Is there such a thing as too muchShane Black in a Shane Black movie?
I wouldn’t have guessed it was possible -- even in the late 1980s and ‘90s, when movies like the Black-scripted “The Last Boy Scout” were pilloried for being too brutal, aggressive and vulgar (and that was after “Lethal Weapon” and its sequel, the movies that made him such a hot property, were already considered wildly over the top). But “The Predator,” a combination sequel and soft reboot, feels like a throwback to that earlier, more simplistic era. The film is a hyper-masculine cocktail of breakneck storytelling, graphic violence and mean-spirited humor where the ingredients this time around seem either off or just wildly inconsistent. This is especially disappointing since it follows Black's remarkable, measured comeback with “Iron Man 3” and “The Nice Guys.”
Simply bursting with too many ideas for what deliberately aims to be a small and self-contained story, the filmmaker's latest is a muddled effort that never hits the highs of the (admittedly perfect) original film, though a terrific cast and more than a few clever surprises are sure to keep audiences on their toes (and on the edge of their seats).
Boyd Holbrook (“Logan”) plays Quinn McKenna, an Army sniper who encounters a sport-hunting alien while on a covert mission and absconds from the scene with a helmet and a handful of otherworldly trinkets that he inadvertently sends to his autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay, “Room”). Intercepted by Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown, TV”s “This Is Us”), the head of a top secret organization investigating our extraterrestrial adversaries, McKenna is brought to a military facility and thrown in the stockade with a group of misfit soldiers while scientist Casey Brackett (Olivia Munn, “X-Men: Apocalypse”) studies the recovered materials for clues about where they came from and what they're after.
When an alien Traeger has apprehended escapes from their lab and embarks on a killing spree, McKenna and his oddball cohorts escape during the melee to avoid further disciplinary actions -- much less death at the hands of a Predator. But after realizing that the creature is heading directly for young Rory, whose behavioral issues have given him an unexpected advantage in activating the equipment, McKenna recruits his fellow prisoners to help kill it, rescue his son, and if possible collect enough evidence to present it to the world and prevent them all from becoming scapegoats for what is rapidly becoming a military mission gone wrong.
Black’s screenwriting conventions feel like traditional ones on adrenaline and “The Predator” unfolds with a lethal efficiency that both surpasses his previous efforts and undermines some of the elements that have traditionally made them work so well. There is simply an enormous amount of expository dialogue in the film, to the extent it sometimes feels like there’s nothing else, and as a result the actors feel like delivery systems for character and plot details rather than living, breathing people. Some of these characters work like gangbusters (Brown’s Traeger is cut from the same ice-cold, amoral, ruthlessly charming mold as Craig Bierko in “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” for example) while others, unfortunately including Holbrook’s McKenna, don’t leave an impression.
Holbrook, admittedly, was among the standouts in “Logan,” but teamed up with Trevante Rhodes (“Moonlight”) as a suicidal vet, and Munn as a wonderfully resourceful scientist-turned-Predator hunter, even his familial obligations to Rory don’t strike the deep dramatic impact the movie needs. At 107 minutes, the movie moves like lightning, so there are almost no moments to pause and explore these characters other than in relation to their “function” in the film. Meanwhile, folks like Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Jane are clearly having a blast but exist on the periphery of the ensemble. They're clearly enjoying their relative lack of responsibility but their presence only further undermines the cohesiveness of its momentum, and the consistency of its tone.
As a co-star and ghost writer on John McTiernan’s 1987 classic, Black long since established his firm grasp on the Predator universe, and he really embraces the established mythology of the creature and their technology. And all of those elements are a grisly blast: the body count is higher in this film than probably all of the others combined, including the jungle assault in the first, and the Predators (including the new Super Predator) dispatch their prey/victims with lethal efficiency. Paired with a score by Henry Jackman that liberally recreates Alan Silvestri’s iconic leitmotifs (from the jungle drums to the military-cadence Aaron Copland stuff), the action itself feels muscular and streamlined -- a slightly less elegant Cliff’s Notes version of what McTiernan did some 31 years ago. But then again, with two direct and two more indirect sequels between then and now, it seems impossible to retell that story in form or content; the slow introduction of the creature in the first film gave audiences an opportunity to get to know the cast, and now it’s just trying to reinvent a Ten Little Indians scenario with new characters they want you to care about.
In which case, “The Predator” is a solid follow-up/ update that rights the franchise and diverts it from the “Alien Versus…” spinoff franchise, but it’s surprisingly not materially a much better film than “Predators,” which I probably mean more as a compliment to that underrated sequel than this one. Ultimately, one supposes that it isn’t that Black put too much of himself into this film, or somehow that a franchise stymied his voice; both challenges have paid handsome dividends for the filmmaker in the past. It’s just the proportions that are off. There’s something initially fun and undeniably cool about it (like tiny little Tremblay wearing a full-size Predator mask to go trick or treating) but it almost immediately proves unwieldy, and even bound together by fearless confidence and no small amount of elbow grease, in the end does more harm than good.