Over the course of four films (and a couple of spin-offs), the Predator has been a 7-foot-tall reptilian alien with giant snapping mandibles instead of a mouth, camouflage technology, and boundless interest in hunting and killing humans as trophies. But Shane Black’s smart-aleck script for the latest edition in the action franchise, The Predator, has a bone to pick with the name. “That’s not a predator; that’s a sports hunter,” says Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), a scientist trying to figure out the pathology of these infrequent alien invaders. “Well, we took a vote. Predator is cooler,” replies the government agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown).
Black, who played a small role in the first Predator (1987), has never met a genre he didn’t want to deconstruct, as his arch work writing and directing films such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, and The Nice Guys shows. But in those films, he remembered to include real plotting, real characters, and real stakes (he also, upsettingly, repeatedly cast a sex offender in his films without alerting his studio or cast members, a decision he repeated on this film). Unlike his other directorial efforts, The Predator is a confused, sloppy mess of a film, overstuffed with zingy one-liners and lacking in coherence.
There are moments in the film that suggest Black is attempting a new angle on the story of the silent alien villain that’s stalked action heroes such as Arnold Schwarzenegger (Predator), Danny Glover (Predator 2), and … Adrien Brody (the serious misfire Predators). One of The Predator’s big heroes is Bracket, played by Munn with snarky charm rather than gung-ho brawn. Another is Rory McKenna (Jacob Tremblay), an 11-year-old autistic boy who stumbles upon an alien relic and accidentally summons a group of Predators to his suburban town. It’s certainly an unconventional setup for a super-violent, R-rated sci-fi thriller, but things quickly swerve toward the typical.
Rory’s dad, a crack sniper with the Army Rangers named Quinn (Boyd Holbrook), crosses paths with the Predators and is thrown into military jail lest he spill the beans about alien invaders. There, he hooks up with a crew of Army weirdos and washouts, including Trevante Rhodes as the mysterious soldier Nebraska, Keegan-Michael Key as a manic motormouth named Coyle, and Thomas Jane as a PTSD-suffering veteran called Baxley, who is prone to barking swear words. They band together to do battle with the Predators that are in town to retrieve some lost artifacts (and some human souvenirs in the process).
The plot, such as it is, quickly falls to pieces. The Predators are, by definition, pretty remote—they spend a lot of their time camouflaged, and aren’t much for conversation. So their motivations remain obscure until the end of the film (and the eventual explanation isn’t too interesting). Black fills things up with dialogue—lots and lots of dialogue—the thing that built his reputation in Hollywood as a highly paid screenwriter of the ’80s and ’90s. He has always had a way with words, but he’s usually wise enough to balance his chatterbox characters with others who are a little more aloof. The characters in The Predator can’t keep their traps shut, and so each scene feels like they’re trying to talk over one another, one-upping every joke with another that’s even dirtier or sillier.
Outside of Nebraska (Rhodes’s coolheaded performance is the major standout) and the Predators themselves, quiet folk are in short supply here. If more than two actors are in a scene, it feels like improv, with everyone shouting “Yes, and” at one another to plumb more and more ridiculous territory. But Black’s script does have more than a few cute turns of phrase, like Casey and Will’s back-and-forth about sports hunting.
Cute patter aside, the main reason to come to a Predator movie is the action, and that’s where The Predator really disappoints. Any time the alien (played by the super-tall Brian Prince) is wreaking havoc, be it on a military base or the city streets, it’s difficult to maintain any sense of visual geography. Black cuts constantly, embellishes his violence with gory CGI, and shoots many sequences at night, which makes it hard to keep track of anything. Major plot developments built into the set pieces (characters getting injured or finding themselves in peril) flash by so quickly that audiences might not register them; the final battle is particularly, disappointingly chaotic.
Black’s career as a director has been exciting so far—he’s always found ways to channel his intense writing style into films that feel alive, with characters who jump off the screen and conversation that crackles with wit. There are hints of that buried in The Predator, but the entire affair is compromised by cheap-looking special effects and confusingly edited ultraviolence. Given the offscreen public relations disaster that has enveloped the movie, this is a project well worth forgetting, the quicker the better.