Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review: The Predator (2018)

The Predator (2018)

Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, and crude sexual references

Score: 3 out of 5

The Predator is a movie that should've been at least fifteen minutes longer. At least. I had a good time watching it, but it's one that I really wanted to like a lot more than I did, with it being obvious that the film was cut to ribbons by 20th Century Fox, in the process taking an already unwieldy script by Shane Black (who also directed) and Fred Dekker and making it nearly incomprehensible. I'm almost certain that there is going to be an Unrated Director's Cut (Too Intense for Theaters!) that reinserts most of the deleted footage, turning this into a film that at least makes sense from a storytelling standpoint. While the snafu over Black hiring his pedophile friend for a bit part (and one in which he sexually harasses Olivia Munn's character, at that) was resolved remarkably well as far as scandals like this go, in hindsight I feel that the swiftness with which the studio cut that scene foreshadowed all of the other cuts that this film likely went through.

The plot of this film goes all over the place, such that I can barely even say that it has a central story so much as it does an array of subplots. Is it about a Predator on the run from his species' authorities who brings his battle with them to Earth? Is it about Boyd Holbrook's Army Ranger sniper Quinn McKenna who, upon witnessing the Predator in action in the jungles of Mexico and refusing to help cover it up, is deemed crazy and dumped into a Suicide Squad-esque unit with other highly skilled but mentally unstable servicemen? Is it about Olivia Munn's biologist Casey Bracket who, upon being brought in to study the Predator that McKenna's team captured in Mexico, figures out that the Predators are engaged in gene-splicing to guide their evolution and make themselves superior hunters (the main twist on the series' mythology that this film adds)? Or is it about McKenna's wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski) and autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), the latter of whom McKenna secretly sent a number of items he lifted off the Predator before he was captured?

If this film had just been given some room to breathe, then it might've been able to figure out a way to corral all of the many ideas it had in its script, any one of which could've supported an entire Predator sequel on its own. But the film didn't get any room to breathe. Instead, it got one of the biggest editing room hack jobs that I've ever seen, one in which the cuts were so bad, and so noticeable, that it was creating plot holes, leaving me asking questions like "where did they get an RV from all of a sudden?" or "when did Sterling K. Brown's government agent put on sunglasses?" It's not like they wanted to tone down the violence to appeal to teenagers the way they did with the first Alien vs. Predator movie; this film is R-rated and wears that fact on its sleeve. Rather, I think that it was an attempt by the studio to try and cram in as many showtimes as possible by making the film substantially shorter. If the weekend box-office numbers are any indication, it seems to have backfired. That said, I can't blame the studio for everything. Even in its badly truncated form, it's still 107 minutes long, and it's clear watching it that Shane Black and Fred Dekker had a ton of ideas for a Predator movie and decided to cram all of them into one film, likely knowing that they wouldn't get a shot like this again. This is a double-edged sword, as while the passion that went into making this was one thing that they couldn't cut, it also means that the film has what I've heard another critic describe as a "five-and-a-half act" structure, constantly jumping from place to place before it all eventually converges on the small Georgia town where McKenna's family lives. Even without studio meddling, this would've been a very difficult high-wire act to clear, such that I'm very curious to see how this film would hold up with all the deleted scenes.

That said, there's a reason why I ultimately didn't give this film a 2 out of 5, and that is because Black is one of the best in the business when it comes to modern action movies. Having played Hawkins in the original Predator thirty-one years ago, Black clearly relished the opportunity to take his brand of snarky, self-aware, darkly comedic action and apply it to the franchise. The band of scoundrels that McKenna winds up with exchanges extremely rude banter with each other like you'd expect a bunch of unruly macho men dumped into the same unit to throw around, most notably some downright disgusting "yo mama" jokes that I've got burned into my head. They feel like friends who would always stand up for each other, but at the same time, they're friends who would demand that they get the right to kill any of their own guys. Holbrook does what he needs to as the fairly vanilla protagonist, but it's his comrades who steal the show, most notably Thomas Jane as the extremely foul-mouthed Baxley and Trevante Rhodes as Nebraska (he thought his real name, Gaylord Williams, was too embarrassing). Even beyond them, this is an exceptional cast, with even small, seemingly thankless roles filled by talented actors (increasing my suspicion that most of their scenes wound up cut). Olivia Munn clearly relished the chance to play a character whose defining trait wasn't that she had a body like Olivia Munn (in the one scene where she gets naked, we don't see anything), and Jacob Tremblay's character was a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic take on autism that you don't normally expect to see in a balls-to-the-wall action film.

And make no mistake: the action here does not disappoint. While it's obviously heavier on CGI than any movie made back then, it's clear that Black was angling to make a modern-day version of the sort of Predator 3 we might've gotten in the early '90s. We get a pissed-off Predator breaking out of a laboratory, a series of battles in the suburbs that take AvP: Requiem's conceit of doing one of these movies in a small town and do it way better, a gunfight in the woods designed to call back to the original's setup, and an escape aboard the Predator's spaceship that is frankly ridiculous in all the right ways (especially a great kill involving its force field), all while we get special effects carnage in various forms: practical and CG, explosive and bloody. The Predator's iconic makeup and costume design is still as on point as it ever was, though this has the side effect of making the towering, all-CG "Uber-Predator" that we're introduced to later look more artificial by comparison. Black's action chops are as solid here as they've always been, establishing place and letting characters work around that as they try to kill each other, and while I can barely call this a horror film outside of a handful of scenes, I can call it a very well-shot action flick that melds both old-school action techniques with modern effects wizardry.

The Bottom Line

Why, oh why did the studio decide to go all Predator on this movie in the editing room? It had the components of a great action movie, even if it would've been a very long one, but the massive cuts they made took a story that already had a lot going on and made it virtually impossible to follow. If you're gonna see this, wait for the Blu-Ray, because I highly doubt that this was the movie they were trying to make.

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