A B-movie with brains, the fifth film featuring our freakily mandibled friends is by far the best. This is a pleasant surprise, though hardly a shock, given that Quentin Tarantino cohort Robert Rodriguez is behind it.
A while back, the Austin filmmaker was commissioned to write a screenplay in an effort to jump-start the franchise, but the picture never got made. Now, acting in the role of producer, he’s hired writers Alex Litvak and Michael Finch to tweak his script and action maestro Nimrod (Kontroll) Antal to direct. The result is a shot of deliriously dumb summer fun. And I mean that in the most complimentary way.
How many sci-fi action sequels star an Oscar winner? Adrien Brody is cast against type in what is essentially the part Arnold Schwarzenegger played in the 1987 original, and you’ve got to admit that in itself is pretty trippy. Brody is some sort of badass black-ops mercenary who, as the movie opens, awakes to find himself in midair plummeting toward a vast jungle. He has no clue how he came to be there, where he got the parachute or why he’s armed to the teeth.
Once on the ground, he discovers he’s not the only badass to have dropped in without any memory of making travel plans. Equally baffled and, for the most part, just as heavily armed are a Mexican cartel hitman, an African death-squad member, an American serial killer, a Japanese yakuza, a Chechen thug and an Israeli markswoman played by Alice Braga. Topher Grace is the only non-badass. He’s a doctor and, though his background is never detailed, by the logic of the film I think we can assume he is a very, very bad one.
Just as Spielberg built suspense by not introducing the shark until well into Jaws, so Antal devotes the movie’s first half-hour to establishing the group’s dynamic and allowing them time to discern the nature of their dilemma. Brody’s the alpha male; Grace is not to be trusted; Braga is steely, competent and all business, but you never doubt for a second she’ll eventually hook up with you-know-who; and the rest are just there for the body count.
Soon enough, they realize they’re not on Earth but on a planet light-years away. And that’s not the worst of it. The real problem is that the planet is one big game preserve, and they’re the game.
Though there are only a handful of the alien hunters (it’s evidently a very exclusive facility), they have no trouble working their way through their human prey. The ability to become invisible tends to provide a significant advantage in this type of situation. Much dark humor is interspersed with the mayhem and gore, rest assured, and this was a wise move. Without good writers, these creatures can prove giant bores, as the last two sequels made clear. POV thermal imaging, when you get right down to it, isn’t a lot more exciting than poor cable reception.
But Predators nimbly shifts between expertly staged action sequences and comic relief. I loved, for example, the warped scene in which Walton Goggins as the serial killer wistfully opines that, if he ever makes it home, he’s going to do a shitload of coke and go on a raping spree.
Except for a gabby stretch in the middle, when Laurence Fishburne pops up as a Brando-Kurtz headcase who’s been hiding in the jungle too long, the director keeps things moving, and the writers keep things interesting. We never do find out who handpicked the hunted and why they had to be badasses, but something tells me that’s not going to keep anybody up at night. This is pure popcorn movie-making, and sometimes — especially in the summer — nothing hits the spot half as well.