July 16, 2010

Predators (07/16/2010)

Lettergrade: B-

I probably enjoyed Predators a lot more than I really should have. On one hand, it's easy to single out several aspects of it that miss the mark a little: the screenplay relies on elements from the first movie a bit heavily, some of the casting of the secondary roles is kinda shoddy, and like in the first movie, there's a serious drag about 2/3rds of the way through the picture that really needed to be worked out before they declared it finished. On the other hand, however, it also succeeds as a cool sci-fi action movie and it's a great throwback to the cheesy macho 80s-style of filmmaking that I really loved as a kid.

Like a lot of guys my age, I've got a great deal of nostalgic love for the original 1987 Predator. In that movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger leads a crack military team (which includes such screen luminaries as Carl Weathers and fellow future governor Jessie Ventura) on a mission into Guatemala, where they encounter a bad-ass alien hunter that sees in infrared heat and who picks the soldiers off one at a time.

After the enormous success of the first flick, the Predator himself returned for several more screen appearances that were all somewhat underwhelming. The most respectable was 1990's Predator 2, in which the Predator travels to the urban jungle of Los Angeles and gets in the middle of crime war between the LAPD and a Jamaican street gang (!), only to be thwarted by supercop Danny Glover. The Predator sat dormant for years after that until the 2004 franchise crossover Alien Vs. Predator, which I saw in the theater but can barely remember, and 2007's ridiculously titled Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem, which I went through the trouble of renting, but never actually watched.

And now, because of the vague success of those movies, there's Predators, which wisely gets back to basics and feels sort of like the good sequel that the original movie never quite got back in the day. As soon as it became clear that the concept was to take the premise of Con Air, throw in a dash or two of The Most Dangerous Game, and mix in several elements from the original Predator, a big smile landed on my face that held up for most of the movie.

The picture opens with Academy Award™ winner Adrian Brody waking up in mid-plummet, parachuting down into a strange jungle without any memory of how he wound up in that situation. He quickly realizes that he's not alone: A good half dozen other soldiers and trained killers from all other nations have been air-dropped with him. They include a burly Russian, a massive African dude named Mombasa, a mysterious member of the Japanese Yakuza called Hanzo (fans of Sonny Chiba and the Shadow Warriors series take note), fan-favorite Danny Trejo as Cuchillo (a Mexican cartel enforcer), and Topher Grace as a medical doctor who seems out of place in the group.

The whole first part of the movie, where the group gradually figures out that they're in an alien game preserve and being hunted by Mysterious Alien Creatures, is probably the strongest. As the picture advances, one gets the feeling that there's not quite enough material to keep things interesting, in spite of a scenery chomping appearance by Laurence Fishburne, a scavenger who was brought to the planet several "seasons" back and has been able to hide from the Predators and learn all about them (sort of like the Newt character in Aliens).

In addition to a really entertaining performance from Brody, who evokes Christan Bale's husky voice from The Dark Knight and David Caruso's swagger and one liners from CSI: Miami, there's also the gorgeous Alice Braga as a deadly CIA agent who may know more about what's happening than what she lets on. From Brazil originally, Braga upholds of the Predator tradition of the lead actress of each film being a tough Latina woman, and like Brody, she's really good in the flick.

A lot of pleasure for me came from seeing a well-done, modernized take on material I already liked, which is to say it did a great job of recreating the tone and feeling of the first movie, without outright copying it. Sort of like Freddy Vs. Jason, the movie totally understood what it needed to do, and mostly did it right... from the kinds of characters who appear on down to the musical score, which makes heavy, heavy use of the Alan Silvestri themes from the first movie. Unlike F vs. J, however, this one didn't quite go over the top for me. The climax was great, but as I've said, there was a bit of a slowdown mid way through that the movie never quite recovered from.

Robert Rodriguez wrote the story premise back in 1995 when El Mariachi was getting him a lot of attention. Fox thought it was too expensive to make at the time, and sat on it for over a dozen years before deciding to dig it up and pull the trigger on it now. Rodriguez ultimately oversaw and produced this new movie, but left the directing to Nimród Antal, who has made a couple American thrillers in recent years including Vacancy and last year's Armored. Although I like Rodriguez generally, his movies tend to feel cheap and semi-improvised with crappy effects that he seems to do in his own garage on After Effects. I was initially worried that his take on the Predator series would abandon the lushness of the other productions in favor of that approach. Luckily, both he and Nimród seemed intent on making the picture blend as seemlessly with the others in terms of production value as possible.

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