After learning that I disliked his horror movie, a director at a film festival spent two days trying to confront me. I tried to be nice about it, complimenting the things I did enjoy such as the cinematography and how much he was able to get out of his obviously limited budget. He pestered me for a few minutes before my politeness façade began to crack. Eventually, I told him that the numerous problems started with the screenplay and his overly muddled storyline and how, in the end most of it seemed fairly random, just an excuse for predictable jump scares and overacting. He wasn’t used to the directness, so he started insulting me in every way he could think of, before stopping in his tracks to question my concerns with his film. Since it had been 2 days and 7 films since I had seen his movie, I had to refer to my notes, and as I went point by point, he tried to convince me I was wrong. Eventually, in his need to dismiss me and prove that I must be some sort of idiot, he blurted out, “Well you just didn’t understand the mythology.”
Nimrod Antal’s Predators has an equally muddled mythology, requiring more of the viewer than the script provides. Ignoring the more interesting elements of Predator 2, which began to explore who the Predators were, their history and what exactly they wanted, suggests that Antal and producer Robert Rodriguez (whose kid in a genre candy store personality is all over Predators) dropped the ball by simply embracing standard low-budget action clichés and eschewing palatable backstory for the flimsy characters.
But Antal and Rodriguez did remember to include lots of self-consciously dumb dialogue that reflect their stylistic choices, that of a pared-down rules-don’t-apply version of a goofy Sam Raimi film, especially in the Crank-style opening of Adrien Brody emerging out of unconsciousness just as he’s falling to his death, thousands of feet in the air. It’s both an unsettling, disorienting moment, and a completely ridiculous one, especially when it’s revealed that there are bodies dropping from the sky all over the place, as that’s the way the Predators introduce their planet to the kidnapped captives.
Whoever is able to navigate their parachutes and the trees below without benefit of decapitation, gets to participate in the Predators’ game. That the myriad of macho military types selected are the prey shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has seen the movie’s trailer or finished the third grade. We get various one-named characters, all fighting different wars on Earth, all as racially mixed as a gang in a Death Wish movie (you must have one African with an attitude, one Yakuza, one Israeli freedom fighter, one redneck on death row, one Mexican gang member, and a burly Russian with a helicopter mini-gun to take this ride).
Brody does his best Clint Eastwood/Snake Plissken impression (yes, there is such a thing as good miscasting), but he knows what kind of movie he’s in, and you can see him still working on his “tough guy” faces even when he’s in the background of a shot. Walton Goggins never puts down his ignorant hillbilly mug for a refill (on Justified and The Shield, he does it better than anyone else); he’s always full of idiocy and misplaced excitement (“if we get off this planet, I’m going to do so much cocaine”). Laurence Fishburne, who, along with Danny Trejo, completes the B-movie heaven of casting, has a lot of fun making Apocalypse Now references and acting like a loon, and he gets the best entrance in the movie. The silent Yakuza (Louis Ozawa Changchien) gets a mano-a-Predator samurai sword battle amongst billowing weeds, in a scene surely swiped from a fuzzy memory of Japanese Baby Cart movies.
The Japanese influence isn’t limited to sword fights, the criminals and violent miscreants fighting unknown monsters was done on a much lower budget in Ryûhei Kitamura’s Versus. And while watching Predators there’s no avoiding being reminded of Cube, with the isolation with narratively useful strangers (Topher Grace has a badly written and confusing role as a doctor), conspiracy theories and “are we dead?” and “is this hell?” thought bubbles. But those are just story similarities, and what Antal and Rodriguez have managed to do is make a sillier, larger budgeted, outer-space version of Walter Hill’s masterpiece of tension and Deliverance paranoia, Southern Comfort.
Of course, I admit to having a bias, since Southern Comfort is one of the best of a sub-genre I can’t help but enjoy: That of violent strangers, trapped, and being attacked by an unknown outside force (think Assault on Precinct 13). And so Predators, despite its many flaws, the pacing is especially wobbly in the second half, and though the film is a bit long there’s obviously a lot of deleted material that would clear up a lot of third act problems (Grace’s character is always there to stop the film dead in its tracks), is awfully entertaining idiocy*.
Rodriguez and Antal manage to keep Predators marvelously moronic while throwing a bone to the fans of the first film; by making musical and visual allusions to it (Alice Braga’s token female character is a dead ringer for Elpidia Carrillo’s refugee role in Predator). While the up-close fighting is more WWE, which was what sunk Alien vs. Predator (which is notably disregarded in Predators), the decapitations and removed limbs continue the sweaty, homoerotic feel of the 1987 film. If anything, Predators continues a tradition: In the first film Arnold told the Predator he was “one ugly motherfucker.” In Predator 2, Danny Glover calls a Predator “Pussyface” (referring to his rather vaginal facial construction). And in Predators, Walton Goggins calls a Predator a “Space faggot.” That certainly makes me look forward to another sequel, where perhaps a character can comment on the Predator’s penchant for dread locks, and I can learn some new epithets for Jamaicans.
* Even if we don’t learn anything about the Predators as beings, other than the fact that they get their own personal spaceships, controllable through their digital wristwatches.