Saturday, July 10, 2010

"Predators" review

The original 1987 action/science-fiction film "Predator" doesn't really lend itself to sequels. There's no specific REASON you couldn't make more good stories about military-trained humans being hunted in a jungle environment, per se, but unlike a lot of other films about clever, technologically-sophisticated aliens, the Predators don't really have much of an inner life or much backstory to explore. That's the whole point...they kick major human ass because they have the element of surprise on their side. If their human prey ever began to really understand them - who they are, where they come from, what makes them tick, how their peculiar body suits work - it would just make them easier to kill, and thus less compelling adversaries.

"Predators" - the new edition in the series produced by Robert Rodriguez and directed by Nimrod Antal - gets around this by basically just redoing the first film with two new twists. Rather than pitting a group of commandos against a Predator in a Guatemalan jungle, the film pits a group of commandos against 3 Predators on a distant alien world that just happens to look exactly like a Guatemalan jungle. Boom. Done. It's largely unadventurous, and comes to resemble the original film quite a bit, but as a reboot with updated special effects and some younger actors, it's certainly serviceable. "Predators" certainly fares better than the ridiculously terrible "Predator 2," which for some reason decided the best setting in which to place the Predator was a dystopian Los Angeles policed by Danny Glover, and it's also a significant improvement on the stupid "Alien vs. Predator" movies, which manage to suck all the fun out of not 1 but 2 fantastic science-fiction franchises at once!

But being better than "Predator 2" is hardly aiming high, and I can't help but wish that "Predators" was a bit bigger, bolder, more energetic and more exciting. Often, it has a feeling of going through the motions. The original movie and many of the other classic action films of the 1980s had a real sense of FUN to them. Sure, many of them, "Predator" included, play today as camp. (Carl Weathers and Arnold Schwarzenegger's manly forearm clench in the opening moments and Jesse Ventura's scenery-chewing performance - which gave rise to his lifelong catchphrase, "I ain't got time to bleed" - are often cited among the most nostalgic, memorably goofball moments from mainstream '80s cinema.)

But director John McTiernan and screenwriters John and Jim Thomas were holding nothing back. There was some emphasis on making their lead characters seem cool and badass, but above all, the movie was about packing in the most amount of entertainment value per minute of screen time as possible. Antal doesn't bring this new film the same "go for broke" sensibility (surprising when you consider the involvement of Robert Rodriguez, who tends to bring boundless enthusiasm - if little else - to his action films). To give just one example, his action hero has a big, iconic moment after besting a particularly ferocious enemy, and we get a shot that PERFECTLY lends itself to a little '80s-style action movie quip. A modern version of Arnold's classic "Stick around!" from the first film.

Instead, the hero just sort of shrugs and limps off screen, exhausted. Now, I get that a funny little one-liner might have taken the viewer out of the moment a bit, and wouldn't seem 'realistic' or work to make the character 'cooler.' But it would have been fun, and probably would have elicited cheers and been a real crowd-pleasing moment from the film. I'm not sure if the writers just couldn't think of anything good there, or if they were overly concerned with making the hero appropriately stoic and steely and cool (in the contemporary "Matrix"-inspired sense of the word)...but it was just a mistake. This is a movie about aliens in crazy suits who kidnap humans and then chase them around the jungle shooting bursts of electricity at them. Let us have a silly good time with it, would you please?

The story:

A bunch of nameless soldiers (played by Adrian Brody, Alice Braga, Danny Trejo and others) - and one nerdy doctor (played by TV's Topher Grace) - find themselves mysteriously transplanted to a jungle and have no idea how they got there. At first, they fight among themselves until it becomes obvious that they are, in fact, on an alien planet that functions as a sort of "game preserve," and they are being hunted by a trio of bloodthirsty Predators.

The action then proceeds much as it does in the first movie. One by one, their ranks are picked off by the Predators, and the survivors slowly get smarter about how the Predators hunt and what can be done to evade/kill them. Laurence Fishburne also shows up in a small role as a soldier who has figured out a way to avoid detection by Predators and stay alive on the planet for a good long while.

Screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch certainly came up with a clever way to reinvent the series without really changing much of what makes "Predator" Predator, and I really admire how the movie just sort of opens and jumps right into the main action without a lot of dilly-dallying or unnecessary exposition. However, there's still a lot of room for improvement here. I feel like one or two more drafts could have tightened up some elements of the story that just don't make much sense, and could have come up with some better pay-offs.

For example, early on it becomes apparent that, though the hunted humans share a military background, they all hail from different parts of the globe and exist on different sides of the law. There's a Mexican drug cartel enforcer, an American mercenary, a member of an African death squad, a member of the Yakuza, a convicted murderer who was awaiting execution on Death Row, etc. And yet, with the exception of the Yakuza guy who stars in the film's most fun, compelling and interesting sequence, NONE of these people are seen using their unique experience to their advantage. They all just behave like soldiers, operating under the same training and possessing largely the same skills. Why even bother to establish where they come from if you're not going to USE this information in any way? As well, the Topher Grace character - the only castaway without military experience, and a guy who seems oddly out of place for the entire movie - doesn't hold together at all. It's partially because Grace is actually a pretty terrible actor, but the character's also just a victim of bad writing. You don't believe for a second that he'd make the choices he's making, and even though he's given an extended sequence in which to basically deliver a monologue explaining himself, his behavior still doesn't actually make any sense. This whole portion of the Third Act needed a SERIOUS rewrite.

So, yeah, it's a mixed bag. Huge "Predator" fans or people enthusiastic enough about '80s-style R-rated action films to overlook some rough patches will probably enjoy the hell of this. But I feel like the bulk of the American filmgoing public would probably be better served by waiting for the DVD/Blu-Ray release. It's definitely the best film about Predators since the original 1987 "Predator," but that's not actually saying much...

Posted via email from Lon Harris


Danish said...

The big surprise for me after watching Predators was Adrian Brody. The weedy thin actor turned out to be an inspired choice for the lead. Rather than the muscles and brute force of Arnie, we've got a hero who is lithe, athletic and relies on intelligence rather than brute force. The guy also commands screen presence and brings acting gravitas and depth to something that could have been paper thin. Kudos to you, Mr. Brody.

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