Robert Rodriquez earned the deserved love of millions by sacrificing his own precious bodily fluids to make his first film, back in ’92 (when we were still trapped in a room without a view). Ever since, he’s become a one-man production studio, which is apparently all you need to do to win the label of “outlaw” in modern, mainstream Hollywood circles. Rodriquez is now the Quentin Tarantino of Spanish-flavored gangster films: rich and powerful enough to do more-or-less whatever he wants to do, so long as “whatever he wants” involves flogging the corpse of El mariachi. Or From Dusk Till Dawn. Or Spy Kids.
But that’ll be Machette. In tonight’s case, Rodriquez has flogged the corpse of a film he so obviously loves…almost as much as I…though I suspect for completely different reasons. He’s better at it than the army of inarticulate hacks who took a pair of sheers and some gaffer’s tape to the Aliens vs. Predator films. Whatever else you can say about the man, Rodriquez has the Tarantino Eye for Unflappable Talent. Things could’ve (and have) been much worse…but that feels like the faint praise it used to be before I realized how fucked and shitty things really are. (The films of Michael Bay will certainly do that to you.)
Predators opens with Adrian Brody (last seen around here playing the Writer-as-Action Hero in Peter Jackson’s King Kong) as a more-or-less-nameless merc, kidnapped out of…wherever the hell he was before all this…and parachute-dropped into an anonymous jungle. Landing, Our Hero finds seven other feckless-but-well-armed human beings bumbling about the place. Preliminary dick-waving passes without incident or casualties, thank you very much. Let the expository dick-waving begin!
Our multiracial Red Shirts supporting cast include Rodriquez Repertory Company veteran Danny Trejo as a cartel enforcer with a fondness for dual-wielding machine pistols (someone else must like F.E.A.R. as much as I do…though, once again, probably for completely different reasons); Louis Ozawa Changchie as a well-dressed Yakuza smart enough to keep his gob shut and shuck his good shoes; Walter Goggin as a twitchy, homicidal maniac who doubles as our Odious Comic Relief; Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as our Token Black Dude; Oleg Taktarov as…um…our Token Russian Dude; Tropher “Edward D. Brock Jr.” Grace as a Token Doctor who might as well have “Judus Goat” stamped on his forehead; and Alice (City of God, I Am Legend) Braga as (you guessed it) The Chick.
Of course, this is an Action film, attempting to hearken back to the over-masculinized age that gave its prequel birth. Contrary to any delusions Rodriquez (and Tarantino, and Kevin Smith, and [insert director’s name here]) might have to the contrary, this is not a good thing. That age, thank God, is gone, and these days our Chick is a sniper-rifle-carrying member of the CIA, continuing the proud Lara Croft tradition of giving a girl a gun and calling her a “strong female protagonist.” No, really, the film says, she is. Trust us. See, she knows how to use a gun. That’s strength, right? Oh, and later, she’ll have the strength to chose empathy and cooperation over blind brutality and “rational” self-interest. You know: the kind “smart” people would use in this situation. It’s all about what it means to be human, you see? About which I care fuck all.
For all its pomp and circumstance, all its fun and liveliness, Predators is a forced-retrograde path through yesteryear’s cliches. Oh, but we’re aware of them, now, are we? Fine. Do something with that awareness once in a while and I might join with every movie critic on the internet in the vast Jumping Joy Parade following this film’s train. Let me be Frank now that we’re five hundred words from the outset: Predators is an okay film. But have we slipped to the point that “okay” has become the new “fucking awesome”? When did that happen, and why?
These are the things you sit in a theater wondering about as you wait for the deaths of everyone other than Brody and/or the Chick. In this regard, Predators felt a lot like Jaws 2: a paint-by-numbers sequel with a dash of loving homage and the occasional bit of Fan Service thrown in for good measure, attempting to keep idiots like me pacified. In this the film failed, but you’ll notice I’m purposefully not ruining whole chunks of it for you (not yet, at any rate). So I suppose it was that good…I just wish I could find something good to say about it.
Take Taktarov’s Jessie “the Body” Ventura-approved personalized Vulcan Gatling gun. Back in 1987, Predator director John McTiernan threw that gun in as an intentional piece of Stealth (possibly even Self-) Parody, a dig at the Rambo Remasculization of the American Film McTiernan consciously helped shape and, by 1996, attempted to utterly destroy (he failed, but that’s another story). In this film, the Gatling gun serves as a direct call-back the first film…and little else, since the invisible aliens stalking Mike Adrian Brody and Co. through the jungle rightly blow it to plasma-fused pieces early on. And good on them. Good on the filmmakers, too, for putting it in there at all…but it could’ve served some aesthetic purpose…other than to prove the Predators are still smarter than we are…or have at least seen the two previous films.
