Predators begins with professional hardman Royce (Adrien Brody) freefalling into the dense, hostile jungle of an alien planet. He's soon joined by Cuchillio (Danny Trejo), Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov) and Isabelle (Alice Braga) among a variety of mercenaries, revolutionaries and criminals. They all have one thing in common: they're dangerous. But next to the jungle's regular inhabitants, the fearsome predators, they're easy prey. This is a bleak world with only a doctor by the name of Edwin (Topher Grace) to ease the tone with some likably jokey material. For a summer sequel seeped in expectations and formulaic design Predators feels brilliantly refreshing. It's not in 3D. It makes great use of practical effects. And it's paced 80/20 in favor of character development and survival. Despite what the trailer would have you believe Antal's fourth feature film isn't another all-out actioner. It's suitably dark, violent and surprisingly engaging. In fact it's probably the best Predator movie there's ever been.
That may be a controversial statement to make but what the original Predator (John McTiernan, 1987) had going for it was macho appeal and special effects. It's about as deep as a puddle and the butch, one-liner strewn tone feels very dated. Of course a franchise with its eye squarely on setting pulses pounding doesn't exactly need to be character-driven but Predators is compelling in its approach of making the characters interesting and allowing them to develop over the course of the film. By the mid-way point you really feel like you know them and when the film does reach the fiery, blood-letting finale there are emotions invested. It's also vital to note that none of the characters are especially likable. At one point Edwin gets injured in a trap, disabling his leg. An argument ensues between Isabelle and Royce as to whether they should take him with them; they both know he'll slow them down. In any other film it would be a moment of morality where the hero reflects and, in the end, saves the helpless victim. But in Predators there are no heroes. "They expect you to be human" says Royce. The land of Predators is full of killers, human or inhuman. Morals don't even come into it. And it's a good job the film has this card to play because despite everything it's mind-blowingly unoriginal. The characters are picked off one by one as they wade through a stilted script full of exposition, a key exchange being "How do we kill them?", "However you can". For all its focus on character and exploration of team mechanics and primal instincts Predators can sometimes grate on the ears. Which is why Antal and producer Robert Rodriguez (Planet Terror, 2007) had the sense to hire some real actors.
The main point of interest is of course OSCAR winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist, Roman Polanski, 2002), notoriously thin in appearance and intense in his craft. He's one of our finest actors and to find him in this kind of material is initially confusing. But that's exactly why he's here. Not only has Brody significantly beefed up for the role (he's not Schwarzenegger, but you wouldn't take a swipe at him), he also invests Royce with psychological depth and a believable world-weary attitude. Watching him take on a predator in the films final stages could have been laughable but instead it's exciting, dramatic and very, very cool. As an actor he didn't need to prove his range to anyone but with Predators he confirms the obvious; Adrien Brody can do no wrong and his presence in a film always assures a level of interest. The rest of the cast do well in their roles but are predictable choices. The least effective character is Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) who doesn't speak for most of the film but does engage in some Crouching Tiger Hidden Predator towards the end, in an uninspired set-piece.
The whole thing feels remarkably assured too. Antal, while not the greatest director in the world, has a clear vision for this 15 rated outing and the bleak tone, careful unfolding of plot and pumped-up action are perfectly balanced. The photography and score offer nothing groundbreaking but work effectively in the piece as a whole. It's perhaps not as good as a 20 year wait would suggest (the last official Predator film was released in 1990) but it's better than we had any right to expect. With as little CGI as possible (the predators look awesome) it has a very old-school feel and the ending leaves open the possibility of another installment. In a world of Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007) and 2012 (Roland Emmerich, 2009) quite frankly i'd go freefalling for another Predators film. And a blood-soaked trek through the jungle, as it turns out, wouldn't be such a bad place to land...