(by Dustin Putman
A direct sequel to the 1987 original starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by John McTiernan, "Predators" proves to be a suitably inspired—if not exactly groundbreaking—follow-up that wisely pretends 1990's "Predator 2," 2004's "Alien vs. Predator," and 2007's "Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem" never happened. The setup's a little different but the formula's the same: gather together a ragtag crew of people in a jungle-like setting and watch them get knocked off one-by-one by a game-hunting alien species. Director Nimrod Antal (2007's underrated Hitchcockian thriller "Vacancy") and first-time screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch mix things up with a few surprises along the way, and do a nice job of giving the main cast members a few extra shades of personality. At 106 minutes, though, the film runs too long, lagging behind every now and then when it should be cutting to the chase. When the chases do come, at least they're worth the wait. Article continues below
No-nonsense American mercenary Royce (Adrien Brody) wakes to find himself in a perilous free-fall, his parachute narrowly opening just in time to save his life. Around him, strangers also drop to the ground, each one—save for odd-man-out doctor Edwin (Topher Grace)—soaked in sins from their past. Isabelle (Alice Braga) is an Israeli sniper, Stans (Walton Goggins) is a druggy rapist, Cuchillo (Danny Trejo) is a Mexican gangster, and so on. With no memory of how they've landed in their current predicament and with no idea where they are, the group begins to explore their surroundings. Something seems off. Isabelle makes mention that she's never seen a jungle like this one, and she's seen them all. What they quickly discover is that they have landed squarely on a distant planet's game reserve, and the ruthless, deadly locals have no intention of allowing them to escape.
"Predator" was the epitome of '80s action movie excess, a part-cheesy, part-suspenseful, all-over-the-top thriller that delivered on all the things—macho men, explosions, one-liners, violence, a body count—it set out to. "Predators" fulfills the same prerequisites, but with better special effects and more complex stunts. There is far less use of the aliens' infra-red vision and their ability to cloak themselves into their surroundings looks far superior by way of a little restraint. The characters are better defined here, if still no more than two dimensions, and the different types of predators that lurk among their own planet give the proceedings some welcome diversity. What the older picture did have in its favor was a steadier, faster pace, barreling full steam ahead with few chances for the protagonists to slow down and bond over leisurely conversations. By trying to add more meat to its narrative bones, "Predators" has no choice but to ebb and flow.
What does inject the movie with some newfound freshness, then, is the provocative notion that these people have been cherry-picked from their lives and dropped not just into a foreign location, but onto a wholly foreign planet. The subtle but assured details that differentiate this world from Earth are fun to pick out. Furthermore, the introduction of a spaceship into the equation and the appearance midway through of a marbles-bereft soldier, Noland (Laurence Fishburne), who has survived ten seasons on the planet, gather viewer interest just as it has begun to drag. In what amounts to a glorified cameo but lingers long after he's exited, Laurence Fishburne (2008's "21") is a juicy, intense standout as Noland, who knows the ways of the predators and tries to impart a bit of advice on the human newcomers. Mentally unstable—he talks to an invisible friend—but also smart, his humanity still intact, Noland is a true original in an ensemble of types.
The thin, lanky Adrien Brody (2010's "Splice") might seem to be a poor substitute for the big-muscled Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he fully sells the tough-guy part of Royce. Lowering his voice a few octaves and equipped with an authoritative swagger and an impressive six-pack, Brody has clearly put in the work to prove his naysayers wrong. What Royce isn't is all that likable; through no fault of the actor, the character is a bad guy put in a situation that makes him the hero. The lines between the two remain awfully blurry. As Isabelle, Alice Braga (2010's "Repo Men") is a forthright, resourceful female lead rather than thankless window-dressing, and the actress seems thrilled to be playing such a strong role. That Isabelle does have a heavy conscience and remains true to her comrades redeems her in a way that Royce—seemingly caring about nobody but himself—never quite manages. Topher Grace (2010's "Valentine's Day") additionally carves out a memorable place for himself as Edwin, a man whose reason for being paired with killers and criminals is a mystery to almost everyone.
For audiences expecting answers to the plot's bigger questions—such as, the logistics of being snatched from earth and stranded on an alien planet, and by whom—they won't get them in "Predators," which in many ways feels like a bridge for setting up another sequel. Also left unexplained is Isabelle's knowledge of all of the events from the first movie, which she talks about in detail despite only being a child herself when the events took place in 1987. Discrepancies and uneven elements aside, the film is a slam-bang actioner heavy on stylish sci-fi and brutal slasher theatrics. The villains, posing a palpable threat rather than merely looking like guys in Halloween costumes—a downfall of the "Alien vs. Predator" pictures—are back in all their glory, while director Nimrod Antal adds his own personal stamp to a film that could have just as easily been a copycat. "Predators" isn't overwhelming in its success, but it does enough right to reclaim for the series a modicum of dignity it had lost in the intervening years since "Predator." Little Richard is sure to be proud.