The Predator, as The Predator continually reminds us, isn’t really a predator at all. This agile intergalactic menace, with supernatural camouflage abilities and a propensity for dismembering its victims, is not a hungry alien beast looking to feed. It’s patient and sadistic and lives for the pursuit — for the excitement of tracking prey, exploiting its weaknesses, and killing it. As Olivia Munn’s evolutionary biologist Dr. Casey Bracket notes, it’s actually like “a sports hunter or a bass fisherman.” The response from Sterling K. Brown’s cynical federal agent Will Traeger is swift: “Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler.”
That might give you an idea of the kind of movie The Predator is: clever in its proud and profound stupidity. All of that ruminating about the nature of its monster isn’t there to serve a deep thematic end; it’s there to set up a punchline, and a good one at that. The movie is lightning-witted, often for the dumbest ends. Which, when you think about it, is an ideal level for a pseudo-franchise that never aimed for the sincere slaughter of the Alien films or the cheap thrills of the average slasher picture.
This latest entry, directed and co-written by onetime wise-ass action screenplay wunderkind Shane Black (Iron Man 3, The Nice Guys), wears its self-aware humor as a talisman against the predictability of its plot and the gratuitousness of its carnage. Our hero is Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), a hypermacho Army sniper on mission in Mexico whose team of soldiers is wiped out by a Predator. Quinn swipes the creature’s armor and helmet and mails them back to himself in the States. When the package arrives at his suburban home, Quinn’s young autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) opens it and quickly figures out the Predator’s technology and its language. His efforts, in turn, call other Predators — they’ve been coming to Earth for decades, apparently — to the boy’s suburban home.
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Meanwhile, across town, the U.S. military tries to shuffle Quinn off to a mental institution where he won’t be able to tell anybody about what he saw. He finds himself on a bus filled with fellow soldier inmates, and of course they bond, and of course they all join forces to keep the Predators from abducting Rory, and of course they’re almost all picked off in a variety of creative ways over the course of a gratuitously violent, wisecrack-filled night. Along the way, Quinn’s ragtag team of lethal misfits also saves Munn’s biologist, as she flees from a lab that’s just been sliced and smashed to bloody bits by a Predator.
At least I think that’s what happens — the plot is so pro forma that the movie can’t even pretend to bother with it. Black can’t take The Predator’s militarism or its action-movie pyrotechnics or its emotional stakes seriously; what he does take seriously is his refusal to take any of these things seriously. And he accomplishes this by moving so fast we can barely keep up. This is a movie where the action briefly stops so the hero can take a dump, but also one where everything happens so quickly that your response isn’t to marvel at the nuttiness of what you just saw, but to ask yourself if you actually saw it.
That sort of irreverence is, of course, the authorial trademark of Black, whose penchant for witty dialogue and wink-wink action high jinks helped define a particular brand of jaunty popcorn flicks in the 1980s and ’90s. (Think Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight.) And there is an endearing throwback quality to this movie, not so much to previous Predator entries as to the ball-busting banter of classic cop-buddy flicks (a Shane Black specialty) and the aliens-invading-suburbia antics of Steven Spielberg and his many imitators. Such speedy, foulmouthed cheekiness in a big-studio sci-fi film cuts against the cumbersome world-building and slack-action theatrics of today’s mainstream blockbusters.
But all of that speed and wit also help to cover up something else: The movie is a mess. It was apparently the subject of significant reshoots and last-minute cuts, which shows — kind of. One major character’s death happens so quickly late in the film that it’s hard to tell if the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it demise is a joke or the unfortunate result of postproduction shenanigans. So the jokes and the ironic twists not only keep us laughing but also distract us from the rougher edges. And is that such a bad thing? There was probably a better, slicker, more coherent and serious Predator movie to be made from all of this material. But really, who the hell wants that?