Cartoonishly violent and proudly profane, The Predator is like a Hollywood action movie pulled into our reality from an alternate timeline. In most respects, it plays like the exact sequel writer-director Shane Black might have made in the late 1980s, had he secured the gig back then instead of right now. That isn’t an impossible what-if scenario to imagine. Black, after all, actually had a small role in 1987’s Predator, as one of the macho commandos being stalked through the sweltering jungle by an extraterrestrial game hunter. And the same year, he made his own iconic action-movie breakthrough with the screenplay for Lethal Weapon. The Predator, which Black penned with Monster Squad cowriter and director Fred Dekker, makes a few concessions to modern blockbuster filmmaking, including an overabundance of CGI, a blatantly franchise-thirsty ending, and some winking references to the original. But the movie’s values are more 1988 than 2018, and that’s what it makes it fun, at least in spurts: Black has captured the spirit of that bygone era of adrenaline-junkie junk without getting all retro-fussy about it.
A hulking intergalactic Ahab with dreadlocks, fearsome mandibles under a sleek tribal helmet, and absurdly advanced technology (that the guy thinks he’s playing fair by not blowing away anyone without a weapon is pretty rich, like a heavily armed hunter on a game reserve), the Predator remains one of the cooler monsters spawned by a movie studio over the last few decades. Truthfully, though, for all the spattery damage he does here to military red shirts, the guy isn’t really the star of this movie. Black, whose last franchise picture pointedly took its superhero out of his suit to banter with a mismatched partner and hurl insults at a little kid, seems more interested in reviving the roughneck camaraderie of John McTiernan’s original, this time with a literal busload of quipping misfits.
They’re “The Loonies,” or Group 2, a ragtag outfit of ex-soldiers, many coping with PTSD, being swept under the rug by the movie’s particularly untrustworthy version of U.S. intelligence. (As in much of his work, Black’s treatment of mental illness is both crude and at times oddly poignant. Call it the Riggs effect.) The unofficial A-Team includes cucumber-cool Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), motor-mouthed platoon clown Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), boundaries-violating oddball Nettles (Augusto Aguilera), nondescript British oddball Lynch (Alfie Allen), and Tourettes-afflicted oddball Baxley (Thomas Jane). The five end up joining forces with Quinn (Boyd Holbrook), a decorated military sniper whose former team is wiped out by a certain invisibility-cloaked space invader in the opening minutes. To say that Holbrook, who played the heavy in Logan, is no Arnold Schwarzenegger would be to understate the matter. But then, neither were Danny Glover or Adrien Brody. A mythic he-man presence like Arnold’s, more alien than the alien’s, comes around once in a Hollywood lifetime.
To recount the film’s plot would be to potentially give it more thought than the creative team did. It involves global warming, genetic modification, a government cover-up, the politics of the Predator community, and Quinn’s son with autism (Jacob Tremblay from Room), who ends up getting his hands on some otherworldly gear and accidentally summoning its trigger-happy owner to the American suburbs on Halloween night. Black keeps everything moving at a breakneck pace; in another callback to yesterday’s entertainments, the action gets underway within minutes (opening scene: a space craft careening toward Earth) and never really lets up throughout. The tough-guy banter flies faster and more often than the artillery, with Black going heavy on running gags, like everyone insisting that “Predator” is a misnomer for a creature that hunts for sport not survival.
When the jokes land, which they do more often than not, it’s often thanks to Black’s overqualified cast. Rhodes, who was so affecting as the oldest incarnation of Chiron in Moonlight, makes the strongest impression, deepening Black’s preoccupation with suicidal anti-heroes by keeping Nebraska’s pain just below the surface of his outlaw cool. Meanwhile, Sterling K. Brown chews the scenery wildly as the ostensible bad guy (it’s hard to root against a villain who seems to be enjoying himself as much as this CIA-or-whatever bigwig is), and Olivia Munn gets to spout deadpan asides and leap onto the aforementioned moving bus as the movie’s requisite science-teacher exposition machine, though the team kind of treats her like nervous 13-year-old boys welcoming a girl into their treehouse. (No points for granting her more agency than the lone, basically mute female character of the original.)
Over the years, Black has improbably clawed his way to critical acclaim, much of it directed toward his quirky Los Angeles noirs Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys. The Predator is not of that more prestigious ilk. Again, it’s more like something he might have just written for hire a couple decades ago: a crass, loud, flavorfully dumb action distraction that gets by largely on attitude. Perhaps it goes without saying that the writer-turned-director hasn’t matched the intensity of McTiernan’s movie, whose action was both more nightmarishly chaotic—evoking the horror stories of the Vietnam War with scenes of an enemy dealing death from the foliage—and more spatially coherent. By the time The Predator has reached its woodland finale, blatantly evoking its predecessor (and maybe, too, the underrated Predators, which had more fun ideas about how to play in this franchise universe), the comparisons Black and Dekker are courting have become less flattering. But that’s just another way of saying that the first movie was better. Thirty years ago, The Predator might have looked like a truly disappointing sequel. Today it’s kind of refreshing, benefiting from some franchise version of déjà vu: The first watch feels like a nostalgic rewatch.