Review: ‘Predators’ is a worthy follow-up that’s almost as good as the original film Not for nothing, but ever since the original was released in 1987, it’s felt a little bit like the Predator series has spent much of its time chasing the tail, sometimes literally, of Alien. And after 23 years, two follow-ups and two crossover films, it finally has a second installment that lives up to, and develops the story of the original in much the same way James Cameron’s Aliens did Ridley’s Scott’s Alien. But even though it’s the collective nostalgia of the best of both of those series that drives Nimrod Antal’s intended direct sequel to the 1987 original, Predators is nevertheless a gloriously entertaining movie that qualifies as quite possibly the best fan-service sequel of all time, and one of my favorite films of the summer.

The film practically defines in medias res as it opens with Adrien Brody’s character, Royce, free-falling from an unseen, unknown aircraft towards a vivid, green landscape that seems in an equal hurry to swallow him up. After landing gracelessly in the jungle below, Royce discovers that he’s not the only warrior to be subjected to such unceremonious treatment: there’s drug cartel henchman Cuchillo (Danny Trejo); Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), a minigun-wielding member of the Russian Special Forces; ex-con Stans (Walton Goggins); African death squad soldier Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali); strong, silent Yakuza member Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien); Israeli defense force veteran Isabelle (Alice Braga); and Edwin (Topher Grace), a quick-witted doctor who seems dangerously out of place among these trained killers.

Before long, they encounter Noland (Laurence Fishburne), an eccentric loner with some crazy ideas about the occupants of the jungle, and his new companions’ place in the pecking order. Slowly realizing that they haven’t merely been kidnapped, but recruited to participate in a deadly hunt where they’re the prey, Royce and the others band together to figure out where they are, who’s hunting them, and most importantly, how to survive.

Other than reviving Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character Dutch, Predators has just about every single thing I could imagine wanting in a sequel to the original Predator. Screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch more or less reconstruct the bifurcated military-sci-fi script for the original in a similar but just-different-enough location, insert a colorful ensemble of formidable, unique and interesting characters, and then unleash irresistible forces on unmoveable objects. Suffice it to say that much like in McTiernan’s ’87 film, the deck is stacked against the humans in favor of their extraterrestrial pursuers, but also like its predecessor, Predators features characters whom we not only enjoy watching, but whom we become vaguely invested in before those three little red dots close in on their vital organs and turn their insides into outsides.

Ironically, it’s the use of simplistic archetypes – a staple of summer blockbusters, to be sure, but one seldom employed effectively – that not only defines the characters, but connects us to them. For example, Stans is a one-dimensional, homicidal bumpkin, but it’s the relish with which Goggins celebrates his least attractive attributes that makes him so much fun to hate; meanwhile, Changchien’s Yakuza footsoldier says virtually nothing throughout the whole film, and yet there’s a strange nobility, and eventually, sympathy, in his efforts to prevail against the predators.

That Brody’s character, the default lead, is a prototypical “loner reluctantly forced to work with others” fuels both his emotional “journey” (lofty a term though it is for a film like this) and provides the other characters with details that give their collective efforts some genuine dramatic weight. (It of course helps that Brody seems fully committed to playing Royce as honestly as possible, and gives him substance and nuance above and beyond what was probably required on the page.)

Directorially, Antal may or may not have tried to emulate McTiernan’s clean, muscular visual style, but the films are twins aesthetically, particularly in the sense that both take the material seriously enough for it to work but not so deadly serious to destroy the inherent fun of the subject matter. At this point, it seems almost impossible to have a movie like this without at least a few knowing winks, but Antal builds that self-awareness into the characters and their behavior, turning expository nonsense into (at least) batsh*t entertainment, and sometimes even genuine pathos. So even though Fishburne’s character basically exists to provide the group with some key details about their adversaries, not to mention refurbish their ammunition, Antal transforms a would-be fountain of explanations into the sci-fi equivalent of Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz, a genius-madman who talks to himself and is as incapable of handling companionship as he is excited by it.

The fact that the film emulates the original visually and narratively is almost enough to make Predators great, but the best thing to longtime fans (this one, anyway) is that it more or less pretends that the intervening installments – meaning Predator 2 and the Aliens vs. Predator films – either never happened or are completely irrelevant. Not only is the dialogue overstuffed with references and lines from the first film, thankfully reworked and recontextualized so they play both familiar and original, but that original mythology is the only foundation for the story, even if the characters are on an unknown planet some 23 years later.

Moreover, under Predator fanboy-filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’ producorial guidance, the creatures themselves are multiplied (meaning there’s four of them total) but they’re not serviceably complicated or overdesigned as they were in the AvP movie, which expands the scope of this particular story but doesn’t change the fundamental dynamic that made the original work. But then again, the use of Alan Silvestri’s iconic tribal-adventure-meets-Aaron-Copland score (reworked effectively without noticeable changes by John Debney) could have probably justified any change the filmmakers might have made; an indelible echo of drums in the first scene so clearly announces the film’s loyalty that it would be hard to begrudge Antal, Rodriguez and co. even the most unexpected or bizarre creative indulgence.

Ultimately, it might be as much a result of its lackluster competition as its own merits, but it’s fair to say that on its own terms and certainly in the context of its film series, Predators is truly one of the best sci-fi sequels of all time. It fully satisfies the demands of Predator fans, it engages newcomers without immersing them in repetitive or excessive mythology, and delivers an all-around entertaining experience. In fact, my only concern with its achievement is that it will take another two decades to put together another worthy successor to that’s almost as good as the original. But in the meantime, that also puts us right on track for an Alien movie (or according to Ridley Scott, two movies) that lives up to its predecessors. Because even if it took 23 years, it’s about time that series chases this one’s tail for a change – even if the creatures in this one technically they don’t have them.

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