We are predators, just like them. We're the monsters of our own world.
At the same time, around 1994, young filmmaker Robert Rodriguez penned a script for a follow up to 'Predator 2' featuring the return of Dutch who is kidnapped and taken to the Predator home world along with another group of tough guys to be hunted. However the script was rejected by 20th Century Fox, deeming it too expensive, not only in realising the Predator planet but in securing Schwarzenegger, who was now firmly within super star status after 'Terminator 2'. The project was shelved and the following year, Rodriguez directed the critically acclaimed 'Desperado' starring Antonio Banderas.
Over the years 'Predator' continued to grow in popularity and achieved cult status, spawning novels, video games and an ever expanding line of merchandising from toys and action figures to full size collectible prop replicas. Then in 2004 'Alien vs. Predator' hit cinemas followed quickly by 'AVP: Requiem' in 2007. Both films will receive separate reviews but to sum them up, what worked in the graphic novels failed to transfer on film. Whilst fun on their own the 'AVP' movies widely missed the tone and impact of the respective franchises, being plagued by awful scripts, soggy cardboard characters and laughable acting. After negative critical and fan reaction, Fox decided to split up the franchises again. Robert Rodriquez dusted off and re-jigged his sequel script and finally, 20 years after 'Predator 2' the Predators are back.
The story treads a similar path to Rodriguez's original idea as we follow a diverse and colourful cross section of Earth's deadliest killers, everything from the Russian Spetznaz to Yakuza to a San Quentin death row inmate. Unbeknownst to them, all have been specially selected, whisked from their respective places at the top of Earth's food chain and dropped onto an alien world to be hunted by a new race of Predator. We are once again back in the jungle and for a lot of fans, this is the definitive location for the Predators. As a consequence, the film feels a lot like the original, something that will be discussed later in the review.
One major departure from the original script is the replacement of Dutch with Royce, the unlikely 'leader' of this group of killers, played by Adrien Brody. In many ways Royce is the antithesis of Dutch, a cold hearted, Black Ops mercenary. Unlike Dutch or even Harrigan, he is a broken man from the very start, having been consumed by what he does. He is one of the characters we care the least for and discover the least about, even less than the silent Hanzo (who's entire persona we can feel brimming beneath his cool exterior) which is completely backwards when you consider that a film's protagonist should be the one we care for the most. On the other hand, this is what makes Royce intriguing, as we try and decipher who this Hemmingway quoting man is, rather like Alice Braga's character, Isabelle, tries to do over the course of the film. For the most part, Brody fits this enigmatic character well and is competent in his action scenes despite his unlikely casting in a film like this (and that forced Christian Bale-esque voice).
That said, Royce wouldn't be believable as the protagonist without Isabelle, who holds her own as the only female member of the group. Braga's wonderful performance infuses the character with the right mix of reserve, strength and warmth. There is a tendency in Hollywood for actresses who portray tough women to go over the top and compete so much with their male counterparts that their characters feel fake and unrealistic, Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale in 'Resident Evil' and 'Underworld', spring to mind. Isabelle has none of that and it is her that brings Royce's humanity back from the brink at the very end of the film, for alone they both would have died.
It is also interesting to note that even though these characters are all killers, we are allowed to care for some of them, their human qualities shining through in the end. The tough but compassionate Nikolai, Hanzo and even death row inmate Stans (given a likeable and energetic performance by Walton Goggins) sacrifice themselves so that the others can survive. Yet the only character we are seemingly meant to identify with, Edwin, turns out to be the worst of the lot in a clever twist at the film's climax. Rodriguez, known for his character driven films, challenges our perceptions of good and bad, predator and prey. It is refreshing to finally be able to invest in the characters again after the 'AVP' movies even though some of them are still there purely as cannon fodder, regrettably including the woefully underused Danny Trejo.
This rather in depth character study comes from the conclusion that the film's human cast are almost certainly the title's 'Predators' rather than the creatures themselves as upon the initial viewing, the fanboy in me was slightly disappointed that the Predators weren't in the film as much as I would have liked, but I'll come back to this later. The film expands the universe by adding a different breed of Predator into the mix, bigger, stronger and uglier than the creatures we've seen before, designed by Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, the latter having been part of Stan Winston's team that worked on the first Predator. In contrast to the original, the three new Predators (Berserker [Mr. Black], Falconer and Tracker) are much sleeker, with their dreadlocks swept back behind their heads, a minimalist ergonomic armour design that organically follows the contours of their muscular bodies and a single sword-like wrist blade. Less is definitely more with these new creatures and they look great.
Each is easily distinguishable by a unique mask, designed to reference their different hunting styles, a new concept introduced in the film. The Falconer for example has a shoulder mounted 'falcon' that it uses to survey the hunting ground and keep tabs on its prey and the Tracker handles a pack of 'Predator hounds' that it uses to good effect in one of the film's tensest action scenes. The Predators are played very well by veteran creature performers Brian Steele and Derek Mears who inject a powerful arrogance into the characters. However, physically, they are almost a foot shorter than Kevin Peter Hall and Ian Whyte, who I thought gave a stunning performance as the 'Wolf' Predator in 'AVP:R'. Whilst this was not a big problem, there were a few scenes where you can see that they are shorter than they should be, particularly at the end when Royce is attacking Mr. Black with the club.
