1987's Predator is an ideally stripped-down version of itself: a 1980s movie about a bunch of muscled meatheads typical of that decade's action pictures encountering the one thing in this world (or rather, out of it) that's tough enough to tear through them like wet toilet paper. It reduces both the ethos of Hollywood action movies of the '80s and Hollywood sci-fi movies of the same era to their most essential, primal essences: A) travel to the South American jungle and die very messily B) at the hands of a gloriously-designed alien. It is exceedingly simple, almost certainly the major studio sci-fi film of that decade least concerned with the bloat that can so readily attach itself to sci-fi; it really just wants that nasty lizard-ish killer, and other than that, genre can go sod itself.

And writer-director Shane Black (who appeared in Predator as an actor) is kind of an ideal version of himself, too. In his slender but prominent career (10 feature screenplays in 31 years, four of which he directed himself in slightly less than half of that time), he has honed an exceptionally clear voice, one dedicated to a very particular breed of casual action driven by banter, characters hanging out, and a dedication to not taking much of anything very seriously. He makes shaggy movies that almost proudly mock the idea that they add up to much or have any real depth to them - even in his biggest film by far, the Marvel Studios production Iron Man 3, he really can't be bothered to pretend that he's taking stuff seriously. I'm not a terribly huge fan of that film's twist involving its apparent main villain, but you can't deny that it's entirely characteristic of the wry shrug with which Black has always written his stories.

So the mystery is: how does that writer take a whack at that franchise, and come up with something as god-almighty convoluted and puffy as The Predator, the third or fifth sequel to that gorgeously streamlined original, depending on how you're counting, and the first one to decide that what we really need here was some amped-up mythology? This is not The Predator's only sin, arguably not even its worst, but it's easily the one that pissed me off the most. The film starts off trimly enough, evoking the 1987 film in its depiction of an alien spacecraft crash-landing on Earth, where the titular creature (Brian A. Prince) quickly disposes of a team of U.S. Army Rangers doing some assassination work in Mexico, under the command of Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook). McKenna is is the only survivor, mostly out of sheer dumb luck that he stumbled across the specific piece of errant Predator weaponry with a "kill all of your enemies in one shot" function. It's gory as hell, which is a big part of what one comes to a Predator picture for, it makes good use of the series tropes of a vaguely humanoid field of visual distortion serving to create a sense of tension around the creature's location, and it boasts the film's one truly exemplary visual, as a dead Ranger's blood drips onto the Predator's invisible body, revealing its position.

I will not at all call this the last good part of the film, though it is the best part, and it does feel awfully lonely for being generally satisfying on any level. The film's plot is weirdly full: McKenna gets dropped in with a crew of dangerously mentally unbalanced military men, calling themselves "The Loonies" - not a one of them has any personality trait besides their diagnosis, and while they are inordinately colorful, they're also indistinguishable for the most part, so I'll only deal with them by pointing out that Keegan-Michael Key plays the one who's the easiest to keep track of, in part because he's probably the most famous; Trevante Rhodes plays the only one who is even slightly interesting as a human and he gives the film not merely its best performance, but really the only one that's actively good; and Thomas Jane is in there. There's also a disgruntled scientist, Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), whose specific job and area of specialisation are both unclear; she appears to be one of those "if it involves biology in any way whatsoever, I'm one of the world's leading experts" type of movie scientists. Also, McKenna's resentful, more-or-less abandoned wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski) has been single-handedly raising their movie-autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), whose particular position on the spectrum is the one that allows you to flawlessly manipulate extraterrestrial technology after poking it for 30 seconds. And Sterling K. Brown shows up as a generic nasty military bureaucratic bad guy, a role that would not tax any halfway decent actor, but Brown does manage to have a decent amount of fun with it.

We're a far cry from the tightly controlled casts of relatively grounded characters in all previous Predator movies, and I really haven't even gotten to the plot itself, since basically the first half is all set-up, so actually explaining the conflict would constitute a spoiler. Allow me to say but two things. One is that "our unstoppable killbeast movie monster was somehow insufficiently threatening, so we've made one twice as big" has never once been the right decision. The other is that I don't think we needed to know anything about Predator culture at all, really, and if we did have to learn about Predator culture, having that culture be a shitty, scientifically daft sci-fi cliché that feels mothballed from the early 1990s was definitely not the way to go.

In short: the plot is a sprawling mess, not helped by some really awful narrative construction and scene transitions that reveal like a glowing neon sign how much this film was shuffled around and reshot and generally banged about in post-production. As a story, really the only thing I can say that's positive is that there are several places where the film's scenario resembles Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, but much less abject in the execution, so that's a nice improvement. Also that Tremblay's character, though rather horribly incorporated into the whole, is a distinctly Blackian touch in a film that finds the screenwriter forgetting everything he has ever known about assembling a screenplay (or crafting dialogue: the humor is extremely hit-or-miss, but other than some solid "your mom" jokes, not even the hits really remind me of Black's characteristic voice).

All that being said: the shitty parts of The Predator are shitty indeed, but there are good parts. And they are, I confess, pretty damn good. One comes to a film in this franchise for its extremes of violence, I have suggested, and at least on that front, The Predator delivers a great deal. There's never anything quite as excessive in its Grand Guignol trashiness as the opening sequence, but mostly, when the film turns away from its tedious plot to focus on action setpieces, they are good ones. The Predator's escape from the military lab where it is being studied is a pretty perfect chain of violent beats within a set well-designed to keep the order and nature of those beats a bit surprising; the first part of the extended climax, in a forest at night (the second part is during the day, directly homages the climax of the first film in some ways, and for my tastes relies too much on overly shiny CGI), captures a bit of the haunted house vibe that occasionally drifts into these movies, at times interrupting its atmosphere with slashes of light accompanied by jets of blood. As a vessel for what the ratings board folks call "strong bloody violence", I don't suppose that I could say anything against the film at all, really, and with both Alien vs. Predator and AVP:R looming silently in the rear-view mirror, I'm not prepared to take that for granted. The problem is that The Predator is the vessel for quite a lot of other stuff as well, and all of it kind of sucks.

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)