Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Zaki's Review: Predators

In attempting to make a qualitative assessment of producer Robert Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal's franchise reboot Predators, it's helpful perhaps to take a brief look back at its lineage.

I've often said that the true measure of quality for any movie property is the amount of goodwill its first entry can retain in the face of increasingly mediocre follow-ups. And by that standard, Predator has fared exceedingly well.  While greeted with mixed notices critically upon its release in 1987, audiences overwhelmingly embraced the film, and it's since grown into a treasured artifact for the folks that came of age in the ensuing twenty-three years, marking lines like "If it bleeds, we can kill it," with cultural currency for an entire generation.

Directed by John McTiernan (who also helmed Die Hard the following year, making for one of the most effective one-two punches in the history of testosterone cinema), Predator refracted the premise of Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" through a sci-fi prism and ended up with a marketer's dream by pitting indestructible Arnold Schwarzenegger against an alien big game hunter in the jungles of South America.  As author John Brosnan said in his book The Primal Screen, the most surprising thing about Predator is that no one had done it before.

When it was sequelized three years later with Predator 2, the Amazon was switched out for downtown LA, Stephen Hopkins stepped in for McTiernan, and Danny Glover took over for Ah-nuld, and the public reacted with apathy (though I liked it all the same).  But still the brand continued on.  Thanks to Dark Horse's continuing line of Predator-themed comic books (including a series of cross-pollinations with other licenses), thanks to a toyline from Kenner, and thanks to the continued affection for the original, Predator managed to maintain pop culture ubiquity through the '90s and into the aughts.

Even the desperate cash-grab by 20th Century Fox (a studio legendary for its cash-grabbery) pitting its famed space monsters against each other in two increasingly lousy Alien vs. Predator flicks (2004 and 2007), while potentially damaging the viability of both brands, diminished neither the singular power of that first one, nor the studio's desire to recapture it.  And thus, after a detour of nearly a quarter-century, we find ourselves back in the jungle primeval with Predators, Rodriguez and Antal's bid to hearken back to what made the original such a meat-and-potatoes masterpiece while (hopefully) lending the series enough juice to pump out a few more entries.

Taking the "Most Dangerous Game" premise and augmenting it (as any good sequel should), Predators has the unlikely choice of Adrien Brody filling the Schwarzenegger role as our protagonist, a bad ass black ops type who, along with various other ne'er-do-wells (Danny Trejo as a Mexican cartel enforcer, Walton Goggins as an escaped con, etc.), starts things out being airdropped into an alien jungle that's actually a game preserve...where they're the game (we know this because at one point Brody says, "This is a game preserve...and we're the game.").

That's enough of a synopsis to get a sense of the plot without giving away any of the (very few) surprises, so we may as well discuss the film itself.  Does it accomplish the twin goals laid out before it?  Partially yes, and partially no.  Though there are ample nods to the original -- most oblique, one explicit -- sprinkled throughout (including John Debney's score, which is practically a wall-to-wall cover of Alan Silvestri's music from the first and second movies) the primal power of McTiernan's visceral you-are-there style, not to mention the genuine chill as we slowly grasp what our leads are up against, is pretty tough to match.  

Thus we're stricken with a problem that afflicts most sequels of this type.  There's a repetition of tropes that's unavoidable, but which, after so many years and so many movies, can't help but put us way ahead of the characters and distance us from them in the process. Still, while there isn't much reinvention of the wheel in the script by Alex Litvak and Michael Finch (from a story Rodriguez himself dreamt up in the '90s), there probably doesn't need to be, either.  The filmmakers' primary focus is instead on reconnecting us with those visual and thematic touchstones we remember (which is probably why the image up-top -- not included in the final cut -- is so effective).

You get a sense fairly early on which characters will and likely won't make it to the final reel, and the plot doesn't do much to curveball us, so it's basically about seeing which predictions pan out, and in which order.  The movie's ace in the hole is Brody, who makes an effective transition here into a full-blown action star, having traded in his Oscar cred for a set of abs you can do laundry on.  What the filmmakers understood early on is that Big Arnold is just as much a key to the first film's continued appeal as the titular creature, and tossing another token muscleman against it would have been a disservice to both Arnold's Predator and this one. 

Having thus established the '87 Predator as setting a high-water mark that will likely remain untouched for time immemorial, and having revised our expectations necessarily downwards, we can judge Predators not in light of the film that started the line, but those that followed in its wake.  From that perspective, it comfortably sits just ahead of the second, and miles ahead of the two Alien crossovers.  More importantly, and something I haven't felt about this franchise in a long time, if the filmmakers want us to revisit this world a few years hence, I'm game. B-

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