Shane Black is the kind of filmmaker you’re naturally inclined to root for. His directorial outings (Iron Man 3 notwithstanding) are products of a bygone era — mid-budget genre films made for adults. The slapstick-noir of The Nice Guys and eccentric murder mystery Kiss Kiss Bang Bang were greeted with raves but left very little cultural impact.
Since his breakout writing gig on Lethal Weapon, Black’s scripts have often focused on tough guys with murky moralities trading clever barbs. Thus he seems like a natural fit to helm a dumber-than-dumb ’80s throwback like The Predator (not to mention he was part of the original’s supporting cast). So it saddens me to say The Predator might just be the year’s biggest disappointment, a baffling misfire that’s easily the worst entry in the franchise.
The Predator involves three different narratives clumsily strung together. The primary thread follows a group of PTSD mercenaries dubbed “The Loonies,” unwittingly led by actor Boyd Holbrook (an utter nothing of a protagonist), who was the sole survivor of a jungle massacre involving a Predator. The second involves Olivia Munn, who visits a lab inhabited by imbecile scientists who have captured a Predator for examination. Obviously, they are all immediately slaughtered before Munn escapes. Finally, we have Jacob Tremblay in a surprisingly appalling performance as an autistic child whose condition could make him “the next step in evolution.”
The nonsensical manner in which their paths converge is not worth delving into, as the plot moves at breakneck speed to reach the scenes of various characters getting tossed about and torn to pieces by the titular intergalactic hunter. This would be perfectly acceptable given the genre, except the nonstop action is obnoxiously staged, filled with an egregious amount of CG blood and goo straight out of a SyFy original and edited together with quick cuts that render it incomprehensible.
For someone whose screenwriting credits include The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight, action has ironically never been Black’s strongest suit as a director. That means at least The Predator can deliver some of his inimitable, lightning-fast verbal exchanges, right? Perhaps the most lamentable tragedy is Black’s trademark bro banter this time around is just … the worst. That’s no fault of the impressive cast, either. Comic relief duties are given to Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Jane (always good to see in a theatrical release), who are burdened with the most cringe-worthy and juvenile punchlines of their respective careers.
Here’s an example of the transcendent wordplay scattered throughout:
Character 1: Can I interest you in some ‘Let’s get the fuck out of here?’
Character 2: ‘Let’s get the fuck out of here’ is my middle name.
Character 3 [referring to his own name]: And I thought Gaylord was bad!
Honestly, between the whiplash editing and horrific dialogue, this is near unrecognizable as a Black screenplay. If reports are to be believed, it’s immediately apparent there was some heavy studio meddling by Fox, and you can’t help wondering if the result may have been better if the director was left to his own devices.
In all fairness, The Predator doesn’t take itself seriously for a moment, and after the dour and underwhelming Predators in 2010, it’s a welcome change of tone. It’s clear the aim was to be a throwback to the ultraviolent, silly action flicks of the 1980s that Black helped usher in, which I love in concept, but the outcome is a mess. Even the political incorrectness that was mildly charming in previous efforts comes across as woefully misguided here. His portrayal of PTSD in Iron Man 3 was downright nuanced compared to how he handles an autistic boy (one the audience is supposed to root for), who literally murders someone without remorse halfway through. And I won’t even get into Thomas Jane’s comic relief bit as a former soldier with Tourette’s Syndrome that feels like a bad South Park bit.
It’s been 31 years since the original Predator graced multiplexes with its brutal charms and Schwarzenegger one-liners. Three direct sequels (and a couple lame spinoffs) later, and it has yet to be equaled. You wouldn’t think it would be too difficult to make another great movie out of an alien hunter disemboweling a rogue’s gallery of badasses, but here we are. By now, if even a great writer-director can’t revive this series, why keep trying?