It’s been just over 31 years since the original Predator was unleashed on domestic screens, becoming a box-office hit and, despite some initial critical grumbling, an action film classic. Part of what made the Schwarzenegger starrer work was director John McTiernan’s insistence on the old Val Lewton rule that the less you see of the monster, the better. For the first half of the movie, the characters and the audience had no idea what was out there picking off a squad of soldiers one by one — just that it was a total badass with camouflage capabilities and a nice collection of human skulls. Only in the penultimate scene did we finally get a look at the predator’s face, and oh what a face it was.
Taking up the reins of the franchise after a few underwhelming sequels and an even more problematic handful of tie-ins with the Alien movies, writer-director Shane Black strays rather far from the original film — in which he co-starred as a bifocaled trooper who literally gets turned inside out — but he also takes things in a fun direction. Beyond adding a definite article to the title, Black applies a more-is-more approach to the material, revealing the extraterrestrial hunter in the very first sequence, then doubling down on the number of predators and corpses we see on screen, introducing a bigger, badder species and even a pair of predator pitbulls.
It’s a totally gonzo method that mostly pays off because of all the snappy dialogue, gross-out gags and tongue-in-cheek camaraderie of the cast, with Boyd Holbrook proving to be a capable lead and Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane and Olivia Munn providing worthy, and often funny, accomplices. Whether fans and newbies will fully embrace this reboot when it hits theaters next week is hard to say (a recent contoversy involving a castmember who was a registered sex offender may not help matters), but it certainly played well enough as the Midnight Madness opener in Toronto, where the audience seemed to lap up every last liter of blood.
Using humor and gore as his lethal weapons, Black — who co-wrote the screenplay with veteran genre junkie Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps) — kicks his film off like the first movie as an alien spaceship crashes in the middle of the jungle, right when a U.S. military sniper, McKenna (Holbrook), is trying to take out a gang of narcos. While the predator seems to have disappeared, McKenna manages to walk away with some of its state-of-the-art alien technology, which he ships off to his boy-genius son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), back home in the States.
Soon enough, McKenna is apprehended and brought in for questioning, where he discovers that the predator who crash-landed has been sedated in a government lab. A biologist (Munn) then shows up on the scene to provide her expertise, just as McKenna is about to be shipped off to prison with a band of Section 8 outlaws nicknamed “The Loonies” (played by Rhodes, Key, Jane, Alfie Allen and Augusto Aguilera). The gang provides plenty of comic relief during their introductory sequence, until the predator eventually wakes up and starts doing damage, only to be taken out by another, bigger and more sadistic predator.
“It’s some kind of interstellar cops and robbers,” is how one character tries to explain what the hell is happening, but narrative logic doesn’t really matter as long as Black keeps on upping the body count — there seem to be more decapitations in this movie than in the entire franchise combined — while dishing out one joke after another, the majority of which stick their landings. And while the other Predator films tried to remain dark and tense, tossing in a decent one-liner here or there, Black’s movie is so cleverly over-the-top that it’s easy and pleasurable enough to watch, though never exactly scary or suspenseful.
If things tend to get carried away during a loud and rowdy finale, there’s still one hilarious late bit involving Key and Jane’s characters, while a closing nugget sets up the possibility for a sequel. Whether the world actually needs one, and whether this reboot was necessary at all, is probably a question worth raising, but at least Black’s take on it is to never take it too seriously while keeping us duly entertained.
Tech contributions are solid in all departments, particularly the designs for the brand new predator-on-steroids who leaves so many mutilated bodies in his wake. A playful score by Henry Jackman (X-Men: First Class) maintains the tone while making a few nods to the original.
Production companies: Twentieth Century Fox, Davis Entertainment
Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera
Director: Shane Black
Screenwriters: Fred Dekker, Shane Black, based on characters created by Jim Thomas, John Thomas
Producers: John Davis, Lawrence Gordon
Executive producers: Bill Bannerman, Ira Napoliello
Director of photography: Larry Fong
Production designer: Martin Whist
Costume designer: Tish Monaghan
Editors: Harry B. Miller III, Billy Weber
Casting director: Sarah Halley Finn
Composer: Henry Jackman
Visual effects supervisor: Jonathan Rothbart
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
Rated R, 107 minutes