Finally, a worthy 'Predator' sequel: Respect for viewers is at the heart of fun thriller
I know what you’re thinking. The sight of Adrien Brody waking up to find himself plummeting from the sky in the opening scene of “Predators’’ is all too apt a career metaphor. How did a young star who seemed destined to save serious acting turn into another action figure? Who cares? Where do I get my hands on one?
Brody looks a bit like the muscled, vaguely human reptiles hunting him down, except he’s all Eastwood, Heston, and Stallone, too — hilariously, humorlessly macho. It didn’t seem like there was an American under 40 in the movie business capable of being persuasively masculine without a twitch of irony or pleading. We’ve been importing that guy from Scotland and Australia, and Pandora! But Brody makes an entertaining case for some kind of embargo.
He crashes down in a jungle. Seconds later, so do a few more bewildered, heavily armed actors — it’s Danny Trejo! And Alice Braga! And some Russian dude! — and a pile of limbs whose parachute failed to open. Soon eight strangers, including a Sierra Leonean (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), a death-row hick (Walton Goggins), a natty Yakuza (Louis Ozawa Changchien), and an American doctor (Topher Grace, armed, with only his sarcasm), are trying to figure out precisely where they are. (By the way, Oleg Taktarov plays the Russian.) An awed gander at the planetarium-load of objects hanging in the heavens raises an important question: What is going on? (It’s better asked with expletives, the way our strangers do.)
Gradually, the characters give us a few helpful hints, and the wonderfully steely Braga, playing a Latin American guerrilla, rehashes the plot of “Predator,’’ that 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger hit to which this movie is a kind of alternative sequel to the installments that followed. Her recitation sounds like combat lore. But, again, I know what you’re thinking: Didn’t this show just end two months ago? Yes, “Predators,’’ with its tropical mystery; sweaty, confused cast; and no exit, is “Lost,’’ on the one hand. On another, it’s also “Saw III.’’ And on yet another — work with me, people; have you seen the creatures doing the hunting here? — it becomes “Rambo,’’ “Aliens,’’ and “Avatar.’’ Crucially, however, it’s a little bit Jean-Paul Sartre, as well: Hell is other people — and the monsters chasing you down.
The assembled characters have been dropped into this jungle from the scenes of their respective crimes — death squads, genocide, etc. Despite their military trappings — more often because of them — they’re not terribly humane people, and their appearance among such relentless quasi-human monsters seems like a punishment for their own moral transgressions. It’s a clever idea that the writers Alex Litvak and Michael Finch are smart not to overplay.
The fun-addict director Robert Rodriguez produced “Predators,’’ so, accordingly, it also flirts with too-muchness in a good way. Just when it looked as if Brody couldn’t be better or more authoritative, a more robustly stentorian thespian arrives after halftime to add perspective to Brody’s masculinity. I won’t name the actor, although the ads don’t treat it as much of a secret. But it was a surprise to me, all the same. His sense of leadership is captivating and, later, so is his derangement, which creates more allusions, namely to Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now.’’ Those mourning “Lost,’’ will find this character’s description of his stay in this jungle intriguingly cosmic. How long has he been there? “Seven seasons, I think’’ — but possibly as many as 10, he says. Dude, “Lost’’ ended after six. Holy, crypto-spinoff!
The director of “Predators’’ is Nimród Antal, whose B-movies — “Kontroll,’’ “Vacancy,’’ “Armored’’ — refuse to settle for the free 200 points awarded for filling in one’s name. He’s a skilled moviemaker who understands the cumulative power of withholding. A good thriller is a striptease, and Antal respects the art of peeling away layers. He uses his camera (Gyula Pados is the cinematographer) to draw you in, instead of leaning on editing blitzes to spell everything out, the way 90 percent of this ilk of horror-action-comedy does.
When Brody gives his castmates a cautionary speech — “we run, we die,’’ he warns — the camera drifts in for a medium close-up that demands to be taken seriously. As you watch bodies tumble down a hill and into a lake, there’s even an urge to applaud the brutality of the stunt work. (Looked real to me.) Antal is a professional who respects your dollars. In a season where the blockbusters are as flat as month-old soda, that’s the most romantic gesture a commercial filmmaker can make.