The following is part of a series of reviews of the Predator films leading up to the release of Prey.
Predator is a franchise full of false starts. After the John McTiernan classic, the series moved to the city with a direct sequel, then lied dormant for a long time. A brief resurrection came with the poorly received, though profitable, Alien vs. Predator crossovers in the mid-late 2000s. Most recently Shane Black gave his interpretation of the series with the much-maligned (though in my opinion underrated) The Predator. Now, on the week of the release of prequel Prey, I’m not looking at any of these sequels. Because none of them have quite the same bite that 2010’s Predators does.
In an unknown jungle, eight strangers parachute in, no memory of how they got there. What unites them is a history of violence. Royce (Adrien Brody) is a mercenary with a special forces background, while Isabelle (Alice Braga) is an IDF sniper, Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov) a Spetsnaz commando, Cuchillo (Danny Trejo) a cartel enforcer, Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) Yakuza, and Mombasa (Mahershala Ali) a death squad leader. The worst of the bunch is serial killer/rapist Stans (Walton Goggins), while Edwin (Topher Grace), appears to be the outlier, as a general practice physician with no apparent violent tendencies. As they argue amongst themselves, the nature of their situation becomes clear: they are on an alien planet. Worse than that, they’re nothing more than game for four alien creatures colloquially known as “Predators”.
Predators stands out from the pack of post-Predator 2 sequels because it comes from a place of pure passion. Legendary filmmaker Robert Rodriguez wrote the script from which the shooting draft, written by Alex Litvak and Michael Finch, is derived all the way back in 1994, which Fox rejected. When they wanted to revive the franchise circa 2009, they gave Rodriguez a call, got his production company Troublemaker Studios on board, and hired genre film talent Nimród Antal (Vacancy) to direct. The results speak for themselves. Predators has all the right ingredients for a raw, tough-as-nails action film.
I don’t hold a lot of fond memories of the original film. However, the banter between the team of commandos always holds my attention. Therefore, Predators putting the focus on the characters above all else is exactly the right call. Brody comes across as a surprisingly effective action lead, and he and Braga provide the gruff anchor for the gang of murderous heels stuck in the jungle together. Said gang are all character actors doing what they do best; treating this like a high-intensity stage play. Goggins, in particular, stands out as a bone-chilling, though against all odds devilishly charming, psychopath.
It’s a testament to Litvak and Finch that they induce a level of emotional claustrophobia in the wide-open jungle. Not a moment passes where a knife isn’t at someone’s neck, metaphorically or otherwise. And every time the tension eases, there’s a new obstacle – be it discovering they’re on another planet, encountering a hermit who quickly betrays them (Laurence Fishburne), or, you know, the predators themselves! Antal keeps the momentum ramping up from frame one to the finish. He delicately establishes the characters and the dangers they face, only to have them collide in gory ways.
Truly, no one is safe in Predators. Its big kill moments are less showy than expected, but highly memorable all the same. Big swings with a character getting their spine ripped out and a full-on samurai showdown with one of the Predators can’t be overlooked. Nevertheless, it’s the “matter of fact”ness of death and the kills that give the film its power. The pervasive nihilism can’t be denied. There’s a certain realism, a dire “we’re screwed” mentality to the movie that makes the need to evade these creatures, for once, really get the heft it needs.
Sadly, Predators fumbles a bit when it comes to its titular creatures. They’re not in the film quite as much as you expect, and in the first third or so, that’s just fine. Unfortunately, when they are revealed, they’re kind of unmemorable. There’s supposed to be an inter-tribal conflict going on, which is a neat idea with great parallels to the main group. However, it never really comes together because the film doesn’t let us know the Predators intimately. For four different types of Predators in this film, they don’t look all that distinct from one another, except for one that has what appears to be a xenomorph mandible on its jaws. That’s a massive missed opportunity, leaving Antal’s directing to do most of the heavy lifting to make them threatening.
Turns out, Antal is one hell of a heavy lifter. Predators seems lost to the sands of time, but it shouldn’t be. It is as far from a cynical cash grab as you can get. It captures what made the original sing but hugely improves on nearly every aspect. What more can you want from a gory, character-focused action flick? – James Preston Poole
Predators is available on home video and digital HD.