One of my favorite movie micro-genres is what I like to call “Schwarzenegger plus subtext.” These are movies in which Arnold’s larger-than-life presence is used to get audiences into the theater while the filmmakers smuggle some interesting ideas in the back door. This group includes, in no particular order, The Terminator, T2: Judgment Day, True Lies, Total Recall, and Last Action Hero, and its absolute peak is John McTiernan’s 1987 movie Predator.
I’m not even talking about the script’s Reagan-era satire, which finds a team of elite Special Forces operatives plying their trade in Central America only to become the hunted when an alien starts picking them off for sport—a gory bit of comeuppance for American operatives. What I love about Predator is the idea that if a 7-foot-tall extraterrestrial ever descended to Earth spoiling for a fight with the human race’s no. 1 contender, he’d end up going one-on-one with Arnold at the peak of his pectoral powers. Even more than the steel-reinforced T-800, Predator’s alpha male hero, Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer—introduced biceps first in the manliest handshake in movie history with Carl Weathers—represented the apex of Schwarzenegger’s hard-bodied movie stardom. If you’re going to take a trophy back to your home planet, Dutch is a 10-point buck.
Shane Black’s new film, The Predator, is filled with visual and verbal callbacks to McTiernan’s movie, but there’s no Schwarzenegger and no subtext, and the movie suffers from the lack of both. There is an excess of extracurricular controversy stemming from the film’s male cast members’ slow response in supporting costar Olivia Munn after her complaints about shooting a scene with an actor who, unbeknownst to her at the time, was a registered sex offender. The sequence is not in the movie’s final but has shaped the conversation around it. Munn’s discomfort was compounded by the fact the actor in question was part of the project because of his friendship with Black—who has since apologized for the casting, claiming he was unaware of the extent of this person’s criminal background—and the sense that the studio chastised her for her complaints points to a Hollywood culture no less in need of an ethical overhaul than ever.
Munn’s efforts to talk publicly about what she saw—rightly—as a problematic piece of casting and the subsequent freeze-out by her peers doesn’t really have much bearing on whether The Predator is a good movie. But the film is such an incongruously hostile piece of work—a genuinely mean-spirited action movie in an age of benignly anodyne Marvel product—that it’s difficult not to see some prescience in a couple of scenes.
About halfway through the movie, Munn’s character, a brilliant biologist summoned by the government to examine a captured predator, accidentally shoots herself with a tranq dart and awakens in a motel room surrounded by a group of scraggly soldiers, most of whom have PTSD. The joke is that the grunts have sweetly surrounded Sleeping Beauty with a bunch of poorly chosen items that they think she’ll want when she wakes up, but the joke-within-the-joke is that she’s momentarily terrified that she’s in danger—and while we know that this isn’t the case, the movie still creates a disreputable friction from the scene’s setup.
I tend to enjoy Shane Black’s violent and unrepentantly politically incorrect action comedies, particularly Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with its authentically scummy film noir milieu and brilliant, inventive performances by Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer; The Nice Guys basically remade Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe and was a similarly good time. But the things I like Black for—his undeniable wit as a writer of dialogue and his willingness to let his characters say, think, and do unrelatable things at regular intervals—are also bound up in the qualities that can make him an irritant: the feeling that he’s using studio resources to taunt, troll, or otherwise antagonize the pearl-clutchers in the audience. When he’s on, the laughs his movies generate are spontaneous and cathartic. When he’s off, he’s just obnoxious.
While watching it, The Predator feels spontaneous, almost to a fault. The story, which pivots on that captured predator—and the other, bigger, scarier predator that’s been dispatched to Earth to hunt it down—is one of the most crowded, convoluted, circuitous narratives of its kind that I can remember. And the difficulty of following what’s going on pales next to the question of why. Munn’s character, Casey Bracket, has some theories on why the predators have been coming to Earth since 1987 (and probably for centuries before that): to stock up on human spines. She tries to explain this to the soldiers who’ve become her protectors, including Trevante Rhodes’s laconic Marine Nebraska and Boyd Holbrook’s soulful Army Ranger Quinn McKenna, and it’s meant to be funny that the dumbass military men can’t follow her logic.
The only other person in the movie with a brain as big as Casey’s is Quinn’s preteen son Rory, who has Asperger’s and, it’s implied, is thus able to operate the alien technology recovered by his father. Outfitted with the predator’s mask and blaster, the child accidentally but unambiguously incinerates a neighbor who teases him from a balcony.
This scene is pure Black: spectacularly inappropriate and yet ultimately weightless—just one more casualty in a movie that keeps finding ways to up its body count. The Predator isn’t just violent—it’s ultraviolent, and yet the blobby CGI blood spray has nothing on the practical effects in the 31-year-old original movie. I wouldn’t waste time taking inventory of all the ways that the new film comes up short against its franchise progenitor, except that Black, who appeared in Predator as one of Dutch’s men, keeps invoking it via those aforementioned callbacks. It’s really no different than the fan service layered into the Star Wars sequels. Everything that’s kind of good about The Predator, from the basic appeal of watching a team of fairly tough human beings try to outflank a literal monster to the profane, combative dynamics of a commando unit is borrowed, whereas the things that make it mediocre—a lack of clarity, haphazard editing, no truly compelling characters—are the only new things that it brings to the table. And it doesn’t have a Schwarzenegger figure to draw us in, either. Holbrook’s charisma is real, but he isn’t the sort of perfect specimen that could believably hold his own in a throwdown.
To be fair, Black knows this, and the script’s most audacious twist—and by audacious, I mean “genuinely surprising and potentially offensive”—comes when the second, deadlier Predator makes its specific designs known. It’s one of the moments when the movie really goes for it. Where it’s trying to go is another matter. Suffice it to say that one of the byproducts of Black’s lack of PC scruples is that he’s willing to push his characters in unexpected directions. So while it’s predictable to the point of cliché that Munn’s Casey will eventually take up an automatic weapon and become one of the boys, the way the actress plays her transformation still hits some surprising notes. Ditto the treatment of Tourette’s via the character played by Thomas Jane, who’s used ruthlessly as a walking F-bomb machine and yet is granted pathos via his friendship with Keegan-Michael Key’s damaged jokester.
These are all gifted comedic actors, and I laughed out loud at least 15 times during The Predator, which is more than I can say for Judd Apatow’s last few movies. So there’s that. I can also say that I just as frequently cringed at the aggressive way that it was trying to be funny. The great thing about Predator wasn’t that it was funny or quotable (though it is both of those things, e.g., Jesse Ventura’s all-time-great snarl of “I ain’t got time to bleed”) but that it was suspenseful and scary, and that, with apologies to James Earl Jones and Michael Biehn, finally gave prime Schwarzenegger a rival worthy of him. The Predator is probably going to see any potential success damaged by the stories around it. But if it does fail, it surely won’t be a case of a great, vicious B-movie that was too weird or confrontational falling by the wayside—as much as the guy who made it might like to think so.