice sound like that of a haunted, remorseless killer. It works believe it or not. Add to that the fact Brody is a damn good actor and he makes Royce a credible character and believable as an unofficial leader of the earth’s baddest of badasses. He’s helped out by Alice Braga (I Am Legend) in the token tough female character as the sniper Isabelle. She projects a vulnerability and a sense of dormant humanity that her chosen profession hasn’t taken from her. Walton Goggins (The Shield, House of 1000 Corpses) is the token mouthy wiseass who gets annoying at times but rises to the occasion when called for. It was cool seeing Danny Trejo, ol’ Machete himself, do his thing for a while but (MILD SPOILER) he doesn’t last long in the movie and I was greatly disappointed to see him go so early. I don’t know about you but I was looking forward to seeing a mighty Trejo/Predator showdown. Another rich opportunity wasted by this film. Topher Grace plays his usual nerdy self while occasionally doling out choice quips and random profanity. He’s the wild card among the cast and one of the film’s few mysteries is trying to figure Edwin out, but I’m sure it’s been spoiled by now.
The only real flaw in the cast is the character Noland, played by an actor experienced in portraying bad motherfuckers, the one and only Lawrence Fishburne. First his character has the best entrance in the entire movie, which I will not spoil if you haven’t heard or read about it already because it is very cool. I also liked that Noland, a former Air Cavalry officer, is a past survivor of one of the Predator hunts who was never able to return to Earth and has gone….let’s say a bit strange in the time since. But I was hoping that Noland would be more instrumental to the plot than he turned out to be instead of Fishburne giving an extended cameo. I won’t say where Fishburne’s character ends up in the grand scheme of Predators but it proved to be a major letdown. When you hire a great actor like Lawrence Fishburne you give him a real character to play and unfortunately the makes of Predators couldn’t do that one simple thing.
At least there were more than a few callbacks to the original Predator. The Little Richard song “Long Tall Sally”, the one that played over the scene in the first Predator film where Dutch and his team are choppering towards their next mission and you get to meet his team and get to know them a bit, can be heard over the end credits, which are designed in a cool blue 80’s-style font. But Predators’ greatest concession to the sizable influence of the original film is the score by John Debney, which pays almost an almost slavishly faithful tribute to the brilliant music composed for the first film by Alan Silvestri. I haven’t been much of a fan of Debney’s work as a film composer since it usually tends to be bland and yeoman-like material that never stands out on its own, his recent score for Iron Man 2 being a prime example of that. Maybe Debney realized that no original orchestral material he could come up with would ever measure up to Silvestri’s vastly superior scoring so he decided to ape the original score as much as possible, only occasionally adding in his own annoying electric guitar playing. Debney’s score is cool when playing under the on-screen action in Predators but on its own it’s like listening to Derek Trucks doing a Jimi Hendrix covers album. The music is there but not the spirit.
Lastly I will mention the scene that has become my favorite in the movie and that is the scene where Hanzo engages one of the Predators in a fight with only a Samurai sword for a weapon. With minimal music playing on the soundtrack and the fight taking place in what could be an Earth-like field of wheat the scene achieves a sense of Kurosawa movie poetry in the simplicity of the battle. The Predator even chooses to respect Hanzo’s choice of weapon by using a blade of his own and in that way the two characters are linked and it reinforces a trait of the Predators that often gets taken for granted by the more bloodthirsty weekend movie crowd: their honor. The Predators may have superior weaponry but they won’t cheat in a fight against someone they believe to be an evenly matched opponent.
Predators isn’t everything it could have been but I still had fun with this movie. It pays homage to the classic first film while managing to stand on its own as a solidly entertaining flick. And best of all it’s not in 3-D.