First activated in 1987 (Lethal Weapon), the filmmaker Shane Black’s action-movie quip-inator (™) has made him absurdly rich down the years of writing The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight (both flops, but whatever), and Iron Man 3. In his latest, The Predator, the quips come fast and heavy. There are about 50 of them. I’ll refrain from quotation, as they tend to begin with “Your mama’s vagina is so large . . .” All 50 of these zingers are almost funny, which means Black is sort of like a quarterback who throws 50 straight passes that almost get caught. In the NFL, alas, such a player would be cut, but in movieland, as long as you keep guys and monsters chasing other guys and monsters, with plenty of bullets flying and explosions exploding, you’re a top talent.
That was the thought behind many a 1980s blockbuster, anyway, and Black’s effort to rejuvenate the Predator franchise — whose sixth entry this is — is not a wry homage but a return to the era of the manful but cheesy. Black broadcasts his intentions right away by amping up a musical score, by Henry Jackman, that’s so comically gung-ho it sounds like a spoof from a South Park movie. This is disappointing: Black has become a specialist in self-aware moviemaking, in which characters comment sardonically on the imperatives of the genre they’re stuck in. The Predator, though, except for a line about how its titular Rastafarian aliens have been appearing on earth at mysterious intervals since 1987, isn’t self-aware. It’s just a choppy, lackluster, thinly written monster action flick peppered with the kinds of gags you thought were funny in puberty. “WELCOME PARENTS AND STDS,” reads a sign outside a school.
As in many an ’80s cigars-and-bandolier epic, Black’s idea of “characterization” is to give the same kind of f-word-based wise-guy one-liners to everyone (even a shy little kid) while assigning one little movie quirk to everybody. One soldier on the team fighting the Predator has Tourette’s, for instance, and another believes in the Bible. This gives Black a chance to take a little poke at Revelation, while elsewhere in the movie he somberly informs us that the Earth will become uninhabitable within two generations (maybe one) because of climate change.
Playing the ace sniper Quinn McKenna, who is the sole survivor of a Predator-interrupted mission to rescue hostages from Mexican cartels south of the border, is Black’s lead actor, Boyd Holbrook. I didn’t say “star.” Holbrook is one of those smirky, fatally laid-back Millennial actors; he seems like he’d just as soon be strumming a ukulele or crafting locally sourced organic smoothies as killing aliens. History may prove me wrong, but I think it unlikely that the name Boyd Holbrook will ever stand beside that of Arnold Schwarzenegger on anyone’s list of top action heroes.
As the Predator, that terrifying humanoid-alien beast with an invisibility shield, gets taken into captivity in Tennessee, McKenna is being trundled off to a loony bin for having learned too much about the government’s secret alien-contact program Project Stargazer, but not before he manages to steal the alien warrior’s helmet and gauntlet (both of which automatically fire death rays at enemies) and send them home to his pre-teen son (Jacob Tremblay).
The original Predator was no great shakes, but it got by on Schwarzenegger’s steel-jawed determination, a modicum of suspense, and a lot of manly camaraderie that typified the renewed respect for military machismo in the Reagan era. Black ditches most of that. His team of elites this time consists of oddballs who, like McKenna, escape from the military’s nut hatch. Possibly to save money on alien effects, the movie mostly consists of dismal infighting between McKenna’s makeshift platoon (Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, plus Olivia Munn as the evolutionary biologist/designated explainer) and the sinister G-men (led by Sterling K. Brown). It takes these two teams four-fifths of the movie to figure out that they’re on the same side when it comes to the question of humans versus vicious interstellar interlopers.
McKenna’s son, who has Asperger’s and is also (naturally) mega-smart, is the emotional heart of the movie, or maybe the emotional heart of a longer cut of the movie, since he’s barely in this version. Despite McKenna’s habit of dishing out lots of “Hey, don’t mess with my son!” lines, Black never succeeds in establishing their bond, or indeed in making us care about any of the characters or their relationships. Black doesn’t even bother to build up a romance between McKenna and either the biologist or his ex-wife (Yvonne Strahoski).
The whole movie is a giant step backwards for Black, whose last movie was the delightful and surprising neo-noir detective comedy The Nice Guys. Possibly Black was driven by nostalgia for this material, since he acted in Predator as the geeky alien-bait Hawkins, but beware anyone who wants to return to 1987. The Predator is to today’s blockbuster what the mullet is to today’s hair.