TIFF Review: ‘The Predator’ is the action throwback we need right now

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the Toronto International Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.

When people talk about wanting action movies like they used to make back in the ’80s or the ’90s, Hollywood typically thinks that they want the window dressing: They want a Biggie needle drop or some feathered hair to glam up an otherwise rote and boring cash-grab. What they actually mean, I think, is that they want strong and recognizable characters involved in some sort of interesting plot, with exciting action that arises out of the circumstances that they find themselves in. They want filmmakers not to be afraid of being broad and, God help us, fun in the face of a blockbuster auteur-imposed austerity and seriousness, and they want some sort of charisma — be it within the celluloid itself or in the form of one of the leads — to keep them captivated (this is why the Rock makes so much fucking money every time he releases a “funny” action movie).

Shane Black’s The Predator is a total refutation of that status quo, which posits that people want to be thrilled and to be entertained than to be awed, and it’s the best Predator film since the original, which isn’t that surprising to anybody who’s sat through the other two main-line Predator sequels. What is surprising is how close it comes to matching the fun of the first one, based on the quality of its ensemble and its lightness.

We begin in deep space, where a small and familiar Predator craft is being pursued and fired at by a much larger (and scarier) ship. After a shot takes out one of its engines, the pilot — a traditional Predator as we’ve seen them in the prior films — rips open a hole in space and crosses the galaxy in order to reach Earth, where it crash-lands. The pilot ejects, and his landing craft winds up in Mexico, interrupting a routine hostage rescue by Special Forces sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook). McKenna survives his encounter with the Alien creature, and somehow manages to also steal some of his gear, which he sends back to his estranged wife, and his autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay)* for safe keeping. Yes, this doesn’t make very much sense, but it gives us the forward thrust of the plot. He doesn’t realize that he’s put his family in a great deal of danger, and neither does his son, who takes to the gear he sent like a fish to water and begins to learn the Predator’s language.

So, both McKenna and the Predator are captured by a G-Man named Traeger (an interesting Sterling K. Brown), and the sniper is scheduled to be sent to a military mental hospital along with a group of nuts, while the Predator is sent to be examined by a secret scientific task force. Traeger’s recruited Professor Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn)**, an evolutionary biologist, and brought her in to check out the monster, who is restrained on a table in an underground lair. You can probably guess how that goes.

Meanwhile, on the bus, McKenna meets his fellow passengers — there’s Nebraska (a stand-out Trevante Rhodes), who shot his CO when he pissed Nebraska off; the jovial Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key) and Tourette’s-stricken Baxley (Thomas Jane), a set of prisoners who seem to always be at each other’s throats; the magician and Englishman Lynch (Alfie Allen); and Nettles (Augusto Aguilera), a panicky dude who can’t get his shit together — and they’re forced to work together when the Predator makes his moves, alongside Bracket, who manages to escape the carnage he causes. They’ll have to evade the alien, the military, and the alien’s enemy, who is very concerned about the cargo that the Predator’s brought to Earth and will do anything to get it back.

I can’t stress how much fun it is to watch Black and the ensemble work with this genuinely silly plot, which twists and turns agreeably depending on the mood. There’s always enough going on that the film never really feels boring or slows down, even though it occasionally threatens to, but the filmmaker keeps everyone on their toes. There are some excellent action sequences, like a night-time firefight with the Predator in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, great creature design (the Predadogs, as you may have gleaned from the trailer, wind up becoming really endearing in their own way), and solid — and surprising — gore (seriously, we get guts in the first 10 minutes of this film, and it’s a good indicator of what’s to come down the line). There are some complaints and quibbles: For one, the film relies too much on over-blown CGI, which threatens to derail some of the action near the end of the film, and the design of the Mega Predator is kinda bullshit as well (though it makes sense that the Predators would have advanced their own tech as well, given that we have since 1987), but the fun acts as concealer and prevents the blemishes from being noticeable except for under harsh light.

A few people will probably get mad at Black about its tone, which is about as light and breezy as his other output. I didn’t mind it at all, especially since that he’s able to manage the ensemble well with the help of his Monster Squad co-writer (and hidden genre icon) Fred Dekker. Everyone gets a moment to shine, and they’re all witty enough in their own ways to pick up the pieces if a joke doesn’t land. Jane and Key have the film’s best rapport, though the slow-forming bromance between Rhodes and Holbrook is endearing as well. So, the tone and characterizations are solid, but the persistent idea that we should be treating this very silly franchise — about an intergalactic game hunter killing his way through suburbia — with the reverence reserved for your garden-variety religious text is absolutely nuts to me.

The original wasn’t deathly serious and we’ve already tried the glowering serious business within the last decade, when Robert Rodriguez had enough Hollywood clout to head up a production of that size without James Cameron’s help, and it doesn’t fucking work. The reclamation of that silliness, that sense of fun, is The Predator’s greatest accomplishment, and everything else — the stellar plotting, the excellently brutal kills — are just added bonuses.

* Note I: A quick note about Tremblay’s character: A number of people have come out against the portrayal of this on-the-spectrum kid here, but I didn’t find it to be that bad (though I can understand their viewpoints). His particular relevance later on in the film to the Predators is pseudo-sciencey bullshit, but it is done so in a way that is well-within the boundaries of this kind of populist science fiction. He’s constantly useful and treated with respect by the script, aside from one off-color joke, which stands in deep contrast to something like Jason Reitman’s Tully. Besides, if this manages to convince someone that someone on the spectrum in their own life might be just as useful and as skilled as any number of Army badasses, I’d say that’s a net positive.

** Note II: This shouldn’t have to be said, but here goes: Munn is courageous for speaking out about the scenes she shared with a sex offender hired by Black that were eventually cut out of the film, and shame on Black for making her feel unsafe at work.

‘The Predator’ opens nationally on Thursday (September 13). Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.