FILM REVIEW – THE PREDATOR. With Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Trevante Rhodes, Sterling K. Brown, Trevante Rhodes. Written by Fred Dekker and Shane Black. Directed by Shane Black. Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, and crude sexual references. 107 minutes.
I have no way of knowing what actually went down behind the scenes of THE PREDATOR, the latest attempt to reboot a floundering Fox franchise that began 31 years ago with Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting a giant dreadlocked lizard man in the jungle. But I can tell you that the end product of this notoriously troubled production feels like a patchwork quilt somebody finished stitching in an awful hurry. It’s got all the elements of a more ambitious, expansive epic that’s been scaled back and cut within an inch of its life into a surprisingly shoddy-looking, breakneck B-picture. This is an entertaining enough Friday night at the movies, but to say that the seams show is an understatement.
Co-written and directed by cheeky genre deconstructionist Shane Black, the movie is a hodgepodge of expansive, half-developed science fiction concepts, splattery set-pieces and Black’s specialty: tough guys talking a lot of shit. I really liked the shit-talking parts.
Bland Boyd Holbrook stars as McKenna, an Army sniper who witnesses one of our scaly foes ripping up some cartel baddies south of the border, so he swipes the creature’s helmet and mails it up north for proof that our government has been covering up the increasingly frequent visits from these extraterrestrial sportsmen. This isn’t exactly the brightest idea, because in addition to being treason it also puts dangerous alien technology in the hands of McKenna’s estranged, autistic son (Jacob Tremblay of “Room”) who accidentally activates an interstellar distress signal while wearing the predator’s hat as a Halloween costume.
McKenna is quickly locked up and headed for a military-ordered lobotomization along with a bus full of other PTSD wash-outs who call themselves The Loonies. Led by Travante Rhodes (“Moonlight”) – who makes a surprisingly credible and charismatic action hero – this hardscrabble dirty half-dozen also includes, among others, Thomas Jane and Jordan Peele’s own D.J. Jazzy Jeff, Keegan-Michael Key. The gang speaks almost exclusively in obscene put-downs, discussing in minute detail the great breadth and expanse of your mother’s vagina. But how much do you want to bet that when the chips are down — like say when we’re faced with a couple of angry giant aliens — these are gonna be the guys you want watching your back.
It’s all straight out of the Shane Black playbook, as from “Lethal Weapon” to “The Nice Guys” this singular writer has been both kidding and extolling the self-aware patter of sad, violent men who find redemption by living down to their reputations. There are all the ingredients of a terrific Shane Black movie in here, but they’re jostled around by a lot of obvious studio notes and what executives like to call “franchise world-building” when they really mean setting up sequels. (The film’s tacked-on final scene is by far the worst in this regard, so egregious it saps most of the goodwill earned up until then.)
The Loonies also have to compete for screen time with Olivia Munn’s deathly dull Dr. Casey Bracket, a molecular biologist who might be the unlikeliest movie scientist since Denise Richards was a nuclear physicist in that Bond picture. The role was clearly written at some point to goof on the character’s incongruous va-va-voominess — there’s even a cleverly juvenile set-piece geared around how quickly she can get naked to escape a quarantine zone that’s under attack — but Munn plays her as stiffly as Joan of Arc, the only humorless scold in a movie otherwise populated by class clowns.
“The Predator” has been breathlessly edited so that the picture is constantly stepping on its own punchlines. The scenes aren’t allowed room to breathe, which is a shame because we like hanging out with these guys. Rhodes, in particular, should be playing more leads, and there’s a terrific heel turn by Sterling K. Brown as a sinister scientist. He really savors the profane poetry of Black’s dialogue, though the character’s ignominious exit is given unforgivably short shrift in the cutting.
I suppose this is the best “Predator” film since the original, which sounds like a big deal but really isn’t all that much of a compliment. The movie ultimately gets by on attitude, with Black’s brash, wiseacre sensibility brightening up the mandatory franchise maintenance. (It’s very much at the “Iron Man 3” end of his filmography.) In the end, I’m just hoping it earns enough money so that Shane can make “The Nice Guys 2.”•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.