While fans of Predator, the now iconic 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, are hoping for a return to form for the franchise after a dodgy sequel and a recent pair of horrible spin-offs, they’re probably not expecting a reboot like Predators. Unlike the original Predator, helmed by the intuitive and typically fast-and-loose director John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Last Action Hero), Predators is clearly the product of a self-conscious craftsman.
Director Nimrod Antal and producer Robert Rodriguez have both left their unique fingerprints on Predators, though obviously Rodriguez, whose films tend to play out like checklists of his favorite things, has left his mark with bigger flourishes. Still, Antal is a spectacular genre filmmaker reminiscent of Jacques Tourneur in the sense that you recognize his films based on their atmosphere, moody compositions, and elegantly streamlined narratives. Antal’s main strength is his versatility, from an astonishingly durable slasher like Vacancy to Armored, an urban western/neo-noir revolving around a stolen armored car, to Predators, a sci-fi actioner about a group of human killers and soldiers that are hunted for sport by the titular aliens on a distant planet. The idea to make a new Predator movie may have been brewing in Rodriguez’s head for two decades now, but it’s Antal’s skill that makes Predators as good as it is.
Predators hits the ground running from the start: A heavily-armed Royce (Adrien Brody) wakes up freefalling in a parachute that only deploys seconds before it hits the treetops of the jungle below. Royce soon discovers that several other killers have just undergone the same disorienting trip, including a U.S. soldier (Alice Braga), a Cartel enforcer (Danny Trejo), a member of the yakuza (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a convicted sociopath (Walton Goggins), and a nebbish and seemingly out-of-place academic who yelps like Kermit the frog (Topher Grace, of course). Together they piece together that they’ve all been abducted and brought to this jungle planet to be hunted for sport by the predators.
Here’s the rub, and where Rodriguez’s voice comes in: The predators that are hunting the humans are also hunting other alien species, including the predators introduced in McTiernan’s film. These new predators are uglier and more powerful: Noland, Laurence Fishburne’s stir-crazy scavenger, says that the old monsters are like “dogs” while the new ones are like “wolves.” Naturally, according to the law of comic book team-ups, the enemy of the humans’ enemy is their friend, so Royce leads his group to find and free a trussed-up “dog” predator to even the odds.
Antal’s Herculean task is to trick his audience in making such a dopey premise compelling. Fight scenes like the one between a yakuza and a predator are a fanboy’s wet dream, and thanks to Antal’s evocative, meticulous camerawork, especially overhead shots of rippling tall grass, they look a lot better than they have any right to. The film’s first two-thirds is the best part of Predators because it’s one long setup to the distended and mostly lackluster action-fueled finale. Which is fine because Antal does well with all the boring stuff that most other genre filmmakers don’t, and it shows in the way that the film’s mostly talky second act never slackens the film’s brisk pace.
Antal also scores with his second eclectic ensemble cast in a row, filled with good turns by everyone except Brody and Fishburne, the latter of whom never gets past a comfortable caricature of his previous badass roles. Brody, by contrast, is all wrong for his part, as is most apparent in the scene where he doffs his shirt, covers himself in mud, and repeats Schwarzenegger’s famous diatribe from the final fight in Predator. Brody has clearly worked out for the part, but drawing unnecessary comparisons to Schwarzenegger, especially in terms of sheer muscle mass, is just a bad idea from the start.
In fact, many of the dimwitted last scenes fail to take off because they’re just that dumb. Scenes like a fight between the old predators and the new ones are strictly unnecessary fan service and are only really worthy of Rodriguez. Antal deserves better material than that, and no matter how much he does with what Rodriguez and the film’s screenwriters have given him, Predators just isn’t worthy of him.