In Hollywood, there is no try. There’s do (and fail), fail (and do) until something, anything inevitably sticks with moviegoers, breathing new life into a thirty-year-old series in desperate need of reinvention, The Predator, co-written and directed by Shane Black (The Nice Guys, Iron Man 3, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), proves what 20th Century Fox executives should have known – or maybe they’ve known all along – the Predator series should never have been a series. It should have stopped at one. The Predator was – and continues to be – near impossible to beat, let alone match, the combo of peak Arnold, ace action-director John McTiernan (Die Hard), and a dreadlocked, crab-faced, spine-ripping alien hunter caught up in jungle-set, deadly game of hide-and-seek. Bigger, faster, and armed with super-advanced tech, the Predator bloodily dispatched well-armed (in every sense) mercs, but proved no match for the former Mr. Universe (a/k/a, the Austrian Oak). Arnold, however, smartly stayed away from every sequel or spin-off greenlit by Fox in the misguided hope they could capture the magic of the original. They couldn’t and they haven’t.
In a nod to the original, The Predator (notice the addition of “the” to the title) opens in a jungle and ends in a forest. When we meet Arnold-substitute, Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook, Logan, Narcos), a best-of-the-best Army sniper, he’s dead set on taking out a couple of cartel thugs with extreme prejudice when a damaged, about-to-crash spaceship interrupts the festivities. McKenna does what any Army sniper in a movie (it’s movie logic, not real-world logic) would do: He abandons the mission and head for the crash site. He finds a Predator helmet and gauntlet and before the day’s done, he’s shipped both back to his home address in the states, the better, he rationalizes to himself, to keep some evidence on hand in case his conspiracy-minded superiors decide to disbelieve him. They don’t. They just decide he’s better off locked up in a military institution for movie-ready psychos and malingering miscreants than leading another mission back into the jungle.
Before long, McKenna finds himself on a prison bus with a colorful assortment of foul-mouthed crazies (not a medical term) with impulse-control problems, including Nebraska Williams (Trevante Rhodes), Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), Baxley (Thomas Jane), Lynch (Alfie Allen), and Nettles (Augusto Aguilera). Each character gets at best one defining character trait: Williams plays it cool and controlled (he’s suicidal when he’s not homicidal), the motor-mouthed, wired Coyle jokes his way out of any situation, Baxley has Tourette’s Syndrome (it’s even less funny than it sounds), while Lynch has a Brit accent and Nettles wants to hug everyone and possibly stalk The Predator’s only female character of note, Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), a government-sponsored, evolutionary biologist who finds herself in the cross-fire between an escaped Predator, P-Files (for Predator) director Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), and his men on one side, and McKenna and his ragtag group of “Loonies” on the other.
Black and Fred Dekker’s (Monster Squad, Night of the Creeps) screenplay also tosses in McKenna’s preteen son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), a genius-level kid on the spectrum, and Rory’s mother and McKenna’s ex, Emily (Yvonne Strahovski). Emily gets two or three scenes, mostly to look and act flustered and upset when McKenna and his crew descend on her formerly quiet home and later to extol McKenna’s qualities as a mean, lean killing machine (for the U.S. of A.) when Trager’s men essentially hold her captive. Rory has a far more significant role to play in Black and Dekker’s screenplay: He’s a savant with languages and technology, an X-Men without the spandex, a Magneto-styled helmet, or a franchise to call his own. Like the barely distinct members of McKenna’s crew and their psychological problems (they’re movie crazy, not real crazy), Rory’s on-the-spectrum behavior bears little resemblance to anything in the real world. Then again, a movie featuring hunter aliens from another planet, including an all-new, 11-foot Predator to beat all Predators before him (to Black and Dekker, bigger is definitely better or at least different enough to win points for novelty), isn’t a movie where moviegoers should expect much in the way of logic or connection to reality.
Still, bringing back Black (he co-starred in the original as an early Predator victim), a writer-director best known for a mega-hot streak that began with Lethal Weapon in 1987 and ended abruptly with The Long Kiss Goodnight nine years later, seemed like, if not a brilliant move, then a no-brainer for studio executives eager to revive a series that’s seen better days. Black not only came back from a studio-imposed wilderness to make one of the better received entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man 3, but also confirmed – or rather re-confirmed – that he hadn’t lost his singular voice for writing characters and quote-worthy dialogue when he wrote and directed The Nice Guys two years ago. That seemed like a perfect segue into Fox giving Black the keys to a franchise that last saw the inside of a multiplex almost a decade ago. Probably not the best decision a Fox executive has made recently.
The dialogue ranges from the passable and sporadically funny to the cringe inducing and desperately unfunny. Maybe, though, treating the Predator and the series the title character spawned shouldn’t have been treated as one long, two-hour joke or a wrong-headed attempt to add a contemporary edge to the series (hint: Predators are here for a reason and it’s not just for sport). But as someone will argue, at least The Predator lives up to its gory, bloody R-Rating. It does, but even that gets boring and tiresome after the 27th or 28th time a faceless black shirt gets skewered, smashed, or decapitated after a run-in with an angry Predator and moviegoers have to sit through barely tolerable acting, semi-competent cinematography, a bland, forgettable score, and anonymous, style-free directing.