Saturday, July 17, 2010

Predators

I’ve been waiting for an appropriate sequel to “Predator” since I saw it in the theater in 1987 when I was ten years old. “Predator 2” was good, but not great (there are legitimate claims that this movie isn’t very good, but I enjoy it). A few years ago, I got excited for “Alien Vs. Predator” only to be horribly disappointed. A few years after that I got excited for “Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem” (they said they wanted to make people forget that the first “AVP” ever happened, a sentiment that I can get behind), and again, I was my enthusiasm was tragically betrayed.

After “AVP:R” crushed my spirits, and on Christmas day no less, I gave up hope of living to witness a decent “Predator” sequel. My wounds still fresh, I’ve been reasonably skeptical as news of “Predators” has trickled in. Sure, I like Robert Rodriguez, and even in his less awesome movies the action is still high quality. This sounded favorable. But Rodriguez wasn’t directing, Nimrod Antal was at the helm, and in my world, this fellow is still an unknown quantity. This gave me pause. I like Adrian Brody, but I’m not sure of his ability as an action star. Laurence Fishburne can go either way. With Danny Trejo you know what you’re going to get, he’ll be badass, but he’s also been good in some horrible crap bombs.

What I’m trying to say is that, for months leading up to the release of “Predators”, I’ve been prone to wildly fluctuating moods, moments of great elation mixed with the deep, dark, depths of despair. But the trailers looked good, and when the little character films popped up, I started, against my better judgment, to get increasingly excited. But still, Topher Grace? Really? Does he deserve a place in the “Predator” cannon? Oh the trepidation. It’s so hard.

I was going to see “Predators” regardless, but I’m here, now, to say that SOMEONE FINALLY MADE A GOOD FUCKING “PREDATOR” SEQUEL!!!

The first thing you see is Adrien Brody waking up in the middle of a freefall that he wasn’t in when he fell asleep. That’s a hell of a way to wake up. He is understandably distraught by his situation, as any of us would be. Good thing he has a parachute. When he hits the ground he encounters seven other people, six dudes and a lady, who all plummeted to earth in a similar fashion. The last thing any of them remember is a bright light then they woke up falling.

With the exception of Topher Grace, who is a nerdy doctor, all of them come from a violent background. Alice Braga is a member of the Israeli Defense Force, Danny Trejo is an enforcer for a drug cartel, Louis Ozawa Changchien is from the Yakuza, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali is a death squad soldier from Sierra Leone, former MMA fighter Oleg Taktarov (who has a great screen presence) is Spetsnaz, and Brody himself is former military, with a background in black ops, who now plies his trade as a mercenary.

Walton Goggins, with his crazy ass face, and freaky caveman brow, rounds out the main body of the cast as a death row inmate, armed only with a prison shank. I didn’t watch “The Shield”, but after seeing this and watching the first season of “Justified”, I’m totally in love with this guy. He’s great and I want to watch everything he’s ever done. Somehow he manages to be hilarious and menacing and creepy all at the same time without short changing any one component.

Antal and screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch don’t waste any time. The first bullets erupt out of a mini-gun within the first few minutes. They also don’t expend much effort on characters and back-story. We know what we need to know about these people, and the characterization comes from their actions onscreen. Their names and histories are not important, what is important is they find themselves in this new and hostile situation, and they have to deal with it the only way any of them know how, violently. For the most part you don’t even know any of their names until the movie has progressed. In the case of two main characters, I won’t give away which, their names are not revealed until one of the final shots of the film.

Action is in no short supply, and when there isn’t any action, “Predators” passes the time by cranking up the tension until you want to punch something. That’s the entire movie, action interspersed with ever increasing tension. They squeeze out every drop they can. Imagine this, you wake up with a bunch of strangers on a world that turns out not to be the world you thought you were on, you’re being hunted by some unidentified thing or things, and when you finally do find out what is after you it is so much worse than you originally thought. There, my friends, you have the basic building blocks of “Predators”.

There are also some genuinely funny moments in “Predators”, mostly due to Goggins and Grace (the interactions between the two are priceless), but the filmmakers don’t make the mistake that so many action movies make, and make the humor too ridiculous. This isn’t Will Smith cracking wise as he empties a clip. It’s definitely gallows humor, the jokes of someone who is well aware that he will probably die very, very soon.

“Predators” feels almost exactly like “Predator”. Much of this is due to the fact that they use the same Alan Silvestri score from the original, but it is more than that. The action is essentially the same, a heavily armed cadre traipses around the jungle and gets picked off by an unseen enemy, but the camera movement closely mimics John McTiernan’s in the first film, as does the color palate. The numerous homages to the first film are obvious, but feel like just that, a tip of the hat as opposed to a rip off. More than any of the other installments in this franchise, “Predators” feels like a “Predator” movie.

Despite my initial reservations, I have to admit that I know whole-heartedly accept Adrien Brody as a legitimate action movie hero. In the 80s it was all about action stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone that looked the part. Their intense physicality set them apart. Guys like Bruce Willis and Steven Seagal changed that paradigm near the end of the decade, and then you got normal looking guys who could still be badass and save the day. But still, even though they looked like everyday people, they were good people, doing the right thing.

In the modern era of action cinema there is a new mold. Characters like Jason Bourne, and Brody’s character, Royce, are less black and white. They are not necessarily decent human beings. They have the requisite backgrounds and skill sets to be heroes, but they are less about being the good guys and more about staying alive and self-preservation. Willis and Seagal generally played parts like cops and military specialists, roles that, from the outset, are firmly planted on the side of good and right. In the new action film, the lines are not as static, things are more complex, and the choice between right and wrong is not always so easy or automatic.

“Predators” may not be a perfect movie, there is an awkward little bit about different types of Predators hunting each other, and some of Brody’s analysis and readings of their behavior may come too easily, but overall, it is totally fucking awesome. I walked out of the theater completely satisfied, and thought to myself that this was the sequel that “Predator” fans have been waiting 23 years for.

I’m probably overhyping “Predators” a bit, and I’m sure that most people won’t have the same reaction to it, and that some will hate it. But even though the world conspired to make me late to my local megaplex, when I finally got there the projector was broken and we had to sit for fifteen minutes, and after that, they herded us into another theater, I still left this movie more satisfied than I have with any movie in years. It almost made me forget about all of the previous missteps in franchise history, not an easy task.

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