Brutal and funny, ‘The Predator’ reboots a dying franchise with panache

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
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The films populated with the character known as The Predator must be the least memorable of movie franchises. The first film, 1987’s Predator, was a modest hit for Arnold Schwazenegger a year before he really established himself as a major movie star (it figured outside the top 10 grossers for the year; Dirty Dancing made more money). Where Predator was a cat-and-mouse with commandos thriller, the first sequel, Predators 2 (released in 1990 but set a decade later), was more an urban allegory for street violence. It grossed half the original, and seemed to kill the series… except for a coda at the end that tied its story to that of the Alien universe. More than a decade later, two Alien v. Predator films were exceptionally cheesy lo-fi actioners; a third out-right sequel, 2010’s Predators (creative naming, huh?), was more like a “most dangerous game” hunt film. I saw it, but I can’t remember much about it. Every film has a completely different cast. They feel disposable. So who needs a sixth?

Turns out, we do.

Need? Well, maybe not. But in the same way Mission: Impossible really hit its stride this summer with its sixth installment, The Predator seems to reconceive the premise of the original in an exciting and surprisingly funny way.

It starts, again, in the jungles of Latin America. A sniper name McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is about to execute a drug kingpin when a predator ship crashes. McKenna takes his helmet and gauntlet as insurance to prove aliens are among us, and mails them back home to the U.S. before the military attache (Sterling K. Brown) captures him. Meanwhile, the predator is taken to a lab where the government has been, a la The X Files, planning a defense to the increasing attacks by the creatures on planet earth. What do they want with us? And who is that 11-foot predator tracking down the one in U.S. custody?

Add to all of this a bus full of unhinged veterans nicknamed The Loonies (led by Trevante Rhodes), a xenobiologist (Olivia Munn) brought in to figure out the DNA of the predator and McKenna’s son with Asperger’s (Jacob Tremblay) and you’re staring at a densely-packed plot that at first feels unwieldy and overly complicated… until it starts to sort of come together.

The director and co-screenwriter, Shane Black, has a spotty record with some big successes as a writer (Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and some disasters (Last Action Hero, Long Kiss Goodnight; Iron Man 3, which he also directed, stands as one of the worst films in the MCU). He strikes an ideal balance of elements here. It’s a hard R rating — some of the attacks, while not gruesome, are exceedingly brutal and visceral. But there’s also tons of humor that Black lets play out leisurely and organically without impeding the pacing. The beats come just as you need to catch your breath. And there’s enough heart to actually make you care (not just for the boy, played skillfully and without tics by Tremblay, but also a bromantic love between Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Jane.) And Black lets us see the predator — the gimmick of most of the films has been his ability to cloak and seem almost invisible, but that’s a minor consideration this time out. It lends weight and a threat beyond merely the fear of being picked off by an unseen hunter. The stakes feel more personal.

There’s also more wit than you’d expect. An attack inside a schoolhouse ups the ante for the meaning of “school shooting,” and the decision to have the predator land in Mexico and wreak his havoc in the U.S. has to be seen for what it is: A sly jab at Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. Go ahead and build a wall … see what good it does to the real threat. █

Now playing in wide release.