Up until this point, the Predator franchise has been a roller coaster of quality and narrative structure. Every film is mostly standalone, with some call backs to a previous film in some small way, but nothing so overt new comers will fall behind. Unfortunately, it seems the more we explore the Predator, the lesser the films — as well as the titular movie monster — become. Enter Shane Black’s The Predator — the first film in almost a decade for the series, and fourth overall in the standalone franchise — which hopes to bring the series back to the fun 1980’s feel, with the visceral action of the John McTiernan original, all rolled into one collective nostalgic package. Unfortunately for Black, and fans of the franchise, the film blows up in the famed filmmaker’s face in a big way, delivering instead what is arguably the weakest, as well as most disappointing, entry in the series’ history.
Set on present day earth, The Predator finds Boyd Holbrook’s Quinn McKenna, a sniper in the US military, on a simple mission in a foreign country. Things quickly go south when a Predator space ship crashes near McKenna’s location, setting off a chain of events that lands McKenna in a psychiatry military hold. McKenna meets a group of mercenaries who are all like him — potentially crazy, very expandable, foul-mouthed, and most importantly, afraid of no danger — who band together when the Predator returns to his town, in search of something McKenna took from him. The hunt is on for McKenna and his team to track down the Predator before he’s able to find McKenna’s son, who may be the key to stopping the Predator race once and for all.
In theory, the above film sounds like it could be a lot of fun, but instead, we’re taken on a near two-hour ride that is haphazardly edited, as well as both overstuffed and yet undercooked. Black is known best for his buddy cop films, starting early on in his career with writing Lethal Weapon. So while he’s no stranger to action films, he seems to be a much bigger stranger to ensemble films. Even with his more recent work on things like The Nice Guys, Black finds a voice for three or four great characters, but he’s never had more than that front and center. Unfortunately, The Predator suddenly finds him with an overwhelming amount of characters who never feel real, but instead feel like caricatures who the audience really never get behind. With the amount of talent in front of the lens — with guys like Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Sterling K. Brown, and Trevante Rhodes– you’d think they would all get great material to work with. But instead, none of their characters feel fleshed out or real, so you have no emotional investment in any of them. Every time it feels like we may start getting to know them, the film decides to quickly go another direction, never taking the time to really breath, or allowing the characters to grow. Thankfully, Boyd Holbrook gets decent material to work with, or at least elevates what was written for him, easily standing out as the film’s MVP. On the other hand, Olivia Munn couldn’t be more miscast, giving a stilted and awkward performance very reminiscent of Denise Richards’ “star turn” in The World is Not Enough. Every line delivery feels awkward, and it’s clear that both Black and Munn had no real idea how to handle her character, which is frustrating because we really had a chance to have a kick ass female lead front and center. This franchise has always been big on ensembles, but here it feels like Black has no handle on how to use his characters, or how to even set them up, leaving for nothing but confusion and disappointment for the audience.
Unfortunately, the film’s biggest sin isn’t just about not getting characters we care about, but it’s that the film as a whole just doesn’t work, or really make sense. This is clearly a product that has been taken apart and put back together multiple times, and it shows. The narrative thrust feels all over the place because the film really has no idea what it wants to be. At times, it almost feels like a parody of the original, while other times it wants to emulate it, all the while winking at the camera. That feels very much like Shane Black’s MO at times, but here it just doesn’t work, really souring the audience on the film. Character motivations are almost non-existent, and most seem to be there just for convenience instead of adding to the film. The worst part is how many characters pop up, just to disappear and never be seen again, for no reason other than the film just has no use for them anymore. One in particular is Jake Busey, son of Gary Busey, who actually plays the son of his father’s character from Predator 2. But instead of being a badass looking to avenge his father, he’s an awkward science geek who adds nothing to the film, other than say his name and then disappear. Everything feels forced, and that’s really upsetting because the potential to do something really cool with this franchise just evaporates in every frame.
Which leads us to the Predator itself, which is arguably the biggest problem with not just this film, but the franchise overall. As cool as these creatures are, the more we start to explore them, the less interesting they become. One of the coolest things about the original Predator was that we don’t see the monster for so long into the film, and it truly feels like something menacing. As the series progresses, directors have felt the need to not only explain where they come from, but why they’re here, and it’s really starting to hurt what makes the original work so well. Here, there’s two warring Predators: an original Predator, that most fans know, and a bigger, more steroided out version of the monster who has been using the DNA of other species to get stronger. The latter sounds incredibly cool in concept, but in execution, it’s messy and really makes the character less scary in the process. It feels like every time we peel back the curtain to get an idea of what these creatures are, the less interesting they become, which has made each subsequent film frustrating to watch in the process. Going all in on a sci-fi concept like that would be great, but instead it feels like an unnecessary addition to a film hellbent on the hopes of getting a sequel. This is clearly a set up for bigger things, but why should the audience care at this point? If the movie was more like the first, and just a story about a group of mercenaries that are just south of sanity fighting the Predator in the woods, it would have been so much more interesting than the convoluted film we ended up with here. Sure, it would have been too similar to the original, but maybe that’s what these films should be. Instead of trying to over explain the creatures, it would have been better if we got a nostalgic rehash where we care about the characters, and just let the Predator be the Predator.
This also leads to fact that the Predator action really isn’t all that interesting throughout the film, more feeling empty and vapid instead of badass and fun. Sure, there’s a lot of blood to be had, but why does it matter if the action feels so disappointing and stilted? The Predator honestly never feels all that threatening because the action doesn’t deem it to, and instead, it just happens, never feeling visceral. Gone is the feeling of the hunt, and instead we’re given a film that tries to replicate it, but never meets that mark. It may be the most bland feeling film in the series in terms of action, which is truly disappointing. With someone like Black in the director’s chair, you’d expect the action scenes to seem more inventive and interesting, but they just never come together in any way that really pops. Fans hoping to get great action set pieces and carnage galore may very well walk away disappointed in what this movie has to offer.
The Predator lacks the charm and the fun of the series thus far, giving audiences a cast of misfits who — on paper — should work splendidly, but instead fall short due to material they’re given to work with. Black tries his hardest to take the series in a new direction, but instead he’s seemingly stalled the franchise out in a really unfortunate spot that may take quite a while to recover from. Fans may get a kick out of some of the action in the film, but they won’t get much more from it. In the end, The Predator is a film for no one in particular, leaving old school fans frustrated, and potential new fans wondering why people are so high on the property to begin with. This is easily one of the most disappointing films of the year, as well as in the franchise.