One of the most vivid memories I have of the original Predator film is the no-fluff approach to storytelling. The audience, like the film’s team of mercenaries, is dropped right into the action with little exposition and plenty of machismo. It’s fitting then that Predators, a sequel that disregards everything that has happened since 1987, would do the same — in a more literal sense. When we meet Royce, played by Adrian Brody, he is falling. When he lands, the action begins and the audience is instantaneously transported back to a familiar place. A place deep in the jungle, where a team of killers is hunted by something otherworldly. A place that feels exactly as it should, as it has in the past.
That’s moment one of Predators, the Robert Rodriguez produced, Nimrod Antal directed sequel that comes decades after the world first met the iconic alien hunter. It’s a movie that is essentially the tale of two halves. The first of which works incredibly well, calling back to the atmosphere of the original and giving its audience heavy doses of adrenaline. And a second half that sees the unraveling of this concept and the dismantling of said atmosphere. Luckily there’s enough momentum to deliver an ultimately satisfying action film, but even the least keen observer will find that there’s something missing. Something about the second half of the film that feels a little… off.
But first, some story. Almost as an homage to the original Predator, the story here is simple. A group of killers from around the world — everything from a Israeli sniper (Alice Braga) to a death row inmate (Walton Goggins) — are dropped into a mysterious jungle, only to find out that they have been brought to a distant planet where they are being hunted by a race of alien hunters. We know them as Predators. There are new models, but they are intensely vicious all the same. Now these strangers must band together to find a way to survive, using their talents as takers of lives to find a way off this wretched game preserve.
As I mentioned, its a tale of two halves. The first half of this film is a direct call back to the original film, both in tone and pace. It contains the same level of high-velocity terror as the main characters begin to learn that they are being hunted. The action is fast, a few of the deaths are gruesome and the ultimate introduction of some of the new Predators is nothing short of impressive. Nimrod Antal, to his credit, also captures the claustrophobic nature of the jungle in these early scenes. It’s exciting as a member of the audience to feel close to these characters, as if we are being hunted as well. The cinematography is smooth and ambitious, John Debney’s score delivers a perfect mix of ambiance and familiarity (it calls back to Alan Sylvestri’s original score wonderfully) and we get characters worth rooting for. Despite a few pockets of achingly bad dialogue (“I’m guessing you’re ex-military,” says Alice Braga’s character to Royce, a man standing before her with a giant gun and a vest full of ammo — Oy), the story moves well without any extraneous exposition. It’s all atmosphere and action, action and atmosphere. And whether you’re a fan of the original or not, it’s hard to avoid getting wrapped up in it.
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Then comes the tension plateau, when everything begins to go flat. Lawrence Fishburne‘s character, Noland, is an easy target as the harbinger of this tension plateau. His character is one who has been on the game planet for quite a while, surviving in secret. While he gets a very cool introduction and meets a very grizzly comeuppance, everything in between is lost exposition. As our heroes interact with him through the end of the second act, the film begins to slow to a crawl. Sadly, it never recovers the atmosphere and pace seen in the early going, which strips the film’s big finish of much of its intensity.
There are some highlights. Adrien Brody proves himself to be a man of action. Everything about his character — even his noticably grizzy voice — lend authenticity to Royce the warrior. He’s not a muscled-up future state legislator, but he certainly gets the job done. Alice Braga is also tough and sexy. In fact, almost every character in this team of strangers feels right. Their back stories are kept simple, their actions dictate who they are, and no one is over or underused. With the exception of Fishbourne, they are all cooked just right. But perhaps the most fun character is death row inmate Stans, played by Walton Goggins. He’s charismatic in a way that’s terrifying. So much so that everyone around him is afraid to give the man a gun. It’s the kind of performance that makes me want to run out and watch everything Goggins has done in the past while keeping tabs on all of his future projects. It doesn’t hurt that he gets the best lines, either. Predators 2010 might not have its own version of “If it bleeds, we can kill it,” but Goggins does get in a few zingers — mostly at the expense of Alice Braga’s rear end and all of the unsavory things that happen at 5 p.m.
As I’m sure you’re gathering by now, there are plenty of things that make Predators worth seeing. These characters are fun in both life and death. The action is often very impressive, with big gnarly Predators and new creatures that fit perfectly into this universe. And while the film’s final act downshifts significantly, it’s not as if it doesn’t have some impressive action scenes — it certainly does — it’s that the tension and threat levels stop building. A good action story continues to build tension right up to the big climax. In this case, the three or for big action pieces at the end feel like isolated incidents. Very cool isolated incidents — a showdown between Yakuza warrior Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) and a Predator might be one of the film’s best moments — but isolated nonetheless. Even the big finish, while impressive, feels flat in the context of the whole film.
Overall Predators is a fun call-back to its gruesome predecessor. And what it lacks in machismo, it certainly makes up for with atmosphere — at least at first. It floods its audience with action, humor and terror — sometimes simultaneously. It’s more action move than sci-fi, more sci-fi than horror. Its problems lead me to believe that it could have used one more good pass at the script. If only Rodriguez had thought to rope Shane Black into doing a draft. It’s great failure is that while Rodriguez and Antal capture the spirit of the original, they fail to build continuous tension through the middle of the film, leaving us with an impressive but ineffective third act. It’s by no means a bad movie, just another film that doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
The Upside: Some wicked action, strong performances and a first half that is thick with atmosphere.
The Downside: The film goes from running to crawling around its half-way point, stripping its third act of any meaningful tension.
On the Side: Robert Rodriguez intended for this movie to be a direct sequel to the original Predator, completely disregarding (for good reason) the existence of Predator 2.