Predator's original screenwriter is back, but not even he can recapture the thrill and surprise of the 1987 classic.
1987's Predator is so much better than you remember, including those of you who remember it being pretty bloody great. Written by Shane Black (who also scribed Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys), Predator was framed as just another action blockbuster vehicle for Schwarzenegger, yet proved a surprisingly smart and masterfully constructed thriller with equal measures of horror, science-fiction, eternally quotable lines and laugh out loud comedy. Best of all, its villain was something entirely new: a sneaky, lethal and superior hunting machine that could turn invisible as it hunted humans for sport like some sort of antagonist from an alien 'Most Dangerous Game'.
Sequels followed. The first wasn't bad. The rest were. They even tried spinoffs, hoping the success and popularity of the 'Alien vs Predator' comic series would translate into big cinema box office (it didn't). Now, some 31 years after Black’s original, the screenwriter returns as both writer and director with The Predator. In all, it’s probably better he hadn’t.
If the original Predator defied easy categorisation, The Predator proves even harder, shifting from extreme gore and violence one minute to the kind of quips and blokey banter we’ve not really seen in action films since the 80s. The hero this time round is Narcos’ Boyd Holbrook, whose vanilla performance matches his vanilla character - a grizzled sniper finding himself on the wrong side of a shady government agency after inadvertently establishing first contact with Earth’s latest predatory guest. So it is he’s bundled in with a bunch of PTSD-affected military rejects as part of a smear campaign, only to have these ‘loonies' become his reluctant allies in a desperate effort to stop the predator and save his autistic son (whose savant abilities - surely one of cinema’s most tired cliches - allows him to read and interpret the alien language). It’s a mess of a movie, uncertain from its opening scene whether it wants to make you laugh, wince or hide behind your hands.
Black’s strength has always been his characters’ dialogue, so it’s no surprise The Predator's quieter scenes are also its strongest. Even in these moments, though, the jokes a wildly inconsistent, with every witty high point undermined by a crude, racist, bigoted or sexist jibe. Yes, soldiers are far from saints and doubtless many speak exactly like those presented on screen, but less so scientists whose behaviour in The Predator is often distinguishable from the soldiers around them thanks only to their white lab coats.
Performance wise, Olivia Munn does what she can with limited resources (including having her introductory scene famously edited out after the actress discovered her opposite’s criminal past and raised objections with the studio), whilst ‘the loonies’ boast some fine performers stuck in thinly-crafted characters such as Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes and Key & Peele’s Keegan-Michael Key. Jake Busey also makes a cameo, marking one of the film’s many tips of the hat to the preceding films (his father was in the sequel), with playful quotes, musical cues and various props all there to reward long-time fans.
In all, the gritty action-comedy genre could well do with a comeback, and nobody would seem better placed than Black to make it happen. In The Predator, however, he falls short of that task, delivering instead something entertaining at times but entirely forgettable overall and a far cry from the brilliance of his original.