Predators feels like the mad offspring of its prequels and the modern “Splat Pack” slasher flicks I categorically (but only tangentially) bashed back in my Saw review: one-dimensional characters and two two-dimensional protagonists shuffle through a horrible situation (maybe they’re dead and this is Hell, say), attempting to figure out, in the immortal words of Detective Leona Cantrell, “what the fuck is going on.” Most fail miserably, while the Big Name cast members amongst them either already know what’s up or quickly figure it out, thanks to an Expository Speech.
This falls to Alice Braga, who soon supplies Predators Ghost Ship Moment, wherein the characters learn what the audience already knew going in. There’s this race of technologically advanced extraterrestrials, see. They’ve got a bad habit of dropping by Earth for semi-annual trophy hunts and Action Movie protagonists are their favorite (human) prey. Some stumbling about soon reveals that, in this case, Our (human) Heroes have all been kidnapped from out some battle-scarred wasteland or another (Afghanistan, Israel, Baja, Your Mom, Death Row…) and dropped into a planet-sized game preserve for the galaxy’s premiere race of General Zaroffs. Awhile back, one of their number stalked and eliminated an elite (U.S.) Special Forces squad in Central America, see. There were two survivors. They indicated that, when trapped, the creature activated a self-destruct device that…oh, I’m sorry. You’ve heard this?
Well, since our cast of Survivor: BG 386 has as well, time for them all to die one by one in various creatively-horrific ways. The usual double-crosses, reversals, and the occasional pleasant surprise (named Laurence Fishbourne) appear in short order, and they do a very good job of keeping me from doing what I would so like to do and unleash the full fury of my reighteous hatred upon this film, damning it for what it isn’t. If you’re expecting a new and interesting wrinkle in the Predator’s grab bag of alien crazy, spoiler alert: this time, they unleash the hounds. Spike-encrusted, CGI refugees from a Gears of War game, crossed with Cenobites. And while I love the idea, the film handles it just as they’d handle any old “new” techno-gadget on our Predators’ wrists. “Oh, cool…moving on, now…time for Lady Sniper to wax poetically about Human Nature or What It All Might Mean.”
The plural possessive is justified, for there are four Predators in the film, all of whom take an active role in thinning the movie’s human herd. So I suppose the title is technically accurate. But I’m still waiting for a film that does for the Predator race what Terminator 2 did for killer cyborgs from the future. A Predator (to say nothing of several) should, by all rights, take center stage in a story ostensibly bearing the name of their race. For Christ’s sake, it’s 2010: vampires are sparkly, Terminators are more human than Christian Bale, and Michael fucking Bay is one of the richest and most powerful directors in the world, only a few billion behind His Majesty, James Cameron. It’s about time Action/Sci-fi/Monster movies stopped dicking around with what it means to be a human and starting asking a much more interesting question: What does it mean to be a Predator?
Obviously, Michael Finch and Adam Litvak were more interested in cribbing lines from the original film than adding anything to the series. Except for things of no significant consequence.
Example: at one point, good ol’ Morpheus (obviously having fun playing a very understated crazyman, all the more unnerving for his quiet desperation) mentions there are two “kinds” of Predators loose on Game Preserve World. Frankly, I was more interested in Fishburne’s conversations with his dead friend, but it turned out I didn’t have to worry: the script goes nowhere with this idea, apart from straight into a Climactic Fight Scene. And that’s fine. But apparently by “two kinds,” Crazy Larry meant “two kinds” of stiff, anamatronic Predator facial designs, each worse than the other in their own special ways. The lack of Stan Winston’s hand is painfully obvious in their immobile, yawning jaws, and stiff, quasi-phallic mandibles. Kevin Peter Hall’s body is even more conspicuously absent…and I wonder if George Lucus couldn’t be bothered to digitize the presence and body language he brought to the first two films, sell it back to Robert Rodriquez, and thus torpedo the Spy Kids franchise with trademarked, outrageous, Lucusfilm price gouging before another one of those…things…is loosed upon the world.
On second thought, that’s a terrible idea. Forget I ever had it. But can we not find one seven foot tall, professionally-trained mime in the world willing to suffer through hours of make-up and then run around the Hawaiian jungle in fifty pounds of latex and fake hair?
