Shane Black’s THE PREDATOR: Irreverent, Problematic, Refreshing

An unabashedly, gleefully R-rated action sci-fi comedy

That I highly enjoyed The Predator has as much to do with who I am than how good the movie actually is.

Because it isn’t Shane Black’s crowning achievement as a writer/director, and is probably only the third best out of four Predator films to date.

And with those qualifiers in mind: Damn I had a good time at the movies watching Shane Black’s The Predator.

The Predator is busy. This allows for an environment of refreshingly off-color zingers to rain down upon us in rapid succession to such a degree that repeat viewings will almost certainly be necessary to follow all the various character beats and dynamics. It’s also busy in regards to our monstrous friends who hunt for sport and should therefore probably be called something besides “Predators”. A big narrative thrust of this film is actually figuring out what intergalactic shenanigans are going on with the species and why they’re waging a small suburban war in this installment. There’s also about 15 human characters spread across a variety of storytelling strands that ultimately mostly come together, but keep proceedings anything but simple and smooth.

If the preponderance of characters is problematic, it does, however, more or less guarantee the enjoyment factor. For one thing, the cast is largely firing on all cylinders and having a great time. I’m not going to say Boyd Holbrook is some untapped new leading man. I’m still not entirely sold on him. But here Shane Black saw enough in him to cast him as his lead, active duty sniper Quinn McKenna, and he certainly holds his own even if he’s no Arnold or Danny Glover. McKenna is drawn into the fray somewhat randomly as a Predator ship literally crash lands in the middle of his sniper op and destroys his whole team. Surviving the encounter and stealing some of the alien weaponry, he’s soon a captive of the Army and in way over his head.

McKenna is a fine, if generic, lead character to hang the film around. But it’s really the ensemble here that makes it, as has been the case for all Predator films. Jacob Tremblay is McKenna’s autistic son Rory, who accidentally trips a signal bringing yet another Predator to Earth after opening the package of Predator gear his father had stolen from the initial crash. Olivia Munn plays Dr. Casey Bracket, who gets called into the government’s scientific study of the captured Predator in order to help them solve some mysteries, but soon finds herself on the run with McKenna when things go quickly south (as they tend to do for scientists trying to contain monsters). Sterling K. Brown is Traeger, the project leader for the Stargazer program which pulls in Dr. Bracket, is studying the aliens, and is therefore definitely villainous. McKenna makes quick friends with some other military prisoners, all of whom are having the time of their lives. Their leader is Trevante Rhodes’ Nebraska. Rhodes should’ve been the star of this film and is clearly destined for greatness. Then you’ve got Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Jane as crazy joke teller and guy with Tourette syndrome, respectively. Game Of Thrones’ Alfie Allen is guy who does magic. And Augusto Aguilera is Latin soldier who believes in the end times as told in Revelation. In all honesty, there isn’t much more depth to them than that… but they’re all really quite funny. The most clear success of The Predator, outside of the wonderfully R-rated gore, is the rapid fire comedy. It lands far more often than not, allows the enjoyable cast to entertain us, and feels like the Shane Black and Fred Dekker script we had dreamed of. Complete with problematic and questionable portrayals of people on the Autism spectrum, frequent use of the p-word in jest, and just endlessly amiable smartassery.

That’s a lot of characters. And they crash into each other with varying levels of success. There’s simply too much going on in The Predator for it to be truly great. Too much sloppy narrative and complication. Too many creatures. Too many leading men. It’s stuffed to the gills. And part of what makes that first Predator film so great is how relatively simple the original story is, and how filled with awe that film is at its creature. Four films in, and with the narrative a wide audience demands these days from blockbusters, The Predator almost HAD to take the “cinematic universe” approach just to exist. But it suffers for all that busyness, and loses a little bit of glorious coherence in the process.

These are real issues that might sink the film for some. The final act is also frustratingly CGI-laden and begins to strain credulity quite a bit. (Yes, I’m criticizing an invisible alien action sequel of straining credulity). There are also some jokes that don’t land, some plot points that feel under-explained, or over-edited, or simply just lost in the chaotic post-production this film appears to have had. All of that stuff might sink the movie for a bunch of folks, and that would be a valid takeaway.

It’s just that the movie succeeds where it matters most: It’s fun! Although overcomplicated, I’m far more interested in the directions they took the Predator species in this film. Although overstuffed, I genuinely enjoyed the vast majority of the cast and felt like their portrayals of Black and Dekker’s characters made for a colorful and humorous ride. The various callbacks to previous films all clicked together better than these obvious in-jokes often do. And most importantly: The excessive violence and foul language truly shine here. Shane Black is like a wizard of swearing, and the flourishes of dialog here do not disappoint. There are gore gags aplenty, some of which are unfortunately very CGI-laden, but others of which feel remarkably tangible. The Predators themselves have tons of money shots and dispatch huge swaths of humanity with the slightest slash of their claws/jaws/projectiles.

I really wanted to love The Predator, and I’m extremely relieved that I do. It’s also clear that this final product is muddled and imperfect and probably a little generationally tone deaf. Many will reject the film, and I’m not sure it’s any kind of guaranteed hit for the studio. The messiness of it all can sometimes feel overwhelming. But in the end, this is my kind of movie. And it’s made by people I love to be entertained by. It’s a continuation of a franchise I’m personally invested in. I’m a lifelong fan of the IP and the talent behind the camera. I’m a fan of the talent in front of the camera. I went along for the ride and found myself content and pleased on the other side. Sure, I may have wanted the definitive Predator sequel, and I’m not sure we got that. But this fan is satiated, and I hope you will be too.

And I’m Out.

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