A refreshingly unrestrained return to the sci-fi franchise balances snappy humor and relentless action with fun if somewhat forgettable results
One of the many complaints aimed at Hollywoods dogged obsession with dusting off old franchises and zapping them back to life is a frustrating insistence on sanitising once adult-targeted films for a broader audience. Weve seen it with Alien vs Predator, Total Recall, Die Hard 4, Point Break, Terminator: Genisys, all de-fanged for a bigger buck. In Shane Blacks mostly enjoyable revamp of the never-not-gory Predator series, hes been given no such muzzle (reportedly the result of R-rated Deadpools shock box office haul) and if nothing else, we get a film that doesnt feel hemmed in by studio limitations, a knowing hark back to a less restrictive era of blockbuster cinema.
Black, once one of Hollywoods highest-paid screenwriters whose Lethal Weapon series defined buddy comedies, spent years in the Hollywood wilderness after the commercial failure of his wildly underappreciated Geena Davis-Samuel L Jackson team-up The Long Kiss Goodnight. He returned in 2005 in the directors seat with slick comic noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and has remained both writer and director on his films ever since, rightly retaining control over his work with huge success. For The Predator, hes directing but co-writes with longtime collaborator Fred Dekker, and the pair have crafted what feels like a franchise rebooter, set up for more chapters dependent on box office success.
The film kicks off with a spaceship hurtling to Earth, setting off three separate story strands. The first sees a sniper, played by Logans Boyd Holbrook, forced on the run after he witnesses an alien kill his men, sending a package of mysterious otherworldly objects back home to keep them safe. The second sees his son open the package and unwittingly make himself a target. The third focuses on a biologist recruited to help shadowy officials discover more about the crash. All three eventually combine with a bus full of offbeat soldiers and an unlikely group must work together to survive the night.
Familiarity swamps The Predator, and not just because were returning to a 31-year-old three-film franchise (five if we include the Alien mashups). Black populates his film with recognisable tropes and character types as well a grand throwback score, and theres a certain charm in his ability to conjure up the past without resorting to pastiche. Black, who also made an appearance in the 1987 original, has entered the franchise with love, and theres a determination to please fans while also avoiding overly smug fan service.
Its an enjoyably exhausting romp, zipping between forests, shadowy government laboratories and small-town America on Halloween night (Blacks abandoned a Christmas setting for once) without allowing for much of a breath. As he has continued to show in his more recent work, such as Iron Man 3 and 2016s deliriously entertaining cop comedy The Nice Guys, hes able to find time outside of the set pieces to skewer audience expectations and gently make jabs at the unavoidable silliness of events. In one of the films funniest running jokes, Olivia Munns biologist suggests that the name predator is wildly inaccurate and instead, sport hunter would actually make more sense. Theres such a furious procession of jokes that, inevitably, not all of them fly, and at times the miss rate outnumbers the hits quite considerably (Getting the fuck out of here is my middle name! stands out as a particular stinker).
The action is also relatively nonstop yet despite this, or maybe because of this, the film lacks a genuine jaw-dropper of a set piece. The finale is certainly overstuffed but its more of the same, a criticism that could be leveled at a lot of the film with familiarity almost breeding contempt by the end. Blacks efforts are buoyed by a stacked cast who balance both the action and comedy elements with ease, with standouts including Munn, whose strong-willed scientist proves more than a match for the accentuated machismo that surrounds her, and Moonlights Trevante Rhodes, showcasing further star appeal as a nicotine-obsessed suicidal soldier.
Theres definite fun to be had here and franchise fans will surely appreciate both Blacks nods to the past and his plan for the future but theres something forgettable about its freneticism, and I struggle to imagine in 31 years if it will be thought of at all.
The Predator is showing at the Toronto film festival and will open on 14 September