Review: Adrien Brody restores some luster to fading franchise in rousing 'Predators'
In the interest of full disclosure, I should state for the record that my writing partner and I met with Robert Rodriguez as he was gearing up to make this film as co-writer/producer, before writers had been hired, and we pitched our take on the movie. Obviously, we didn't get the job, but as big genre fans, we were happy to at least get in the room and talk about this franchise and how to return it to a place of respect with someone as visibly enthusiastic as Robert was. If you believe that my losing a job would disqualify me from being able to speak about the final film in a fair way, then feel free to skip to the next story now.
I remember seeing the original "Predator" in the theater when I was seventeen, walking in with absolutely no expectations. I went with about six friends because it was free (we were all theater employees), it was new, and it was an excuse to smoke some doobs, drive across Tampa, and stay out late. I had no expectations for the film. At that point, I felt like Arnold Schwarzenegger was only as good as the directors he worked with, and John McTiernan was an unfamiliar name. I thought his only previous film, "Nomads," was decent but certainly no guarantee that his next film would be anything special, and writers Jim and John Thomas were equally unknown quantities. As much as I loved "Conan The Barbarian" and "The Terminator," I thought Arnold's taste was largely suspect, and I was worried that "army dudes fighting a monster in the jungle" sounded like it was going to be cheesy. That was my greatest fear walking into a movie in the '80s... that special brand of embarrassing cheesy that still distinguishes '80s movies from all others.
When I walked out a little under two hours later, I was still dizzy, but it was because of how much I'd enjoyed the movie, and McTiernan was officially on my list as a guy worth paying attention to. More than that, though, I felt like I'd just witnessed the birth of a great new classic movie monster, and I loved being surprised by the film as much as I was. That sort of discovery is what keeps me addicted to movies, even today. So maybe it's a good thing I didn't like "Predator 2." And maybe it's a good thing I hate both of the "Alien Vs. Predator" movies with a white-hot intensity. Maybe that set me up for tonight's screening in just the right way, because between not getting hired to write it and my overall feelings towards the Fox development process and the way they've handled this franchise and the "Alien" franchise, I will admit that I sat down tonight, arms crossed, completely unconvinced that I was going to see anything other than more of the same. But, man, I am pleased to have been proven wrong.
The film starts cold with a body falling through the air, thousands of feet above the ground, waking up and realizing where he is. As he tries to get his bearings, he realizes he's wearing a parachute, and he tries to activate it. The cord won't work until he reaches a certain altitude, though, and he keeps frantically trying until it finally works. All it manages to do in the end is break his fall a little bit, slowing him just enough that he's not killed when he hits the ground. As he lays there, winded, confused, not sure what just happened, the main title flashes onscreen: "PREDATORS."
You had me at hello.
The main thing Nimrod Antal brings to the table as director this time around is a sense of control that has been absent since McTiernan's film. He's not just ripping off what's come before. My biggest issue with "Predator 2" and the two "Alien Vs. Predators" movies is the way they just mimic what's come before, remixing with a slavish devotion. Antal doesn't direct this movie like he's trying to remind you of the first film. He approaches his action with a specific eye, each set piece built to pay off the action, not to pay homage or offer up some sort of fan service. He's also not overpowered by Robert Rodriguez, who has a very different voice as an action filmmaker than what you'll see in "Predators." Antal made an effective and entertaining riff on the "Die Hard" formula that is one of the better rips of that film with "Armored," a movie that no one saw when it came out. He's also shown a knack for the language of the slasher movie with "Vacancy," although I don't think that one works as a whole. So far, he hasn't made an American movie that's the equal of "Kontroll," the film that first brought him to my attention, and with this film, I think he's proven that he can take material that is potentially "more of the same" and make it feel fresh and alive. "Predators" hits the ground running and it has a strong sense of pace and energy right away.
Brody's character quickly hooks up with a group of other people in the same situation as him. They all remember being on Earth, all of them killers, all of them plucked out of some dangerous situation, all of them waking up the same way, in freefall. Antal's got a strong supporting cast here, including Danny Trejo, Alice Braga, Topher Grace, Walton Goggins, and Oleg Taktarov, and it's a testament to how good the cast is that I'm well aware 2/3 of the movie, there are no Predators onscreen, and that's fine. I liked the cast. I liked the characters. I liked the chemistry. The reason the original "Predator" works is because it's a weird cast, but it's the right cast. They're all really good in their roles. They all fit together, and it's true here as well. I think Walton Goggins wins MVP for me personally, although Lawrence Fishburne makes a strong impression as well when he shows up. The film never really slows down, constantly moving from plot point to plot point. "Where are we? Oh, we're here. Who brought us here? Oh, they did. How do we get out of here? Okay, let's do that." Because it's so linear, the propulsion becomes the point of the thing. These characters are being hunted from the moment they open their eyes, so the film is on the run from the second that Fox fanfare ends.
There are alien beasties, there are spaceships and booby traps, more than one species of Predator, and lots and lots of tough guy one-liners. Characters reveal secrets, there are betrayals as well as unexpected heroism, and there are spines torn out. Oh, yes... there are spines torn out. This is a monster movie, an action movie, a SF film. It is a big unapologetic B-movie, and the reason it works as well as it does (which is not to say it's without flaws) is because it embraces that. The film has no pretense of being anything besides this rough and quick struggle for survival. The film loses a fair degree of steam in the last 20 minutes or so, but there are still several cool big ideas jammed in there. I think these movies almost inevitably take on a bit of a WWF feel once the mano-y-mano finally happens. The film offers just a hint of a larger Predator culture that could easily be built on if this film makes enough money to warrant a sequel, and I would imagine this is one of the cheaper summer movies this year, with every single dollar onscreen.
The best thing I can say about "Predators" is that this is the first film since the first film to convince me that there is more fun to be had with these creatures onscreen, and for action junkies, this is probably the most consistently entertaining movie this summer. It's nowhere near as consequential as something like "Toy Story 3" or "Inception," and I think the film really needed to deliver an act three that escalated into something bigger to deliver on the potential of the first 70 minutes or so. Even without quite sticking the landing, "Predators" is a midsummer surprise that should restore some life to a franchise that seemed to me to be well past its expiration date.
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