I’d like to reiterate that Predators is a long way from bad. It’s just that its good things are set beside a whole lot that only serves to prove director Nimrod Antal and our two screenwriters watched the first film and “respect” it. Unfortunately, they’ve used this as an excuse rather than a guide, retreading the film rather than respecting it in any way, other than to keep mention of it down to a minimum. Until…well, you’ll see.
And you really should see, because Predators has 2010 written all over it: calculated to please, succeeding in spite of itself, abandoning all the built-up tension two thirds of the way through in favor of occasionally well-staged fight scenes that nevertheless go on forever. I enjoyed Changchie’s honorable dual, and I imagine the Predator go a kick out of it, too. I enjoyed Adrian Brody in his role as easily one of the most self-centered protagonists to appear in a Predator feature this side of Dark Horse comics. I enjoyed the eventual Predator-on-Predator violence, though I would’ve appreciated some better lighting and a bit more grace (both of which, I know, would’ve cost more money, and Rodriquez is nothing if not a notorious penny-pincher). I even enjoyed Alice Braga’s turn as Captain America…though if she’d been the one to trade her flack jacket in for a smearing of body-heat-insulating mud, I’d be prostrating myself at this film’s feet, shouting, “I’m not worthy!”
As it is, I’m vaguely recalling it a few days after the fact, appreciating little touches that could’ve made the film great had they been brought to the forefront. Touches I can’t even talk about without spoiling the only reasons on Earth to see this film at all. If I were forced by a gun-wielding maniac to describe Predators in one word, it’d be ambivalent. It’s nice that, in this case, our muscle-headed lunk is played by an Oscar-winning actor who ate six meals a day and slept outside in the Hawaiian jungle because he’s just that damned cool. Even when he’s playing a scaled down version of Dutch Ah-nuld Disease: the merc with a heart of gold. And isn’t it interesting our Chick gets to be the Conscience of the Group? Is that because she’s female and, despite all the good feminism has done over the years, we still have to pretend girls are inherently more empathetic that boys, somehow? Or because she’s a representative of a Nation State? Brody plays the professional killer, initially unafraid to sacrifice his fellow “game” in the name of intelligence gathering. Braga plays the more traditionally noble-minded Action protagonist. Sure, she’d probably gun down Palestinians with the best of them, but she goes out of her way to save even Topher Grace, making her a better man than I.
Had Predators focused on any one of these elements it could’ve been a worthy sequel. As it is, this feels like a half-hearted reboot…except it’s more like watching six reboots at once. Characters (and their potential films) are pared down with refreshing ruthlessness, a kind of Natural Plot Selection. And as a hack n’ slash at least it’s better-acted and more professionally done than the last twenty years of Slasher movies. But even when I try to praise the film I sound like an irate, message board-flaming fan boy, desperately defending this film from an enraged hardcore fan of the first two Predator movies who just happens to share the same body, mind, and soul.
I’m officially of two minds about Predators. So much so that I suspect the film may have triggered a minor schitzophrenic episode. For a moment, it seemed I found myself in an alternate 2010, where filmmakers added and expanded upon aspects of pre-existing characters and concepts, rather than shamelessly paying “homage” (which, as we all know, is French for “steal”) to them. In that dimension, Aliens 3 and 4 did not ape Aliens 1 and 2 at all, never mind aping them badly. In that dimension, the Predator is a vehicle for taking the piss out of Action Movie pretensions by ripping their spines out through their stomachs with a hearty and well-earned roar. In that dimension, Robert Rodriquez decided to adapt Steve and Stephanie Perry’s Aliens vs. Predator novel Prey into a $100 million dollar film written by the Thomas Brothers and staring…I don’t know. You pick. What do I look like, central casting?
You know that part in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey where the Wyld Stallyns recruit the most brilliant mind in the universe (a binary being named Station) to build “good” robot versions of themselves, the better to defeat the “evil” robot versions of themselves who have already killed them once and who might just as easily kill them again? (Spoiler alert…I guess) Remember how the Good Robot Bill and Ted, despite being perfectly serviceable droids, looked for all the world like what you’d get if you dynamited your local Lowes and mixed the remains together with a blunt stick? Shambling masses of re-purposed parts covered in spray paint so cheap teenagers would scoff at the idea of getting high off it? That’s Predators: the good sequel, it knocks the blocks off the last two Aliens vs. Predator films…and then, its purpose served, forgets to set its self-destruct wristband. Pray this film will not be consigned to a wretched waste of an existence as the immortal back-up dancer to some idiot garage band…like Wyld Stallyns.