There’s been a lot of movie geek hype over the fact that cult icon Shane Black is at the helm of the latest Predator reboot, a beloved middle-aged white dude franchise. Black is the writer of late 80s/early 90s action fare like the first two Lethal Weapon pictures, The Last Boy Scout, and Last Action Hero, which, despite its disastrous theatrical run, has turned into a treasured cult artifact.
Black returned with a critical hit in 2005 when he not only wrote but also directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He had a full-on career resurgence in the mid-2010s when he did the same with Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys. His brand of gritty action and snappy, foul-mouthed dialog has huge cachet among those middle-aged white dudes I just mentioned – a subgroup that includes your humble reviewer. (Although the OED defines “middle age” as being 45-65. I’m 38, so maybe I’m not quite there yet? Maybe?!? But I digress).
In addition to Black overseeing The Predator, co-writing the script is Fred Dekker, another cult movie figure. Dekker directed Night of the Creeps and major cult favorite The Monster Squad, which he also co-wrote with Black. If nothing else, I was interested to see what these two men, who have their roots in the period that gave us the original Predator, would do with the franchise. Released in 1987, Black even had a small acting role in Predator, and was an uncredited script doctor.
Black and Dekker – this can’t be the first time someone has referred to them like the power tool company, but I’ve never seen it elsewhere – strive to make The Predator feel more like the original Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi hit. Overall, they’re attempting to recapture the feel of action movies of that time in general. They achieve some success. Most of the stunts and action set-pieces, as well as Black’s signature style of comedy, hit a schlocky sense of fun. The problem comes with the story, and most of the dialog itself, namely all the stuff we’re supposed to take seriously. The nuts and bolts of The Predator are a complete mess, while also being laughable.
The plot centers around Army sniper Quinn McKenna, who retrieves several pieces of Predator armor. This happens when one of the deadly aliens crash-lands its ship near the site of McKenna’s current mission – a hostage rescue. Sensing the armor is valuable, McKenna ships the pieces (an arm gauntlet and face mask) to his ex-wife, Emily, who cares for their 12-year-old autistic son Rory.
The armor is indeed coveted by no less than the United States government. Representing the government is agent Will Traeger, a no-nonsense operative who heads a division dedicated to learning as much as it can about the Predator species. Traeger and his team recover the Predator from the crash. It has survived, but is incapacitated. They bring in Dr. Casey Bracket, an evolutionary biologist, to study the creature’s anatomy.
Meanwhile, Traeger has figured out McKenna is in possession of the missing armor. He has the Army Ranger arrested and put on a bus full of other military criminals headed for detention. Traeger tells Dr. Bracket during her initial examination of the creature about McKenna being a witness to the crash. Bracket wants to interview McKenna, so Traeger has the bus re-routed to their facility.
Wouldn’t you know it, just as Traeger and the band of misfits on the bus arrive, the Predator overcomes the sedation the military has put it under, breaks free of its restraints, and escapes into the night. Through a serendipitous rescue, Mckenna’s new crew teams up with Bracket to track the alien. They realize that McKenna’s family is in danger because they have what the Predator wants – his stolen armor. Traeger is not far behind, marking the new alliance as enemies because they want to destroy the creature, while he wants to study it.
The most glaring problem with Black and Dekker’s script is that it wants to have it both ways. The Predator simultaneously takes meta-inspired jabs at both the action genre generally and the Predator franchise specifically, while also wanting us to take its sincere moments seriously.
So, we get general shenanigans like Rory’s school announcing a Halloween event on a sign that welcomes both “parents & STDS.” The joke being that STDS could be both an abbreviation for “students,” but is also an acronym for Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
Black’s meta sense of humor is about as subtle. At one point, a character in the movie delivers an impassioned speech about what’s at stake if the Predator isn’t stopped. Another character, in an example of what is now well-worn meta commentary, subverts the action movie convention when he responds to the moment like an audience member. He remarks on how much he liked the speech, how well it was delivered. One character references a beloved Predator meme – which existed long before the word meme did – when he describes the appearance of the creature as being “like an alien Whoopie Goldberg.”
