Given writer-director Shane Black’s gift for distinctively profane macho genre absurdity, most recently on display in 2016’s superb neo-noir comedy The Nice Guys, the fact that The Predator is neither an electric throwback nor a novel reinvention is undeniably disappointing. Nonetheless, if the world didn’t particularly need or crave another straightforward Predator film in the first place—this after Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscular 1987 classic, Danny Glover’s lame 1990 sequel, Nimród Antal’s fitfully entertaining 2010 Predators, and two disposable Alien vs. Predator spin-offs—his sequel-cum-reboot remains a sporadically thrilling diversion. Energized by his unique brand of foul-mouthed repartee, it’s a cut above the usual sci-fi pack, even when its bloodshed gets downright sloppy.
The Predator’s impending theatrical debut (on Sept. 14) has been sullied in recent days by news that co-star Olivia Munn was compelled to take matters into her own hands and inform Twentieth Century Fox executives that one of the supporting actors hired by Black, Steven Wilder Striegel, had a registered-sex-offender past that was hidden from those involved with the project. In light of the story’s gung-ho men-will-be-crazies set-up, it’s a dark smudge that’s difficult to completely erase from one’s mind at outset (not to mention lends the film’s title an unwanted double meaning). With that taken into considerable account, the director commences with a colorful panorama of the cosmos that’s interrupted by a frenetic UFO chase set to Henry Jackman’s booming score. A whiz-bang opener cast in a cheesy ‘80s-B-movie mold, it ends with a ship crash-landing in the middle of the Mexican jungle, right where Army Ranger sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is completing a covert mission.
Quinn is stunned to find himself suddenly going toe-to-toe with a ferocious Predator, and even more surprised to survive by using the creature’s advanced weaponry against it. Before the encroaching feds can apprehend him, Quinn sends his stolen alien gear back to the USA, where it accidentally winds up in the hands of his middle-school son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), an autistic outcast-genius who quickly deduces how to use Predator tech like a seasoned pro. Meanwhile, government bigwig Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown) enlists scientist Casey Bracket (Munn) to join him at his top-secret facility, where she’s supposed to help figure out how the Predator—which Traeger has in his possession, and is still alive—ticks. “I heard you wrote the book on evolutionary biology,” says Jake Busey’s character to Casey upon her arrival, thus defining her for the audience in one bite-size bit of blather. It’s not Black’s finest screenwriting moment.
Co-written by Fred Dekker, the script picks up the snarky pace once it shifts its attention back to Quinn, who, now in the states and in the custody of Traeger, who wants to silence him lest he share his alien encounter with others, is shipped out on a transport bus. Aboard that vehicle, he meets a collection of mentally unstable military men that come to be known as “the loonies.” It’s here that The Predator hits its R-rated comedic stride, as Quinn’s tall tale about his E.T. skirmish is greeted with derisive laughter from suicidal Gaylord “Nebraska” Williams (Trevante Rhodes), jokester Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), Tourette’s syndrome-afflicted Baxley (Thomas Jane), religious Nettles (Augusto Aguilera) and card-trick maestro Lynch (Alfie Allen). Buoyed by the performances of Holbrook (all cocky good-guy bluster) and Rhodes (exuding devil-may-care coolness), their early banter is the film’s high point, in large part because it boasts the most Shane Black-isms of the entire endeavor—such as when Coyle, trying to stage a fight in order to lure guards into a trap, baits Baxley into combat with the crack, “How do you circumcise a homeless guy? Kick your mother in the chin.”
That sort of testosterone-y bon mot is a Black specialty, and the director spreads them around, including to Casey, who late in the game tells a terrified soldier “Grow a dick.” No matter that insult and her posturing with guns, it’s unfortunate that Munn’s heroine feels so out of place. And that goes double for the film’s only other female character, Quinn’s wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski), whose role is most memorable for the awful overalls she sports in her first scene, and the way she laughably fails to bat an eye when her absentee husband reappears in her life looking for Rory. As it turns out, Rory’s use of the Predator’s gadgets has made him the target of not only the alien trophy hunter that Quinn first encountered, but also an even bigger, meaner, more lethal Predator. And making matters worse, that giant has abilities that far outdo his compatriot, thanks to genetic upgrades via the DNA of his fiercest enemies.
The hybridized Super Predator is a fearsome and formidable beast. Yet by its midway point, The Predator starts moving at a hyper clip, its scenes delivering quick bursts of exposition and gruesome kills tethered together by plot developments that are farcically convenient. It’s as if Black and Dekker, uninterested in anything but the next set piece, couldn’t be bothered to concoct a lucid progression of events—or, perhaps, they simply lost vital connective tissue during editing. Either way, everything soon becomes both trivial and cartoony, lowlighted by each appearance of the Super Predator’s pet dogs (brought to life by subpar CGI), as well as a late sequence featuring Quinn hanging from a cord out of a spaceship’s bay door that calls to mind, in terms of pure cornball silliness, the vine-swinging sequence from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Between positing autism as the next step in human evolution, and staging a climactic fight in which triumph is achieved through a preposterously lucky series of incidents, The Predator—taking a cue from its villain, who loves nothing more than impalements and decapitation—eventually loses its head. Still, its chaotic fast-forward momentum, mounting contrivances and ho-hum action choreography aren’t, in the end, deal-breakers, mainly because of Black’s effective funny-farm zaniness. There’s a sense here that The Predator is daring someone to criticize it for its ridiculousness, which by its coda it’s proudly wearing on its crimson-stained sleeve. Whether it reignites the franchise again (as it surely hopes to), or merely proves a minor entry in the Black oeuvre, it delivers disreputable out-of-this-world disorder with the sort of self-consciously smirky glee sorely missing from most studio tentpoles.