Silver Screen: Predators ***
Unlike his pal and frequent collaborator Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez isn't much of an ironist. Both men like their movies big and loud, but the smirking distance that often marks a Tarantino flick is mostly absent in Rodriguez's work, which evinces an unabashed love of the big and the loud and the defiantly dumb. It's not that Rodriguez doesn't recognize silliness in his own movies so much as he just doesn't seem to care.
This earnestness can be refreshing, and it turns out to be just the ticket for his pseudo-relaunch of the Predator series. That's not to say that the amnesiac sequel to the first two films in the franchise, which upsets nothing by ignoring the two awful Aliens versus Predator movies, is particularly artful, but rather that Rodriguez had the good sense not to try to make it so. Something as ruthlessly simplistic as some dudes in the jungle fighting a talon-faced techno-equipped killer alien doesn't invite anything like analysis, subtext, metaphor, or barely even dialogue or character, which is fine. Dudes go into jungle, dudes fight beast in jungle, roll credits.
So Predators, which Rodriguez oversaw as producer but shopped out to writers Alex Litvak and Michael Finch and the unfortunately named director Nimró d Antal, is pretty good in that it delivers exactly what it promises with polish and efficiency, and even manages to conjure up the ghost of an interesting storyline that might make for an interesting, slightly more complicated sequel.
The film gets off to a rollicking start. Steely eyed military man Royce (Adrien Brody) wakes up as he's falling through the sky. His parachute opens, if a little late, and he comes crashing down into an unfamiliar jungle with no memory of how he got there. After a quick recon, he finds several other unwitting paratroopers: a Mexican-gang enforcer (Danny Trejo), an American-government assassin (Alice Braga), a convicted murderer (Walton Goggins), a Yakuza agent (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a Soviet agent (Oleg Taktarov), an African warlord's muscle man (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), and a doctor (Topher Grace).
Each member of the group is a proven killer, save for the hapless doctor. After they discover the jungle they're in is not on Earth, they set about trying to decide who put them all here, and for what purpose.
They discover the latter answer soon enough-- they appear to be chosen prey for a trio of laser-sporting, knife-wielding alien badasses we've come to know as predators. As the otherworldly beasts pick them off one by one, they form a defensive plan with the help of a lone surviving human on the planet (Laurence Fishburne).
Predators is the kind of movie that genuinely carries the suggestion that perhaps the "predators" of the title aren't just the aliens but also the human killers, as though it is a clever bit of insight, and delivers lines like "The hunters have become the hunted" as if no one has ever heard it before. In other words, it's a Rodriguez movie, pumped full of juvenile energy but viscerally exciting all the same. It exists entirely to service effects shots and action, but that action is well-staged and nicely captured by Antal, whose Vacancy was similarly simplistic but thrilling.
Brody makes for a more convincing action hero than anyone might suspect, although he overdoes a gravely, raspy voice with the same self-consciousness as Christian Bale turning Batman into the Caped Crusader into an audio amalgam of Marge Simpson's chain-smoking sisters Patty and Selma. His crew is serviceable as well, especially the delightfully skeezy Goggins and supporting-actor stalwart Trejo. (The latter will get his time to shine in Rodriguez's forthcoming Machete, which looks to be the real action-movie highlight of the year.)
Interestingly, Rodriguez's handpicked writing/directing team leave some of the major plot threads dangling, partly perhaps to facilitate a sequel, but also because it really doesn't matter in the context of the movie. It's people versus predators, kill or be killed, and the whys and wherefores are second priority. It's a bit ballsy for such a commercial movie to defy a tidy resolution to the plot and to refuse to answer so many questions. It's maybe the only real risk anyone takes in making Predators, but it was a good one.