The newest sequel to Predator, The Predator — the definite article helps, unlike David Gordon Green’s confusingly named sequel to Halloween, Halloween — is Shane Black’s enthusiastic attempt to relaunch this particular series with a bit more family-friendly color and context. That’s not hard, given that John McTiernan’s 1987 original was cold, Spartan, and devoid of much beyond the premise of a huge, dreadlocked extraterrestrial hunting a bunch of muscular Special Forces operatives led by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch in the jungles of Central America. (The alien seemed a lot less outlandish than the idea of Schwarzenegger playing someone nicknamed “Dutch.”)
By “family friendly,” I don’t mean it’s a PG-13 (though good luck keeping your 10-year-old boy from seeing it) — it still has plenty of splatter and eviscerations. I mean it features a little-kid genius (Jacob Tremblay, of Room), a bunch of lovably nutty reject soldiers prepared to die to save our planet, and a Johns Hopkins biochemistry professor (Olivia Munn) able to leap off bridges onto barreling buses while firing automatic weapons. It has a domesticated predator pooch. There’s something for Dad, Mom, and Sis, as well as fans of zesty B sci-fi pictures like Battle Beyond the Stars, which was The Magnificent Seven in space.
It’s too bad there’s more enthusiasm than skill in how Black sets The Predator up. He opens with a spaceship either fighting or having rough sex with a larger spaceship and then fleeing or being blown into a black hole or rift — or maybe just a break into the clouds — and careening to Earth, where its Predator inhabitant is either killed or badly wounded or has knocked over a large pitcher of kale-celery-cucumber juice. The crash stops a Special Forces assassin, Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), mid-assassination. Maybe as payback he steals the Predator’s giant weaponized helmet and does what anyone else would do: He mails it home to his little kid (Tremblay). For safekeeping. Or something. The kid, Rory, snaps the thing on, it promptly starts emitting signals, and suddenly Predators, spaceships, and government planes are punching in new coordinates for Smalltown, U.S.A.
The movie is great fun when the whole galaxy converges on that kid. First there’s the Predator; then there’s a much bigger, hybridized (long story) Predator; and then there’s a busload of institutionalized vets led by Quinn, among them characters played by Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes (with a cigar), Thomas Jane, Augusto Aguilera, Keegan Michael Key, and Munn’s Casey Bracket. (The inmates’ bus is the one she leaps off a bridge onto while firing an automatic weapon.) The most disconcerting aspect of The Predator is that the U.S. government — led here by Sterling K. Brown with the weaponized name “Traeger” — wants Quinn, Rory, Casey, and the rest of the Predator-fighters liquidated on the grounds of national security. This is something to remember if you think about heading off to see what’s going on at New Mexico’s Sunspot Observatory, which was recently — mysteriously — closed due to “security issues.” (Perhaps aliens are finally coming to help us with our wee climate-change problem.)
The U.S. government’s attempts on our heroes’ lives is so disconcerting because Tremblay’s scenes in The Predator evoke Spielberg’s sci-fi fantasies, and no one tried to take out little Elliot. At the movie’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, co-writer Fred Decker said that he and Shane Black wanted to make a film that recalled early Spielberg in addition to Predator and The Dirty Dozen. (He could easily have thrown in the 1987 Monster Squad, which he wrote with Black.) They’ve succeeded to a degree, although there’s no way that Predator and E.T. could ever comfortably coexist. The delicate mood of the latter would be wrecked by exploding viscera.
Not that you always know whose (or what’s) viscera is exploding. Black doesn’t seem to have given his editor enough to work with — some of the fights are shot from angles that are a tad oblique. And I never quite understood what Quinn kept of the Predator’s weaponry, seeing as how he goes in and out of invisibility. But The Predator throws enough at you to keep you distracted from seeing all the marks it’s not quite hitting. Rhodes’s pop-top vet is amusing and scary in equal measure, and little Jake Tremblay is as good as you’d hope, especially when his Rory mouths off to the Machiavellian Traeger on the subject of reverse psychology. One of the film’s traumatized ex-soldiers has Tourette’s, which is always good to have when a scene hits a dead patch. He says the damnedestfuckingshitbitchfucking things.
Probably you also want to know about what The Predator doesn’t have, having read that the studio quickly lopped off a scene featuring another sort of predator, an actor friend of Black’s convicted of soliciting sex online from a 14-year-old girl. It was Munn who blew the whistle, a particularly selfless act given that (according to a colleague who saw an early screening) it was her first scene in the movie and set up her character beautifully. She told interviewers that no one in the cast except Tremblay would talk to her — which sent them all frantically scrambling to show their support. I’d like to think the big, Rasta-looking Predator said, “Good going, Munn.”