THE PREDATOR: The Original Recipe Predator, Featured.

It can be difficult to judge a movie in the shadow of a scandal. To give THE PREDATOR a good review is to risk appearing some sort of apologist for the, to say the least, bad decision making of director Shane Black. On the other hand, as a critic, I have some obligation to remove the film from the noise surrounding it. Especially as the objectionable content, a scene between Munn and a convicted sex offender, was already cut. I have many opinions about what Black did, but ultimately I must review THE PREDATOR on its merits and deficits.

It is perhaps best, then, that THE PREDATOR is a messy half effort that demands neither endless praise nor bottomless scorn.

THE PREDATOR: Bracket and Traeger
Olivia Munn and Sterling K. Brown take a peek at the sedated body of a Predator in, well, THE PREDATOR (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

The Idea Behind THE PREDATOR

Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) and his unit stand ready to take out a drug kingpin to end an abduction situation. In the midst of their mission, however, a spaceship comes crashing to Earth.

The ship, of course, contains a Predator. The alien makes short work of McKenna’s teammates. Quinn, however, manages to hold him off long enough for the cavalry to arrive. He owes the creature’s own weapons for his survival. Sensing he will be tarred and feathered for his part in this fiasco, he steals the helmet and wrist gauntlet. Somehow, before he is arrested by the CIA’s cool, cruel Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), McKenna ships the items off as evidence/insurance.

The helmet and gauntlet end up at the home of McKenna’s ex-wife Emily (a barely there Yvonne Strahovski) and son Rory (Jacob Tremblay). Rory’s autism apparently enables him to translate the Predator language. This ability enables him to both use the items and become a target.

Meanwhile, the Predator, McKenna, biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), Traeger, and a support group of institutionalized soldiers with the classy nickname the Loonies (Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, and Augusto Aguilera) end up converging at a research facility. It all goes to hell when the Predator’s sedative wears off, sending it on a murderous rampage through piles of soldiers.

Everyone has to give chase as the Predator sets off after Rory. Then an uber Predator shows up. Also, there is some stuff about traitor aliens, evolution, and so on. It’s a lot.

The Writing

At first, Fred Dekker and Shane Black’s script feels like something. For fans like me, this is great news. It has all the witty dialogue and over the top machismo that makes Black’s solo projects and efforts with Dekker a delight.

However, as the movie progresses, it feels less and less like something that came from either of them. The structure becomes slipshod. Characters disappear for most of the movie only to become wildly important to the end. Those characters we see a lot of never seem to get the depth that screentime promises.

What really bothers me, though, is the script’s choices regarding autism. It portrays the neurological condition like it is a brand new diagnosis that we know nearly nothing about. Dustin Hoffman’s performance in RAIN MAN feels more of-the-moment than how THE PREDATOR portrays Rory and his autism. I’m fully on board for the “autism does not make you less than” aspect of this approach.  I cannot cotton the “and it is the next step in evolution,” though. It skews a bit too close to the “magic mental disorder” trope that movies really need to drop. In addition to just being insensitive and ill-informed, it makes the script feel horribly out of date.

Also, there is a terrible joke about someone needing to use the bathroom that I hated.

THE PREDATOR: The Loonies
The so-called Loonies — Alfie Allen, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Augusto Aguilera, Boyd Holbrook, and Trevante Rhodes — strike a pose while waiting for transport in a scene from THE PREDATOR. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

Casting The Leads of THE PREDATOR

I enjoyed Boyd Holbrook in NARCOS and parts of LOGAN, but his role here undercuts him. The movie clearly wants him to be a sort of tragic warrior, a good man who nonetheless can’t seem to let “The War” go and therefore must live separate from society. In practice, he feels like a generic tough guy who barely changes his register when his kid’s life is on the line.

Both the Predator and the uber-Predator do their Predator thing. At points, they look quite cheap, though. Like cheaper than the alien hunters looked in PREDATORS or, for that matter, PREDATOR.

Jacob Tremblay, despite the flaws of the script, does a decent job playing a child with autism. He never goes heavy on the tics or falls back on “developmentally disabled” but he also does not ignore that autism can make someone present differently. It is no easy thing to do so his efforts should be noted.

Casting the Rest of THE PREDATOR Call Sheet

Sterling K. Brown is so excellent as the imperious and emotionally removed Traeger that it is a shame the film does so little with him. He feels the most quintessentially Black and Dekker (get it?!) character of the bunch so it seems strange that he is terribly underutilized.

Olivia Munn continues to seem, to me, to be a talented person who gets undercooked roles. She does not disappear into the background like some actors might, but she has to work to make sure. The most on-the-nose moment of the film sees her telling McKenna how the Predator did not attack when she acted submissive and not only does McKenna not respond but he never once tries to use that information to save his or anyone else’s life.

Keegan-Michael Key and Trevante Rhodes are standouts among the Loonies. Key because he manages to still be funny even as the script wanders away. Rhodes because he is the only one of them to bring the idea of the combat PTSD that apparently links them all to life. Even as he survived his brush with death, he still isn’t quite sure he wants this life and you can see that in his bravado and loyalty.

Thomas Jane is saddled with acting as though he has Tourette’s and does… fine, I guess. If I may provide a PSA though: Tourette’s isn’t just a disorder where people say funny dirty stuff. It is a neurological condition exacerbated by anxiety that presents with a range of tics of which swearing is the least, not most, common trait.

THE PREDATOR: Uber Predator
Whatever you call it, the Uber Predator, the Ultra Predator, this is it roaring in a scene from THE PREDATOR. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

Filming

Remember when I mentioned the Predators looking cheap? That cheapness begins to creep into the film more and more as the action increases. Bad CGI rarely takes me out of a film but this was one of those times. It just undercut a lot of the tension and fear that should have been in high supply as the film tumbled towards its conclusion.

However, the real villain of the thing is editing. The higher the violence on-screen, the worst the editing becomes. By the end, the thing is chaos. Not well-chosen chaos that makes you feel as though you are among the carnage. It’s chaos like there is no sense of visual continuity and important details seem missing.

Striking the Set

I am probably sounding harsher than I intend because I left the theatre really and truly disappointed in THE PREDATOR. In retrospect, the first half to two-thirds is a fun bit of film with some strong Black/Dekker moments for fans of Black’s solo efforts or their collaborations. However, after Black’s excellent work on IRON MAN 3, the best of the IRON MAN films (You heard me! Go ahead at me, I dare you!),  I had such high hopes for his unique ability to merge action and dialogue.

Instead, I’m left musing on what could have been. If the editing was stronger, if the film focused more on character than heavily CGI’d action, if the characters that tangled with the Predator and uber Predator had more depth, the depth I’d expect from Black… wow, that could have been a blast.

Alas, instead it ended up a bit of a shambling Frankenstein. Trying to serve too many masters, perhaps, and falling short of satisfying any of them.

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