While these exchanges made me chuckle, it’s the parts of the story I was supposed to take seriously that made me laugh (or rather groan) the hardest. In between the action scenes, our heroes speculate why the Predator race keeps coming back to earth to hunt humans. Our ability to evolve through genetic mutation leads Dr. Bracket to speculate about a human trait like autism.
The Predator seems particularly interested in Rory, and Dr. Bracket mentions that some biologists believe that “autism is the next step in the evolutionary chain.” In that exact moment, I thought that this was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard. It reeks of a screenwriter overhearing something at a cocktail party and working it into a script. In my notes during the screening I wrote, “Has anyone ever said that?!?” The Google-machine tells me that people have, but mainly to debunk it as a credible scientific idea, like in this brief Discover Magazine article.
There’s a mish-mash of a lot of other ideas about why the Predators continue to come back to earth. There’s something about human DNA, and our adaptability, and climate change. None of it is particularly interesting. Most of it is risible.
Also disappointing is McKenna’s rag-tag bunch of military prisoners who team up to stop the Predator. Black and Dekker use character ticks (in one case, quite literally) as a stand in for character development. The group consists of Nebraska Williams, the hard-case of the bunch who was arrested for assaulting an officer, or so he tells us; Baxley, an Afghanistan and Iraq war vet who suffers from PTSD and Tourette Syndrome; Coyle, the smart-ass of the group who never passes up an opportunity to take a dig at Baxley; and Lynch and Nettles, who must have been created after the screenwriting duo ran out of funny character traits.
It’s a shame to see so much talent go to waste. Trevante Rhodes, who burst onto the scene in 2016 in Moonlight, and Alfie Allen, AKA Theon Greyjoy from HBO’s Game of Thrones, are both given woefully little to do. Keegan-Michael Key does his thing as smart-ass Coyle, but the material he’s working with is uninspired. Thomas Jane plays the troubled Baxley, but Black’s idea of Tourette Syndrome is lazy at best. He reduces the condition to what imbeciles consider the funniest thing about it – sufferers sometimes feel an uncontrollable urge to blurt out random curse words. Even Boyd Holbrook as our hero, McKenna, is almost a non-entity; he comes off as a second-rate Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye in the MCU.
Without a doubt the highlight of the entire picture is Sterling K. Brown as government agent Will Traeger. I needed approximately 65% more of him in the movie. Brown is kicking ass and having fun every minute he’s on screen. He chews scenery (which he achieves partly by vigorously chewing gum in every scene) like he wants to be remembered as the most fun villain of 2018. That might end up being the case. I will fondly remember Brown as Traeger long after I have forgotten the rest of the mess that is The Predator.
Why it got 2 stars:
I don’t quite want to call The Predator moronic, but it’s pretty close. The action set pieces are orchestrated well. They are exciting, for the most part. The story is the movie’s real downfall. It’s not goofy enough to be fun, not serious enough to be enjoyable.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- At one point, following a potential bullying scene that fizzles out (it’s really just to establish the bullies for a later sequence), Rory is able to meticulously reassemble where all the chess pieces were on about ten different chess boards after the bullies scatter them. As he does this, the movie puts soaring music behind him, building the moment. I took this as a sign that this skill would become very useful at some point (probably the climax) in the film. I didn’t know whether to be annoyed or relieved when Black didn’t follow through with the foreshadowing. It’s either a great head-fake, or really lazy storytelling.
- A sample of the cringe-worthy dialog: to Dr. Bracket: “I heard you basically wrote the book on evolutionary biology.”
- The movie takes place during Halloween, and at one point Rory goes trick-or-treating with the Predator’s mask. It’s a nice twist on E.T. under the sheet.
- As far as the exciting action I mentioned earlier, the best example of it comes late in the film. There is a sequence where the Predator is hunting the humans, and they end up in a park or nature preserve-like area in the city. It hints at the intensity of the jungle scenes from the original Predator.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- The most upsetting thing is that the advanced screening audience applauded for this after it was over. I guess that was a signifier of the fact that The Predator destroyed at the box office on its opening weekend.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
Paul Feig’s career has been defined by comedy. The producer/writer/director was behind the Melissa McCarthy vehicles Bridesmaids, Spy, and 2016’s remake of Ghostbusters. A Simple Favor is his first attempt at drama. It stars Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively and is a thriller/mystery.