Until very recently, it seemed as though Shane Black could do no wrong. Throughout his career, his talent has rarely ever been in doubt. Whether it’s his early career success in screenwriting with credentials like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, or behind the camera more recently for the likes of Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys; Shane Black’s name has been synonymous with “fuck yeah”.
However, regardless of his huge fan base, his role in reinvigorating the Predator franchise has been a rough old road. Criticisms of the initial trailer for The Predator were audible. Comments below the line on various websites claimed it looked generic, characterless and like run-of-the-mill action blockbuster fare. Initial reviews of the film were mixed, with the Guardian awarding it one-star, and few others being much kinder.
Were Black and writing partner Fred Dekker really about to rely on nostalgia for their eagerly-awaited return to the series?
Of course not. The Predator is a direct sequel to the original and takes place some years after the events of Predator 2. An alien spaceship crash lands during the midst of a military assassination. After sniper Quinn’s (Boyd Holbrook) crew are taken out by the predator and he’s dumped on a bus to the psychiatric ward for his “outlandish” claims, the rogue predator escapes and it’s up to the band of brothers (plus biologist Casey (Olivia Munn)) to take the creature out – before things really get out of hand…
This really is a film of two halves. The first is a tight combat film mixed with Black’s trademark brand of humour and side-plot-involving-a-young-kid. Holbrook’s ragtag makeshift troops, including Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen and Augusto Aguilera, are introduced replete with their idiosyncrasies just as any other war film would introduce its characters. One-by-one, they tell us who they are and what they do; and that’s enough. Even Sterling K. Brown’s introduction as the cocky big-bad (in human terms, at least) is done in a conventional way.
Assuming the majority of people going into The Predator are already familiar with the original 1987 John McTiernan feature – of which Black features in an acting capacity – it is totally fitting to have caricatures with some level of sophisticated companionship, as opposed to multi-layered human beings.
The main difference here is that while McTiernan’s characters embodied masculine ideals, Black instead subverts that action movie trope by having them all “lesser”. The macho bravado is displaced by nerves and ticks. There are no frighteningly large men gripping hands and calling each other a “son of a bitch”. There’s no Adrian Brody trying to look hard in camouflage.
In the first Predator, the men were probably not the kind that a woman would want to be left alone inside a bedroom with on her own. But in Black’s film, the crew are so socially awkward and consumed by their own issues that they literally don’t know how to behave around a woman, never mind when Munn is passed out on the bed.
It’s these little quirks that make the opening hour or so a joy. It establishes itself as firmly being a Shane Black movie. All the tropes and recognisable motifs are there. The characters are fun, the story is gradually established with enough teasing plotting to keep you wondering what the real reason for the not-so-friendly visit is, and the action scenes are bold and peppered with a pace that doesn’t become nauseating or overwhelming.
And then the second half kicks in and The Predator loses a little bit of its semblance to go all-out action. The order of things is changed dramatically by a plot twist that barely makes any sense whatsoever. Out goes the characterful quips, the same level of of camaraderie and almost all logic. Where does the caravan come from? Where did they get so many weapons? Where previously it was easy to ignore these questions (seriously, why would the predator hang and skin the first person it meets?), eventually the deluge of questions weighs down proceedings to the point that it’s slightly more difficult to sit back and enjoy.
Scenes cut and left on the editing room floor probably seems a reasonable explanation for why the sequence of events is all higgledy-piggledy. The controversy over a certain cast member’s alleged background causing Olivia Munn to feel uncomfortable, resulting in re-edits, could go a long way to explaining the absence of some explanation along the way.
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Alternatively, it could just be that unlike Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, or The Nice Guys, this just isn’t one of Shane Black’s better movies. It’s an enormous amount of fun and as popcorn action blockbusters go, there are few better examples this year. But it is daft as a brush. The predator [or should that be ‘hunter’?] is not the most fierce or menacing that we’ve ever seen, which is explained away quite reasonably, but then the film’s climax happens at a rapid pace and unconvincingly easily. These creatures are the apex hunter in the entire galaxy, but rather conveniently they frequently make stupid mistakes and underestimate their prey. Lucky for us.
There is some amount of nostalgic appeal with The Predator. Subtle (and not so subtle) lines and hints are dropped to the previous films with nods and winks for die hard fans to enjoy. By the same token, it is not imperative that you know all of the backstory and lore off by heart to get a kick out of it. To label it a big dumb action movie seems a harsh criticism, but it is what it is. Based purely on its ability to entertain, The Predator deserves a four-star rating, but prepare to leave the cinema feeling a little stupider. More stupid. More stupider.