The very idea of Predators confuses me a little bit. It has been 23 years since the original Predator, a film that most everybody likes, and 20 since Predator 2, a film that very few people like, and in that gargantuan two-decade span, the only thing keeping the franchise alive, cinematically, have been Alien vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, two films liked by absolutely no-one, and if anyone did like them, the rest of us owe it to humanity to isolate and sterilise those individuals before they can contaminate the gene pool.

But it would seem that Robert Rodriguez liked the not-shitty Predator material enough to keep the torch burning for a concept that he was first attached to all the way back in 1994: a third entry in the series that would take a team of Earth's finest killers to a distant planet, there to fight off a host of the unstoppable extraterrestrial hunters. The results, produced by Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios and directed by Hungarian journeyman filmmaker Antal Nimród, might be best described as "good enough to get the job done, and not a whit better", which is at any rate more than one could fairly expect given the number of potential checks against the project. Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that if the nicest thing you can say about Predators is that it's the best sequel that Predator has ever had, well: that's just not a very high bar to clear, now is it?

At any rate, the film's success lies primarily in how it weaves in references to the first movie that aren't hit-you-over-the-head-obvious, and don't quite situate it as a "remake" or a "reboot". In other words, the parts that work best are the parts that worked already, 23 years ago, so no, originality is not the game here. Nor should it have been - Predator worked not because it was clever but because it was relentless, and Predators works (though not nearly as well) when it too is relentless. This is not always the case: there's a little bit too much mythology stuck in to slow down the action at places where it doesn't want to slow down, and far too much energy spent exploring the human characters, who end up failing to be remotely interesting enough to justify the emphasis on their personal histories at the expense of running the fuck away from the three giant aliens with energy weapons and invisibility field.

We meet the first of those characters, an American mercenary (Adrien Brody) whose name we learn in the last thirty seconds or so of the film, coming to in freefall, miles above the ground. He turns out to be one of nine individuals unwillingly parachuted from God knows where to God knows where else: one died on impact when his 'chute failed, but the other seven include a nicely artificial mixture of ethnicities and stock action types: a Russian (Oleg Taktarov) with a haunted look and the blood of countless Chechnyans on his hands; a Mexican mob enforcer (Danny Trejo); an IDF operative (Alice Braga); and so on. The first thirty minutes of the movie follow this ragtag, mutually antagonist band as they figure out in fits and starts that this odd jungle they've arrived in is not on Earth, that they've been collected (seven magnificent killers plus one weedy doctor, played by Topher Grace) to serve as big game for unseen hunters, and oh look, there are those hunters' dogs right now, big damn terrifying hellbeasts.

This first part, structurally recreating the false first act of the first Predator, is probably the best part of the movie: sort of "Avatar for Dummies" in a lot of ways, and a little underdone on the story logic side of things (the plothole that bothered me the most, not for want of choice, was that they found out they were on an alien world when they saw other planets in the daytime sky; yet they'd already seen the daytime sky before that, and the jungle wasn't that dense), but sufficiently brisk and heavy on the uncanny atmosphere that it doesn't give you too much time to stop and think about whether it makes sense. It's helped out considerably by Antal's direction and Pados Gyula's photography: it seems weird to think it, let alone say it, but the use of the anamorphic frame, and especially the ways in which the director and cinematographer exploit negative space, create a distinct sense of "off"-ness, a world that doesn't look right and is full of potential danger that the characters don't remotely understand. We do, of course: we've seen the title, and the film certainly assume that we've seen the '87 film; and thankfully, Antal and the writers Alex Litvak & Michael Finch (the first produced project for both of them) don't try to convince us that we haven't. Indeed, they count on it. Several times throughout, the filmmakers create tension out of a moment primarily by counting on our familiarity with a similar moment in Predator, and letting the audience's anticipation get ahead of the movie: it's a lazy trick, but also a reasonably effective one.

At any rate, the characters eventually stumble upon the predators' hunting camp, finding there a tied-up predator (Derek Mears) - the story of why he is tied up is part of the bullshit mythology that drags the middle part down a bit - and after running a bit through several homages to the first movie, they end up finding a crazy human named Noland (Laurence Fishburne), who has survived on the planet for ten hunting seasons, and has learned all kinds of tricks and facts about the predators, though not without going a touch soft. Fishburne gives what is easily the film's best performance: he understands exactly how much camp is just enough camp, and isn't afraid to court silliness when surrounded by a cast (especially Brody, who adopts an unconvincing snarl for most of the role) who seem to be under the misapprehension that "trapped on a jungle planet with 7-foot killer aliens" is a scenario that calls for dramatic intensity.

But, much as I like Fishburne, I do not like the sequence in which he finds himself: an unnecessary and crippling "slow the action all the way down" stretch that plops narrative detail upon narrative detail like a kid playing with oatmeal. Predators never recovers from this point: though a few individual moments work terrifically well, there's never again a sense of urgency the way there was before we knew where the predators were; the climactic sequence in particular is much too, well, there's no word for it but corny: and though good taste forbids me from giving away the details, it involves an easily-predicted contrivance involving a false death, a lopsided twist that you can see in the abstract, if not in the details, from pretty much the first ten minutes, and some predator-on-predator action that represents the first time that a relatively snug and tight movie lapses into really shamefully erratic editing. Really, take out the last 15 minutes and Predators improves immeasurably; do that, while also shortening all of the character and plot scenes, and it grazes up against Predator> itself.

As it stands, though, it's just a better action movie than not, with some suitably horrifying imagery courtesy of a director whose skill with horror imagery is stubbornly unappreciated, six years after he made the outstanding and largely forgotten (in America, anyway) Kontroll. By the end, Predators is surely better than it ought to be, and just as good as it needs to be, but it isn't as good as you probably want it to be, and that's ultimately the most important part.

Reviews in this series
Predator (McTiernan, 1987)
Alien vs. Predator (Anderson, 2004)
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (The Brothers Strause, 2007)
Predators (Antal, 2010)
The Predator (Black, 2018)

Other films in this series, yet to be reviewed
Predator 2 (Hopkins, 1990)