The Predator feels like both a lesser Predator movie and a lesser Shane Black movie, but it’s still a Shane Black Predator movie, which makes it at least medium watchable even when it shouldn’t be. It feels a little like Black, famously murdered in his bit role in the original Predator, had promising ideas for four different Predator spinoffs and just tried to squeeze them all into one movie. The Predator ends up feeling overstuffed but exuberant, like an unmedicated ADD kid directed it, with a series of scenes that are fun individually but don’t exactly hang together as a coherent movie.
Shane Black flirted briefly with adult respectability in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3. His last two movies, The Nice Guys and now The Predator, really remind you that he’s still the Wolfman Got Nards guy at heart.
In past movies, the Predator has always been essentially one thing: an intergalactic trophy hunter, hunting the most dangerous game: buff, sweaty men. Black cleverly carves up the inherent misnomer of this premise — “they call him The Predator, but a predator hunts for food. This guy hunts for sport, he’s more like… I don’t know, The Bass Fisherman” — and then justifies it in typical Shane Black style. i.e., with a smart-alecky one-liner: “We took a vote and decided that ‘Predator’ just sounds cooler.”
More importantly, Black complicates the hell out of this basic trophy hunter premise. No longer is the Predator’s motive simply to kill humans for sport. Predators (yes, plural) have long-term goals now. They can even communicate, using translator technology. There are “good” Predators and “bad” Predators; Predators with utopian aspirations and rogue Predators resisting those utopian aspirations. Those Predators then smash into humans — good humans and bad humans, humans with evil intentions, and rogue humans who resist those evil intentions. Also, there are dog predators now. Dog predators with Predator dreads. Yep, deal with it.
Suffice it to say, that’s, ah, a lot to fit into one movie. The first human to make contact with the Predators is CIA sniper Quinn McKenna, played by Boyd Holbrook from Narcos, whose gravelly voice always sounds like an affectation, like someone raised a handsomeboi exclusively on hard-boiled noir voiceovers. McKenna sees a Predator pod fall to Earth during an “op,” manages to keep from getting killed by the Predator, and even mails a couple Predator souvenirs back home, where they’re opened by his elementary school-aged son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), a misunderstood prodigy the other school kids have nicknamed “Ass Burgers.”
McKenna returns home, only to be placed in a secret unit full of veteran crazies who know too much, in an effort to discredit him, by evil government guy Traeger, played by Sterling K. Brown. The other players in the unit include Keegan-Michael Key as a wild-eyed jokester (kind of redundant since everyone in a Shane Black movie constantly does Borscht Belt one-liners), Trevante Rhodes from Moonlight as a suicidal chain smoker (cigarettes and people trying to quit smoking being another Shane Black staple), Thomas Jane as a merc with an incredibly inconsistent form of Tourette’s Syndrome (he swears and twitches at first and then stops, without explanation), and a few others. They call their Dirty Dozen-style gang of expendables “The Loonies.” Also entering into this mix is foxy biologist Casey Bracket, played by Olivia Munn, called in to try to explain a few things about the Predators, and who subsequently delivers the line about bass fishing.
Again, that’s, uh… a lot. It’s a movie about aliens pitting an earnest biologist against a warlike government, a movie about a team of expendable alien assassins (which this franchise already kind of did in 2010’s vastly underrated Predators), a movie about an Asperberger’s kid holding the key to defeating the Predators, and a long weird subplot about dogs (something I imagine might’ve come together and made more sense had part of it not been dropped on account of Shane Black hiring his pal the sex offender).
But wait, did I say “defeating” the Predators? Because it’s just as plausible that Rory might be tasked with befriending the Predators. Of all the confusing aspects of The Predator, probably the most confusing is the humans’ attitudes toward the Predators. In most of the rest of the franchise, Predators present a simple kill-or-be-killed conflict. Here, the Predators have motives, that may or may not involve genetic engineering and terra-forming. Throughout the movie, there seems to be some confusion about whether to kill the Predators or to try to understand them. This culminates with McKenna shouting “what do you want!” at a space creature and then blasting it in the face with a gun without so much as pausing to hear an answer. I suppose this could be read as an illuminating aspect of human nature, to want simultaneously to know all the answers and to homicidally fear the unknown, but in a movie already this overstuffed and incoherent it kind of just reads as more incoherence.
The scene is emblematic too, in that it made me chuckle despite being flawed and confusing. The charming aspects of the Shane Black universe remain, even in a movie that’s clearly not his best; the way he stacks conflict on conflict on conflict (at least three groups of competing humans and two of competing Predators); the gleeful vulgarity and exuberant gore; the way his characters are all aspiring comedians and a little too smart for their own good. So many stories rely on characters not telling each other what we, the audience, already know. There were six episode arcs on Lost that could’ve been resolved in five seconds with one character just telling another what we all saw happen — Shane Black is the antidote to that type of writing, giving us characters who constantly cut each other off (yeah, yeah, get to the point) and suss out each other’s motives mid-sentence.
Of course, you could call that the hallmark of someone in a hurry, and Shane Black hasn’t felt this hurried and harried since the 80s. He’s watchable even when he’s not at his best, but The Predator needed some editing.