A couple of months away and the Smackdown arena feels largely unchanged: More romantic vampire / werewolf romps, something else with Jonah Hill, another “Iron Man.” And what’s this? A remake – more or less – of another Hollywood staple: the Human -vs- Alien Smackdown.
That territory produced gold with “Predator” in 1987. It featured one really dandy visual effect that counterbalanced a ludicrous storyline and unconvincing acting to create an enduring movie character. The follow-ups, “Predator 2” and a pair of “Alien -vs- Predator” flicks, could not kill the franchise although they tried.
Audiences love their vengeful alien — but can it withstand another movie portrayal? The newest version — “Predators” — carves out a variation on a familiar theme. This movie is neither remake nor sequel — call it a requel that borrows many elements from the original, and nearly nothing from the subsequent movies or comics.
So, here’s the outline of our ‘Smack: Does “Predators” finally bury the franchise, or do what the sequels could not, namely: improve the original material? Weapons on full stun.
Any way you slice it, the humans are in for it. In “Predators” they literally fall out of the sky under conditions that tell them they’re not in Kansas anymore. Or on Earth. They are eight: misfits, terrorists, soldiers of fortune and one oddball, a doctor. Led by Royce (Adrien Brody) they want to go home. Before long they realize they’re being hunted by unseen forces. What they can see is not encouraging: tusked creatures are herding them the way hunting dogs flush out the quail at a bird hunt. One by one, the Predators kill most the humans. Not surprising: The hunters can mask their visibility and see the infra-red heat images thrown off by the hunted.
They encounter a man who survived an earlier hunt. He provides survival skills to this shrinking group of human prey. What follows is a fight against long odds, superior firepower and betrayal. You can guess who wins. Nimrod Antal directed a script by Alex Litvak and Michael Finch.
The Defending Champion
“Predator” sets the table, but a little differently. Dutch Schaefer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a military vet called to the border of Guatemala to retrieve a kidnapped government official. His crew wipes out the rebels, but feels the (mostly) unseen hand of a space creature honing its hunting skills on them. The alien cloaks its visibility (just as well: it has a face like a lobster with dreadlocks) and can see the infra-red images of its prey in the dark. The humans have Arnold. He and the creature have a life and death jungle Smackdown with thermonuclear results. John McTiernan directed his first major feature from a screenplay by Jim Thomas and John Thomas.
“Predator” found a worldwide audience ($98 million box office) despite being a little deliberate on the action. Oh sure, we see the creature’s grisly handiwork and infra-red point of view shots..but no extended image of the alien for about 42 minutes. The storyline and dialogue do not improve watching it 23 years later. It’s a popular film colony story that “Predator” was originally written as a goof, the sort of movie Sly Stallone would make after Rocky outboxed every opponent on earth. As it is, “Predator” got Arnold Schwarzenegger and a footnote in American politics. Besides Arnold, the film features another future governor (Jesse Ventura/ Minnesota) as well as a would-be governor (Sonny Landham/Kentucky). Ventura has the best line in the movie: “I ain’t got time to bleed.” The rest of the acting hovers below that level. The movie benefits from a fine score by Alan Silvestri. The Predator (with Kevin Peter Hall in a bulky body suit) is genuinely scary and has the most interesting action.
By contrast, “Predators” spreads the interest around. As a group, the cast outperforms their counterparts in the earlier movie. Adrien Brody (bulked up for the role) as the team leader easily shows depth and dramatic complexity that is beyond Arnold. The same is true of every member of this kidnapped and ill-fated cast. Alice Braga, Topher Grace and Laurence Fishburne especially stand out. The all have something interesting to do. Especially since it involves steering clear of the creatures and different predators inhabiting this outer space game preserve.
The pace and filmmaking separate the films. “Predators” reflects the verve of producer Robert Rodriguez, whose early, long-abandoned version of the story inspired this screenplay. Rodriguez knows how to stage action sequences (“Desperado,” “From Dusk till Dusk,” “Sin City”) and his influence on director Antal shows here. The action is briskly staged and plays well against John Debney’s musical score.
What this film lacks is the moral high ground. Alice Braga’s character is the only one with undisputed goodwill, although Royce (Brody) comes around. Nearly all are willing to kill fellow team members if that saves their skin. That notion does not win out, but the movie takes awhile getting there. Even escapist entertainment needs a moral compass.
Does all this lead us to a clear winner? You bet.
I won’t throw away my copy of “Predator” because it remains a fine film that uses that “cloaking” effect to maximum effect. The action slowly builds toward an entertaining if unbelievable conclusion.
Which is only one of its debits. “Predator” has a truly remarkable cast — but the acting level is not high. Audiences will always put that aside to love this movie.
The problem for “Predator” is that it is a step slow. “Predators” is better staged, better acted and effectively reworks the basic elements in a familiar story. This version remakes the franchise, and if you like this sort of film, our winner, “Predators” is structured to serve up better sequels than the ones that followed the original.