The CGI is kept to a minimum, adding to that classic sense of nostalgia and the majority of it is blended into the film seamlessly, such as the excellent cloaking effects. However the digital fire and explosion effects are simply awful, thankfully there are few. Another terrible and unnecessary effect is the close-up of Mr. Black's obviously digital face as he is beheaded by Royce at the end of the film, made worse as his head falls backwards off his neck in slow motion with fountains of CGI blood. This was a disappointing, cringe-worthy and almost comic end to the main Predator, clearly at odds with the excellent practical effects throughout the film.
The single most effective element that recalled the feel of the first film was without doubt, John Debney's phenomenal score, which lavishes us with generous use of Alan Silvestri's original themes. To hear them again played so accurately and with such fervour was simply exhilarating. What makes this score so effective is not only the love and respect given to Silvestri's music but just how well Debney has integrated his own in that same style, so well in fact, that it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. As a consequence we are left in no doubt that we are once again in the world of 'Predator' and it feels great to be back. Debney cleverly weaves in weird and wonderful electronic sounds, capturing the remoteness of the film's other worldly location. His sparing use of an electric guitar with some of the original themes, later in the film is a great touch, updating it slightly, in keeping with the new technologically advanced Predators. It's terrific stuff, and gave me the same nostalgic smile as Michael Giacchino's treatment of the original 'Star Trek' theme in the recent reboot. My only qualm would be that the music is mixed slightly too low in the film particularly in some of the action scenes where it can be drowned out by the sound effects, a good example is the scene where the characters are ambushed by the Predators in the encampment.
An important aspect I have neglected to mention thus far has been the film's direction. Whilst it is often Robert Rodriguez that receives the attention for the film, praise should be given to the actual director Nimrod Antal, who is obviously a big fan of the original movie and it shows in how much he has managed to capture its spirit. This is both the film's strength but also its weakness. It is now perhaps a good time to discuss the film's overall structure and pacing. It was a bold move from Antal to begin the film at what would normally be the second act of a three act story. Rather than beginning on Earth and being introduced to the respective characters, establishing an equilibrium (as with the original film) before they are kidnapped by the Predators, the film instead begins with us being literally dropped straight into the action without any knowledge of what is going on. We are as confused and disorientated as Royce, as he falls from the sky. Right from the start, Antal has us hooked and for the first half of the film tension levels are steadily wound up as the group are given clues as to their predicament until suddenly those levels explode with the full reveal of the Predators in all their glory.
After a brief respite, we expect to have the Predators involved more, however the film's pace seems to fall flat on its face with the introduction of Lawrence Fisburne's character Noland, who has been surviving on the planet for decades. It appears his sole purpose is to provide concrete exposition to the characters and progress the story, even though the group had already established what was going on. From here on the film treads predictable ground as the characters race back to the Predator encampment to try and escape in their ship, with two of the three creatures being killed off within minutes of each other ala 'AVP' completely downplaying the strength of these supposedly 'super' Predators. Despite some great action and suspenseful scenes up to and including the climax, as well as discovering why, Edwin is there, I can't help but feel slightly disappointed that a film that started out so well and appeared to be going somewhere different, elected to play it safe and race to the finish, even going so far as to have Royce copy Dutch's "I'm here, kill me!" line, which felt forced and out of place.
Overall though, the film was very enjoyable, with a great cast, good creature designs, an awesome score and bold directing, appropriately conjuring up the feel of the original after the 'AVP' films. It represents a step (if only a safe and tentative one) in the right direction. If they can now more confidently move the sequel into a different direction as they clearly wanted to here, keeping the feel and spirit of the original without copying it directly, the franchise is in good hands.
The hound attack represents the first major action scene in the film. The tension that had been gradually ratcheted up with tiny hints of the Predator is added to tremendously in this sequence with the introduction of these beasts. What really got me was the un-earthly whistle at the end of the scene, calling the dogs away. To know that the Predator was right there watching them the whole time without us being shown that he was, sent shivers up my spine. It's a shame therefore that after their reveal, the Predators never really show much in the way of being different from each other. The film's first half, ending with that gloriously self-indulgent tracking shot through the camp with each of them de-cloaking in turn, set a high bar that the second half couldn't quite reach.
Despite the film slowing right down during their chat with Noland, I loved the following scene as they try and escape from the mining drill. It was a great change of setting and atmosphere, creating a suffocating sense of claustrophobia reminding me of 'Aliens'. I particularly enjoyed the sequence where Edwin is separated from the group, the camera staying tight on his face as he lights up flare after flare, then revealing that the cloaked Predator is standing there watching him.
I of course also have to mention the awesome sword fight between Hanzo and Falconer. It is almost an exact homage to Billy's last stand in the first film, the difference being we get to see it this time. The fight is wonderfully choreographed and filmed in the dark of night amid a sea of long grass, blowing gently in the wind, recalling the feel of martial arts films such as 'House of Flying Daggers'. It gives the film a touch of cinematic class and a fleeting sense of something else, that Predators, human or not, can be elegant in their brutality.