You may not be familiar with the name “Shane Black,” but you have most likely heard of his work. He started out as a Hollywood screenwriter with movies like “Lethal Weapon” (1987) and “The Monster Squad” (1987). It is worth noting that he co-wrote “The Monster Squad” with Fred Dekker, a collaborator who returned for “The Predator.” Black is best known for his comedic buddy cop movies and the mismatched but ultimately affecting relationships between his two leads. A recent example is “The Nice Guys” (2016) where the perfectly-cast Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe send sparks throughout the screen with their chemistry. Black’s directorial debut “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005), starring Robert Downey Jr., in fact, was a prototypical buddy cop movie. The partnership between filmmaker and actor continues beautifully in 2013’s “Iron Man 3,” where Downey’s quick wit and line-delivery both work perfectly with Black’s typically snappy dialogue and snarky one-liners. The same cannot be said, however, for the actors and dialogue in “The Predator,” a reboot of the Predator franchise that began in 1987.
Instead of using a single character or relationship to serve as the emotional and thematic core of the film, Black chooses to center the story around a bigger group of misfits and convicts. And a son. And a wife. And a scientist. And a government agent. The list goes on. The results are a mixed bag. As an audience member, I felt no emotional engagement with any of the characters nor their relationships. The cast has plenty of charisma, and there are no glaringly bad performances. All the charm and cleverness in the dialogue of Black’s previous films, however, is replaced with crude and uninspired one-liners in the style of old 80s action movies, some of which are more offensive and insensitive than they are funny or tongue-in-cheek. Comments on Tourette’s Syndrome and autism were in particularly poor taste.
As many other reviewers and news articles have already mentioned, Olivia Munn, playing the biologist Casey Brackett, recently announced that she was not informed during production that she would be working with a registered sex offender by the name of Steven Striegel, who has a minor acting role in the film. 20th Century Fox has subsequently decided to cut his one and only scene, which was a short scene involving him and Munn. Black and Striegel are old friends, and Black cast him with the knowledge of his criminal past. He failed to inform the cast and crew, and viewed the casting of Striegel as helping out a friend. After Munn found out and revealed this information, Black publicly apologized for his decision, but the film and its release continue to be plagued by this scandal.
As “The Predator” is both a sequel and a reboot of an old franchise, it is impossible not to compare it to its 1987 original, even if these comparisons are not very favorable to the former. The first clear difference between the two is the runtime. The original “Predator” is a lean but well-structured 90-minute movie — all muscle and no fat. Although not much longer at two hours, “The Predator” is messy and hectic. The rather incoherent plot and even less comprehensible action sometimes makes it a chore to sit through. “Predator” was not pretentious. Its 80s action and “macho” characters may be simple and pulpy, but despite its cliches and brain-dead violence, “Predator” was effective; its irony and suspense came from the genuine terror that the manly and ostensibly invincible Schwarzenegger and crew displayed when facing off with the alien. The opposite scenario, however, does not share the same success. The group of misfits in “The Predator” are much less competent than their hyper-masculine predecessors but, perversely, do not display any of the same fear of death and failure. They’re a bunch of wisecracking losers and troubled soldiers whose only response to peril is to laugh and joke around. In fact, many of the soldiers neither have nor gain any reason to live. How can the audience be concerned for the characters’ lives if they themselves do not care whether or not they survive? As a result, there’s never a sense of danger or suspense, and the excessive gore and violence feel weightless, distant, and boring, which is a shame since Black has proven himself to be a master of devastating, shocking, awkward, and intimate cinematic violence in his previous works.
“The Predator” also had many production problems. After receiving lackluster reactions from test audiences, Black and the studio initiated reshoots to allegedly “make it scarier.” Their solution was to reshoot the climax of the film in the nighttime instead of in broad daylight. Unfortunately, the resulting difference is not night and day; it’s still not scary. The lack of scares and suspense instead comes from the fundamentally underdeveloped characters, tone, and narrative. Additionally, the reshoot actually created a new problem: you can easily distinguish the reshot parts as they are insufficiently lit and rely on high ISO levels to brighten the screen, leading to ugly digital grain. The end result is a sloppy-looking film with an even sloppier plot. Perhaps the action and sequence of events would have been much easier to follow if the film hadn’t been meddled with after it was already completed as was originally intended.
Hopefully, this misstep compels Black to return to form with a relatively smaller budget and more control over the finished product. I personally wish to believe that he was simply having too much fun swimming in 80s nostalgia and slacked off a little as he unfortunately ended up keeping the bad parts and leaving out the good parts of the movies from a bygone era. In any case, I look forward to whatever he makes next.