Film Review: Predators

A well-crafted, solidly entertaining meat-and-potatoes action movie that gives the titular creatures their best showcase since the original 'Predator.'

The summer of ’80s remakes keeps on trucking with the latest and most successful updating of a two-decade-old franchise. Headlining their first solo feature outing since 1990's misbegotten Predator 2, those dreadlocked, green-blooded, heavily armored hunting enthusiasts known as the Predators are back for another stalk-and-kill session, this one taking place on a remote planet that functions as a giant game preserve. Their prey? Why, the most dangerous game, of course...man! Seven men and one woman, to be precise, all of whom have violent backstories that apparently justify their exile to a distant world where they'll be hunted down and turned into life-sized trophies.

The motley crew includes grim mercenary Royce (Adrien Brody), somewhat less grim Israeli sniper Isabelle (Alice Braga), unrepentent murderer Walter (Walton Goggins), Mexican drug enforcer Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), Russian soldier Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), African warlord Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), silent but deadly Yakuza gangster Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) and, bringing up the rear survival-skill-wise, dorky doctor Edwin (Topher Grace). Wasting little time with exposition, the movie opens with Royce and his fellow prisoners in free fall over the alien game preserve and, aside from an extended pit stop halfway through, always keeps them on the move, running, hiding and, finally, confronting their pursuers.

The Predators themselves make their first on-camera appearance about 45 minutes in and remain formidable—not to mention cool-looking—adversaries. Hats off to producer Robert Rodriguez and director Nimród Antal for not futzing around too much with Stan Winston’s original design or, even worse, turning the Predators into CGI monstrosities. In fact, aside from some digital backdrops and a pack of computer-enhanced Predator dogs, Predators is a low-fi production that hearkens back (no doubt deliberately) to the much-loved original.

Made in 1987, the first Predator now plays like something of a time capsule for that era of action cinema, what with its emphasis on Schwarzenegger-intoned one-liners and the sight of heavily muscled men trying to out-macho each other. What's interesting is that Predators is in many ways representative of where the genre stands today. In place of a bodybuilder like Ah-nuld, the hero is played by a wiry Oscar-winner with more brains than brawn. (It’s worth noting that Brody delivers a solid star turn here, although his attempts to sound bad-ass by channeling Christian Bale's Batman voice are a little much.) And instead of jocks like Carl Weathers and Jesse Ventura, the supporting cast consists of reliable character actors like Ali, Grace, Goggins, and Laurence Fishburne, who pops up in a very funny cameo as a guy who has managed to survive on this game preserve for far too long. Finally, reflecting the genre’s recent trend towards darker material, the characters in Predators are a far more morally dubious lot than Schwarzenegger’s soldiers. Those grunts caused a lot of damage, but it was always clear that they were fighting the good fight. Here, it’s not as easy to distinguish the human predators from the aliens, a theme that screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch hammer home a little too pointedly at times.

Thankfully, the one thing that hasn't changed much between the ’87 movie and this one is the above-average action sequences. Largely avoiding the chaotic mishmash that defines so many contemporary action movies, Antal stages set-pieces that are crisply shot and genuinely fun. (A Yakuza/Predator fencing duel is a highlight, as is a battle that ends with a Predator ripping out the spine of his unfortunate victim Mortal Kombat-style.) Much like its predecessor, Predators will never be confused as a groundbreaking, genre-bending action movie like The Matrix or even Die Hard. But at the very least, it does provide the escapist entertainment that this summer’s big-budget offerings have mostly lacked.