Gremlins In The System Keep "The Predator" Earthbound

Caught in the crossfire of scrambled sci-fi actioner “The Predator” are droll punchlines, winning performances from a raft of likable actors, and a smart real-world subtext, all dying to burst from the chest of a movie that doesn’t quite deserve them. The experience lies somewhere between gold panning and dumpster diving; a waist-high muck of studio meddling that contains some franchise high-points. Wade through and be rewarded accordingly.

Shane Black, perhaps still most famous for penning 1987’s “Lethal Weapon,” first dipped a toe into big-budget filmmaking with 2013’s unexpectedly bewitching “Iron Man 3.” The actor-turned-writer-turned-director also played a supporting role in the original “Predator” film, uniquely positioning him to give the series a soft reboot; to skywalk over a foursome of disappointing sequels in favor of something leaner, meaner, and wittier.

He and co-writer Fred Dekker (“Monster Squad”) have come out the other side with an unwieldy alloy of subpar special effects extravaganza and screwball comedy. The ugly computer-generated imagery and clumsy pacing of the movie’s second half? A total loss. The fate of the film’s occasionally retrograde humor? Depends on the viewer.

Boyd Holbrook headlines as Quinn McKenna, an Army Ranger sniper whose team happens upon a crashed Predator ship while on a mission in Mexico. A bloodbath ensues, with McKenna finally immobilizing the creature and escaping with his life. After covertly shipping a few key pieces of the Predator’s high-tech armor to a P.O. box back home, Quinn is quickly scooped up by an aggressive Nicorette-chomping government agent named Traeger (Sterling K. Brown, terrific as always).

An interrogation billed as a psych evaluation follows, after which Quinn is locked inside a retrofitted school bus with five fellow military men. All have different psychological problems played for laughs, all are personae non grata as far as the government is concerned. Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), Baxley (Thomas Jane), Lynch (Alfie Allen), and Nettles (Augusto Aguilera): a deck full of Joker cards, self-dubbed “the loonies.”

Meanwhile, the shipment of Predator armor ends up at McKenna’s ex-wife’s home, their autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) opening the box and unleashing all manner of extra-terrestrial mayhem. To make matters worse, the captured Predator from Mexico escapes the lab where it’s being studied by Traeger and evolutionary biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn in her best performance to date). Another bloodbath. Bracket and the loonies quickly converge to chase down the Predator, but it gets away, evidently after its armor. After Rory.

Symbolic of the rest of the film, the human characters and their dialogue range from rowdy to revolting, but the actors are continually a joy. Jane especially, who remains one of Hollywood’s most unjust failed experiments in leading men. His charisma overcomes a dozen bad Tourette Syndrome jokes, the actor mining a nothing character for one who looks haunted, like he’s seen some shit – the kind of presence the series hasn’t seen since its inception. Rhodes and Key are delightful too, even when tasked with juvenile wisecracks and pretending to be scared of a twenty-foot CGI Ultimate Predator.

The practical pleasures of the franchise’s flagship character are totally lost in this incarnation, an animated monstrosity who shows up in act two. More than being an unconvincing pile of pixels, the upgraded Predator’s quarrel with the regular Predators never pays off (a result of studio-mandated reshoots) and the attempts to tie its appearance on Earth to climate change and human evolution are thoughtless even for a monster movie. (The script’s efforts to shine a positive light on autism come from a good place but the execution is clumsy at best.)

All of these inadequacies come to a head in a muddled finale so slapped together that the death of a major character occurs in a wide shot. Blink and miss it. Similarly, an inadvertently lobotomized Predator dog makes for a funny parallel of Nebraska (“Williams sucks at shooting shit in the head”), but the beast disappears when the reshoots kick in.

By now “Predator” fans are used to the sequels’ high points coming at a cost. See: exposition sinking Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Alien Vs. Predator” or the boring humans of Nimrod Antal’s “Predators” cancelling out its fun setpieces. Shane Black’s take on the material ends up every bit as transactional, another sign that the problem lies in the source material.

But the Predator will always exude cool. Because of the late Stan Winston’s brilliant creature design. Because of the testosterone-soaked nostalgia evoked by Alan Silvestri’s six-note theme.

No, the title character’s decades-long streak of disappointments is on 20th Century Fox. “The Predator” plays like Shane Black assumed autonomy and then didn’t get it, resulting in an obvious collision of dueling visions. The studio’s already paying the price critically and commercially. (Shane Black’s imbecilic, highly publicized hiring of an actor friend who’s also a sex offender didn’t help.)

The great Predator sequel that still hasn’t come probably doesn’t lie in “Predator” director John McTiernan, long retired from directing due to legal woes. But it definitely doesn’t lie in editing a Shane Black picture with a six-speed hand mixer. Enough of Black’s personality remains to make “The Predator” a worthwhile diversion. But it could’ve been special.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: September 14, 2018
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Shane Black
Screenwriters: Shane Black, Fred Dekker
Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Trevante Rhodes, Sterling K. Brown, Thomas Jane, Keegan-Michael Key, Jacob Tremblay, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, Yvonne Strahovski
MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, language throughout, and crude sexual references)