Friday, July 9, 2010

"Predators" (2010)

Starring Adrien Brody, Alice Braga and Topher Grace
Written by Alex Litvak and Michael Finch
Directed by Nimrod Antal

"Man, I really wish the governor of California were here..."
The original "Predator" starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers and Jesse "The Body" Ventura is without a doubt, a modern classic.  It features a script full of lively, discernible characters taking on one of the best movie creatures the legendary Stan Winston ever designed, and a palpable atmosphere of rising paranoia.  John McTiernan directed the shit out of what could easily have been just a shitty B-movie and created something really awesome.

But, as they say, sometimes lightning can't really strike the same place twice.  "Predator 2" was a forgettable romp that replaced Schwarzenegger with Danny Glover and the South American jungle for... Los Angeles.  Many years, comic books, action figures and video games later, the franchise would be revived with the godawful "Alien vs Predator" - one of the funniest movies I've ever seen - and the incompetent followup, "Alien vs Predator: Requiem".

Then we come to 2010, and we get "Predators."  The first true sequel in the franchise since "Predator 2," it mostly just apes the first flick (and therefore feels much more like a sequel than "Predator 2" ever does).  Instead of a team of military badasses, we get a bunch of international badasses from all walks of life: Mexican drug cartels, Yakuza, ex-military, death row inmate, the works.  These people awake in freefall thousands of feet up in the air, loaded up with guns and ammo and a parachute.

When they hit the ground, they immediately begin to meet up with each other and wonder what's going on.  They all distrust each other, but once they realize that they're all in the same boat, they realize that strength in numbers is their best option.  Taking lead is an American mercenary, Royce (Adrien Brody) and a sniper named Isabelle (Alice Braga).  They find themselves grouped up with a Russian with a gatling gun (Oleg Taktarov), a Nigerian with an AK-47 (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), a southern death row inmate (Walton Goggins), a Mexican kidnapper with dual MP-5s (Danny Trejo), and an unarmed doctor (Topher Grace).  Marching together through the jungle that none of them recognizes, they soon begin to learn that their situation is far more dire than they'd realized: they are not on planet Earth anymore.  Instead, they have been dropped on an alien world and are being hunted by creatures they cannot see and have no concept how to kill.

While "Predators" borrows a lot from its predecessors, it smartly avoids outright aping the first film beat for beat.  In the original film, Schwarzenegger's team was picked off one by one by this creature, and they never learn anything about it - in fact, Schwarzenegger is the only one who even sees the hunter in that film.  Here, the characters learn much more about their adversaries, both by finding the alien camp and inspecting it and through their own suppositions about hunting behavior, and by meeting Noland (Laurence Fishburne) a survivor of previous hunting excursions on this planet.

Through this, we as an audience also learn more about the predators, as well.  This is the sort of interesting world building, an expansion of scope, that a good sequel is supposed to do.  While the "Alien vs Predator" movies were content to make up absurd backstories about the Predators and Xenomorphs running amok in ancient Mayan temples or whatever the hell that movie was about, "Predators" decides to take the simple setup of the first movie and expand it in far more believable directions.

The problem with "Predators" is that none of the characters are as fun or memorable as Schwarzenegger's team of badasses in the original.  While those characters all had distinct personalities, most of the characters in "Predators" are just gravely-voiced angry-looking people.  Adrien Brody, for example, speaks in a low, gritty voice the entire time, delivering declarative sentences over and over and expecting the audience to take him seriously as a dangerous person.  The problem is that Brody just can't come off as a dangerous person.  Schwarzenegger looked like he could snap you in half with his little finger, and he had the necessary presence to command his team.  Brody can do neither.

Only Walton Goggins as the jokey, douchebag death row rapist comes off as being truly memorable.  He steals every scene he's in, and gets all of the movie's best lines.  Even Topher Grace surprised me, as his usual snarky delivery ends up in an unexpected place at the end.  I originally thought I'd had his purpose in the story pegged, but I was definitely wrong on that one.  Danny Trejo is criminally underutilized.  In fact, he's really the only true badass in the entire flick, and he only appears for a few minutes.  Laurence Fishburne's role is not much more than a glorified cameo, but he does well enough with it.  His mixture of knowledge and insanity makes sense in the role, as that of a man who has survived a long time being hunted by these alien creatures on a dangerous, unknown world.

Also problematic is that these characters don't really get any memorable lines, either.  The original film was littered with (admittedly somewhat cheesy) quotable bits like, "I ain't got time to bleed," or "If it bleeds, we can kill it" or "You are one ugly muthafucka" or the ultimate classic, "GET TO THE CHOPPA!"

But these characters are really the only problem with "Predators."  Otherwise, it's a fine sequel.  The violence is pretty intense, the creature effects are solid (though the CGI 'predator dogs' were somewhat cartoonish).  I suppose I could have asked for the world to seem more alien, but the movie was shot on a limited budget and for what it's trying to do, I can't ask for much more.  The designs of the Predator creatures themselves were a good evolution from Stan Winston's original, and the differences between them have an interesting story-related explanation, as well.

There are a lot of callbacks to the original, not the least of which is John Debney's score with utilizes all of the themes in Alan Silvestri's original work.  I don't know that I'd be able to tell the differences between the scores, really, other than that Debney's sounds newer thanks to better technology available.  Unlike Marco Beltrami's adaptation of Michael Kamen's work on "Die Hard" for "Live Free or Die Hard," or John Ottman working new themes into John Williams for "Superman Returns," Debney simply writes new uses of the old themes instead of adapting them into his own work.  This helps "Predators" further feel like a sequel, grounding it firmly in that universe.  The events of the original film are also referenced, since Isabelle recounts hearing about a lone survivor of an earlier encounter with such creatures. 

By no means a classic, "Predators" is still rather enjoyable.  It's certainly better than the two dreadful "Alien vs Predator" movies, and "Predator 2".  But the original Schwarzenegger flick is just too good.  I find myself wondering if there really is any way to top that, and I don't really think there is.  The characterization of the character is too limited to really allow much expansion of the franchise.  The Predator is a hunter, and that's all it is - that limits the storytelling possibilities, and yet, it's a popular creation, and therefore, the audience wants more.  It's like if you're hungry, and all you have in the house is pasta, you make a really good bowl of pasta and you want more... It's good, but you've still only got more pasta.