When you hire Shane Black to write / direct a film, you can expect one of two things: self-reference and deconstruction. With Iron Man 3 he sent the more fervent of fans into a blind rage with his own spin on The Mandarin, and he turned the murder / mystery genre on its head with Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang and The Nice Guys. With The Predator, rather than attempting to rehash the glory days of ’87, much like 2010’s Predators, Black and co-writer Fred Dekker lean well into making this iteration of the camouflaged alien sports hunter an all out self deprecating monster movie. And, for the most part, it works like crazy.
The solider caught in the laser sightings of our titular beast this go around is Boyd Holbrook’s Quinn McKenna. Following a sniper mission cut short by the Predator’s ship crash landing, McKenna is taken in by a branch of the military lead by the swaggering Traeger (Sterling K. Brown). Traeger wants to know what McKenna knows / saw but before long a second, far larger Predator lands on earth thanks to the inadvertent help from McKenna’s son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay) who’s activated the alien tech sent to him by his father. Along the way McKenna enlists a ragtag group of dysfunctional and broken fellow soldiers to help put an end to the threat while geneticist Casey (Olivia Munn) attempts to work out why the alien species continues to visit earth at more frequent intervals.
Much like 2013’s Iron Man 3, this film will surprise and divide (and possibly enrage). Walking out of the theatre I heard quite a number of variations of “I didn’t expect it to be so funny”, and I have to agree. While not an all out goof ball comedy, there is a consistent dark humour throughout the film that may peeve some of us off looking for a more serious take. Some of the bigger laughs come from our loveable group of head cases reacting to an extraordinary situation, and it’s through this humour where we come to care more and more about them. While the action starts very early on, Black opts not to turn the film into a pick-off fest, rather taking the time to get to know the people he’s putting in harms way. Where he could have done more of this is with the father / son relationship between Rory and McKenna. While there are some touching moments between the two, there’s not quite enough for us to completely care by the time credits roll. In fact, following his work in Room and Wonder I was expecting Black to really allow Tremblay to spread his wings a little further, rather than pigeon holing him in the stock standard “kid on the spectrum who also happens to be a technical genius”.
My biggest gripe with the film is the editing. Maybe it was a studio note to have the film come in at a certain runtime, or Black didn’t know how to enter and exit a scene, but the editing is often times clunky and the action muddled. It doesn’t help that a lot of the story takes place at night, with the finale almost completely under the cover of darkness. While Larry Fong’s cinematography is gorgeous for the most part, a tad more light during a late night forest battle could have gone a long way.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that The Predator would make a great double feature with the writing duo’s past collaboration, Monster Squad, another self-referential, if not lighter fare. Does the film return the franchise back to the days of Arnie and McTiernan? No, but I don’t think that was Black’s intention. We’ve had a myriad of sequels and spin-offs featuring the dreadlocked beast, many of them fairly self-serious. Why not take it in a different direction, acknowledge the absurdity that is the Predator and just have fun with it? Fans of the franchise are either going to flat out love or hate this film, but if, like me, you let go of what’s come before you’ll have an absolute blast. Just bring popcorn. Lots of popcorn.