The Predator is a homecoming for Shane Black, and perhaps that’s its original sin. The writer-director had a small role in the original Predator way back in 1987, playing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s squad-mate Hawkins. The character primarily served as comic relief, delivering intentionally inept jokes to his unimpressed compatriots (e.g. “The other day, I went up to my girlfriend, I said, ‘Y’know, I’d like a little pussy.’ She said, ‘Me too, mine’s as big as a house!’”). Aside from Hawkins, none of the players in Predator are particularly gag-oriented, nor should they be. The film is a classic because it’s a taut, knuckle-whitening exercise in wilderness-based survival horror. The humor works because it comes in small doses.
Alas and alack, would-be franchise restarter The Predator attempts to turn virtually everyone into a Hawkins. You wouldn’t know it from any of the promotional material, of course. The trailers emphasize the badassery of the titular extraterrestrial and its even-scarier “Ultimate Predator” cousin. “THE HUNT HAS EVOLVED” declare the posters, alongside a heat-mapped image of the Predator. You go in expecting, at most, a few one-liners. But what you find is a movie that hits you with a seemingly endless barrage of jokes, gags, and bits that all feel hopelessly out of place within the context of the overall plot and tone. Here is a movie that thinks it’s an action-comedy and couldn’t be more wrong about that assertion.
Black, in his capacity as director and co-writer alongside Fred Dekker, begins his attempt at comedic thrills with the very first pieces of dialogue. Sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is on stakeout during a covert op to take out members of a drug cartel. Over the radio, he hears his teammates betting on whether the gangsters will kill a hostage. Quinn asks them whether they’re really betting on such a thing. “Yeah, that’s the idea,” one replies while the other says something similar in cross talk. Quinn replies, “Just checking. Deal me in for 20.” The pacing and delivery clearly convey that we’re supposed to laugh at the exchange, but it doesn’t come close to landing. I’ve seen the film’s first half twice (long story) and, both times, the audience sort of let out a vestigial trace of a laugh, largely because it just sorta seems like one is supposed to do so.
The people in each theater didn’t know how good they had it by that point. From there on out, the film is a cavalcade of dumb and/or bad jokes. A mailman appears at the home of Quinn’s estranged wife (at least I think the two of them are estranged — the status of their marriage is one of the many half-explained aspects of the movie) and his son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), answers the door. The mailman notices that some of the mail is from the Department of Defense and Rory says, “He kills people,” pauses, then concludes, “so you can be a mailman.” As is true of so many of the jokes I’m going to describe, you sort of have to trust me that this is intended as a laugh line. The timing and the mailman’s facial response convey that we’re expected to giggle, but all that leaves your body is a little air-whoosh acknowledgment that you understand your instructions, even though you aren’t following them.
The McKenna family, however, are not the main offenders when it comes to the bad jokes of The Predator. That title goes to the Loonies, a coterie of mentally unstable soldiers whom Quinn befriends after he’s locked away in the wake of a Predator encounter. Most of their gags come in the form of exchanges between Tourette’s-addled hardass Baxley (Thomas Jane) and PTSD-suffering jokester Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key). “Why do you think people make war?” Baxley asks at one point before his disorder interrupts his attempt at an answer: “Because we — fuck! Cock! Cock!” Coyle cackles and replies, “Because we fuck cock cock? That’s why?” Ha … ha? Fear not, the other Loonies have their own bits of comedic business. To wit: One is named Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), and when Quinn asks what his real name is, he reveals that it’s “Gaylord.” Yes, there is a joke in the year of our lord 2018 about how the name “Gaylord” has the word “gay” in it.
The Loonies are like pre-wokeness grade-schoolers who never shut up. “How do you circumcise a homeless man? Kick your mother in the chin!” Coyle yells at Baxley at one point. A few minutes later, he follows that up with, “If your mom’s vagina were a video game, it’d be rated ‘E for Everyone’!” Great work. Another Loony named Nettles (Augusto Aguilera) is prone to bits of dim-witted bluntness, as when he hears Quinn’s maybe-estranged wife, Emily (Yvonne Strahovski), give a pep talk and responds, “I didn’t like your speech. It didn’t really inspire me.” Thankfully, Alfie Allen’s Lynch, the final Loony, doesn’t really bother with humor — his problem is that his character has no discernible reason to be in the film.
And poor Olivia Munn. Not only does she have to suffer through being isolated and chastised for her attempts to talk about Black’s regrettable choice to cast a registered sex offender in a now-cut role, she also has to participate in more than her fair share of onscreen clunkers. She plays an evolutionary biologist assigned to analyze the Predator, but when she’s not delivering science babble, she’s putting up with the stupidity of the Loonies. There’s an extended and deeply uncomfortable bit where Baxley accidentally blurts, “Eat your pussy!” at her and she tries to get him to admit he said it while he and the other Loonies gaslight her (“I said, ‘Sheesh, you’re pushy’!”). There’s a bit of would-be slapstick where Quinn tells her he’ll catch her when she’s about to jump off a bus, then walks away just as she falls. She gets the film’s one decently funny line, when she tells government operative Traeger (Sterling K. Brown) that calling the Predator a “predator” is a misnomer because hunting isn’t the same as predating: “What you’re describing is more like a bass fisherman.” But even there, the joke is undercut by a superfluous punch line to the punch line in which Traeger says, “Well, we took a vote, and ‘Predator’ is cooler. Fuck yeah.”
I could go on and on. To make matters worse, the jokes aren’t evenly spaced out. There will be scenes with a dense mess of them crammed into a corner, followed by long stretches where nothing jokey can be found, thus taking any potential comic rhythm and throwing it in the dustbin. All of the comedic moments just feel eminently off, and there’s a reason why: The concept behind The Predator isn’t inherently funny enough to naturally give birth to jokes, nor is it inherently serious enough to have jokes be funny by their unexpectedness. The original Predator understood what it was: a suspense thriller that needed to play it straight because too many laugh lines would make you realize how silly any ridiculously gory movie about a crab-faced alien is. In the wake of Predator 2, Alien Vs. Predator, Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem, and Predators, the botched humor of The Predator is yet another reminder that the strange alchemy of the progenitor probably can’t be replicated. Hawkins is spinning in his jungle grave.