Robert Rodriguez just can't seem to get out of the grindhouse these days, can he? In another month or so, he'll release Machete, the expanded version of the ridiculously bad (and bad ass) trailer attached to the beginning of Grindhouse, and opening today, we get Predators, a stripped-down return to basics of a franchise that hasn't been engaging since 1990.
Fortunately for us, Rodriguez' hard-on for classic genre movies is a good thing. This was the first time I actually enjoyed watching a Predator movie since Danny Glover chased the serpentine rastafarian alien around a slightly futuristic Los Angeles in Predator 2. While it doesn't really approach the inventive greatness of the Arnold Schwarzenegger original, Predators is a lean, mean disembowling machine.
The action gets started right off the bat as our ensemble cast wakes up in a free-fall, each tugging at a parachute ripcord, allowing them to land safely in a dense jungle. It soon becomes clear that they're not in Kansas anymore, due to a sun that never sets (let alone moves) and a sky with too many moons. We quickly find out that these people are all highly skilled killers from all walks of life, be it soldier, convict, drug cartel enforcer, or samurai sword-wielding Yakuza gang member. Then, all of a sudden, some CGI beasts come stomping through the dense forest.
Make no bones about it, this ain't Avatar. We're not in a lush, ocean-like planet, but a spiny, mean shithole of a rock, and the set design is reflectively (and budgetarily) sparse. It's clear that Predators isn't trying to bite off more than it can chew, but some of the effects, particularly the computer-generated ones, look a little on the shoddy side. But let's be honest, it's not the kind of movie competing for a Best Visual Effects award, it's here to fuck shit up. And it does so rather well.
Adrien Brody turns out to be the reluctant hero in Royce, a stereotypical soldier of fortune with an Eastwood-gravel voice and plenty of cheeseball dialogue. And abs of steel. Essentially filling the role Arnold Schwarzenegger played in the John McTiernan original, Royce is smarter than your average Predator-bait, and is the first to conclude that our merry band has landed smack-dab in the middle of a game preserve. He's also smart enough to stay alive while the fierce aliens play Ten Little Indians with the rest of the drop-shipped prey.
Alice Braga brings some balance to the cast, being the only woman and the one who rationalizes their fate on this mysterious and dangerous planet can only be due to bad karma they've created for themselves by killing other humans on Earth. Of course, Danny Trejo, Walton Goggins and Topher Grace are less penitent.
Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal, whose previous films Vacancy and Armored proved his strength of milking the most out of a small budget, do well to steer clear of the pitfalls Paul W.S. Anderson and the Strause brothers fell into on the generally awful Alien vs. Predator movies. Instead of a hilariously unlikely buddy action movie and lame franchise references, all we get here (which is all we wanted) is some hardcore Predator-on-Human action as the cast is thrown into the meat grinder, allowing only the most clever of the bunch to be spared.
The highlight of the film comes in the form of an all-too-brief cameo by Laurence Fishburne as Noland, a soldier not dropped in with the rest of the cast, who has managed to survive on this crazy planet and avoid having his spine become a trophy hung over the hearth of a dreadlocked alien's fireplace. Oh and there's also a nice twist towards the end, but I can't spoil that for you.
Predators is far from perfect, but it's a good alternative to most of today's over-produced, over-styled, watered down action and sci-fi fare. Make no bones about it- this is a hard R B-level action romp, the kind of movie a Predator film should be. Check your brain at the door and get back to the roots of the franchise.