Cast: Adrien Brody, Laurence Fishburne, Topher Grace, Alice Braga, Danny Trejo, Brian Steele, Carey Jones, Walton Goggins
A group of elite warriors are hunted by members of a merciless alien race.
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The classic refrain for sequels is "the same, but more so." It sounds simple enough but in reality is treacherous tightrope as audience expectations tend to remain amorphous and ill-defined up until viewing the actual film. Some filmmakers combat it by going in completely new directions, sometimes to the point of ignoring what came before (and what worked). Some expand their world and deepen the layers of the original with new, unexpected developments in character and plot. And some just do the same, but more so. "Predators" is the third type.
Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The various other "Predator" sequels have tried their hands at new directions, introducing new environments and foes for their invisible alien hunters, with mixed results at best. Robert Rodriguez and Nimród Antal's ("Armored") version is very much back to basics: rainforest, guys with guns, stalking and heat vision, with just a whiff of "The Dirty Dozen." If there's one thing "Predators" is not about, it's re-inventing the wheel.
What it is about, is adrenaline, and as much as it can come up with, starting with a pre-credits sequence that sees mercenary Royce (Adrien Brody) waking up in free fall, headed very quickly for the jungle below.
And very quickly is how Antal and his screenwriters approach the entire film. No sooner has Royce landed than he has hooked up with band of surly, violent individuals including a form IDF sniper (Alice Braga), a drug cartel enforcer (Danny Trejo) and a Yakuza assassin (Louis Ozawa Changchien). Which is to say character types, instead of characters.
That's partly from the obvious realization that this is a sequel, and a sequel to 20-plus year old, well worn film at that. The cat is out of the bag as far what the Predators and the nature of the plot and it seems beyond the filmmakers to come up with any real interesting addition to it. So tension and suspense that elevated the original are sent packing right away in favor of speed. Before the soldier's can puzzle out what's happened to them they are set upon by a pack of alien dogs and invisible killers in the first of several well-executed if placid action sequences. With the discovery that they're not in Kansas, or even on Earth, anymore these formerly apex-predators realize their only option is to turn the hunters into the hunted if they ever want to get home.
Having given up on concept the filmmakers have focused all their effort on execution, and for the most part it works. They've lowered the bar, but they clear it easily; the result is something that's both sharp and flat at the same time because we've seen it before. They've just ramped up the degree of difficulty. Like the homemade traps Arnold made in the original? Now you've got a huge clearing full of them with home-made spikes firing out of the trees at the speed of sound in just one of the frequent call-backs to the original that "Predators" makes. It gets a little distracting at times how frequently the original is referenced. Yes it's a sequel; it's pretty blatant about it, no need to hammer it in.
It does get better at it as it goes along, though, ramping up to multi-layered finally with several layers of danger for the character's to traverse, and not just the human ones. Antal finally shows some of the promise from "Kontroll" that was missing in his last few attempts as he keeps the film moving along at brisk pace and even the brief moments of characterization in between plot turns aren't as forced as they could be.
The characters are all types to be sure, but Antal has cast his film well, bringing in an ensemble that can sell their thinly sketched characters. There definitely is a real attempt to work in the individuals into the plot and interconnect them the way real suspense would require, but not enough work has been done at the front to make that really pay off. Brody does his best and is surprisingly effective as a grizzled ex-soldier who spends the whole movie talking in a kind of gravelly Batman voice. Unlike Brody everyone else is cast very much to type but Antal generally makes it work, getting particularly weasely enjoyment out of Topher Grace's doctor, the one person who doesn't fit amid this pack of Predators. Laurence Fishburne is the only one who manages to surpass the script as a long-term survivor who's begun to go a little batty from being on his own.
Lack of imagination aside, "Predators" is still the best "Predator" sequel we've had yet. It probably won't work as well if you're not familiar with the series, this is very much made for fans, but a sharp eye on execution and steady direction keeps it flowing better than it should. It plays things too safe to be truly great, but it's good at what it does and the flaws it has are few and far between, which already puts it above most sequels.