Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man...."

As often happens with independent filmmakers when Robert Rodriguez's debut film, El Mariachi, was released he was given the keys to the city. His reputation ballooned and the story of his producing and directing his debut for $7000 became overnight legend; everyone seemed willing to give him all the money he could ever want. One of the many unrealized projects he proposed to his newfound sounding board was a sequel to 1987's Predator as he was displeased with the direction Predator 2 had taken the franchise. Rodriguez is that rare director who believes in stupid action movies and his script was a much more involved and loving tribute to the first movie than the one Jim & John Thompson eventually handed in. The ideas Rodriguez eventually had approved were the deeply uninteresting Desperado and the outright terrible From Dusk Till Dawn, which were the sort of film he'd always wanted to make. I blame these movies on the kind of Tarantino-esque thumbs up attitude that he was given (Quentin Tarantino doesn't help his case any by appearing in both of these movies) because if I were a producer and saw Antonio Banderas shooting a pistol from behind his back at someone across a bar I'd have shut it down immediately. Well, fifteen years and several million dollars later he had more than made a name for himself as a director of epic action and (oddly enough) children's films who now had enough power to act as the producer who never greenlit his movie. Apparently just as bummed out about Alien Vs. Predator as the rest of the known world Robert Rodriguez finally got rolling on the Predator sequel that fans like Robert Rodriguez had been waiting for. He got Alex Litvak and Michael Finch to rewrite his decade-old script and settled on a director after watching Nimród Antal on the set of the middling heist movie Armored, agreeing that he should simply oversee the project. Something with the tone of the new script would need to be handled differently than the bombastic pulp films he's made since El Mariachi. Finally a cast was assembled that could carry off badass without seeming like pale imitations of the endless parade of biceps that stocked Predator. Bodybuilders are almost passe as blockbuster elements go these days and so a new kind of killer was required. With all these elements in place the world was finally given a Predator movie worthy of the name.

by Nimród Antal
A nameless American black-ops mercenary wakes up from a deep sleep to find himself falling from several thousand feet in the air. He has barely enough time to push the big red button on his chest that opens his parachute before he hits the tree line and lands. A few seconds later a fierce looking Mexican cartel enforcer with two personalized submachine-guns lands next to him and looks ready to start shooting but before either man decides what to do a third shooter opens fire on them with a mini-gun. The mercenary sneaks around and gets the drop on the third guy, a Spetsnaz soldier called Nikolai and then all three men are flanked by a distractingly cute IDF sniper. None of them recognizes the jungle they're stranded in and they can only remember waking up in free-fall. A walk in the jungle yields one dead guy whose chute didn't open and four more survivors, a yakuza, a member of an RUF death squad, a death-row inmate the mercenary places as the guy at the top of the FBI's most wanted list and a doctor. No one knows where they are but everyone's story starts the same: they were on their way somewhere (for everyone but the doctor this means going to fight some conflict or other), they saw a light and woke up in midair. Everyone but the doctor is a soldier, a professional killer, all highly disciplined, all incredibly dangerous. As the doctor points out it can't be a behavioral experiment or drug test because there'd be some kind of point. The Mexican and the Sierra Leonian think maybe they've gone to hell but the mercenary doesn't imagine you need a parachute to get there. When they see what else has been dropped in, the situation starts to become clearer. Something that required caging was also imported and the dead skin it left behind suggests it's nothing that could survive on Earth. Their last clue comes when they reach a high point and can see several planets staring at them through the thin atmosphere of whatever planet they're on now.

The group quickly figures out how to work together (though the American is not convinced this is best) and as most of them are used to giving and following orders they have no trouble spotting each other but this is tested when they're attacked by a pack of doberman-sized animals that look like crudely drawn triceratops. They manage to stay in twos and lay the creatures down with their collectively awesome fire power and just when it seems like they might be in trouble, a low horn sounds somewhere in the distance and the remaining creatures retreat. All of a sudden everything seems all too simple: all eight of them and whatever was in those cages have been brought here to be hunted for sport. This comes as something of a blow even to hardened killers but the only thing greater than their fear is their will to stay alive and somehow get back to earth. In order to do that they're probably going to need to know how the hunters got there and for that bit of info, they're going to have to walk right into their base camp. To no one's surprise it's not a pretty sight. There are already a dozen flayed bodies hanging from their feet and skulls from at least as many different species, only some recognizable as mammals. But the biggest shock is the muscular humanoid tied to a boomerang-shaped pole with four detachable fangs in front of its jaw. If that thing's tied up, just what had the strength to put it there?
2010 was an unfortunate year for Predators to be released because of the state of film criticism. Before January 2010 I would have told you that the chances of a mainstream movie being as good as the films that wind up in arthouses were slim to none. I hadn't seen anything worth a goddamn in a multiplex in 2009 and of my twenty favourite films of the year, I'd seen but two of them in chain theatres and some hadn't even made it to little theatres. So when 2010 rolled around and we were given Daybreakers, Shutter Island, The Crazies, Splice and Predators critics were split. When you get used to worthless box office-cracking genre films like Saw: Whatever The Fuck you don't want to seem like you've grown soft on bad movies. None of the above films are masterpieces but they are just as good as big budget films get these days but critics weren't receptive to them because there's something of a culture war on and it seems like you can be either The Last Airbender or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. That doesn't leave much room for The Crazies or Predators does it? Both films are incredibly well handled and get (got) from you (me) what they try to, a raised heart-rate at well executed set-pieces but reviewers seemed wary of giving the time of day to anything that didn't either set the world on fire or suck out loud. There used to be systems to keep genre films out of the proper film pool but since the 90s and the death of drive-in, the line doesn't exist anymore and reviewers are now entrenched in a much more political struggle, which makes them increasingly suspect. Just how the fuck could Manohla Dargis like a film as stupid as Avatar as much as Tulpan or Where The Wild Things Are? What about Drag Me To Hell? Zombieland? District 9? Was there really no genre film better than Avatar in 2009? It's enough to make you think that critics don't want to be perceived as not liking a certain kind of film so that people won't stop reading their reviews or that they're being paid off by studios. So what does that mean for Predators? Despite it being the best thing Nimród Antal's done since leaving Hungary and being a more-than-satisfactory horrific action thriller, critics were content to be throughly unwowed by it but nerds like me were pleased because we, like Robert Rodriguez, had wanted a Predator sequel that didn't make our eyes twitch with anger.

Perhaps Predators didn't set the world on fire but it gets a lot right. The script does Predator one better in its indictment of masculinity, its tone is grim and sweaty, the look characterized by a muted deep green that improves on McTiernan's work on Predator, the first act is wonderfully played, the acting is perfectly suited to the material and the characters, while not exactly 3D, are all lovable despite their heinous backgrounds. Thanks to a crippled film industry, Antal wasn't greeted quite as warmly as Rodriguez when he first struck it big creatively. His first english language film, Vacancy, was perfectly fine but looked much better when you compared it to other "throwbacks" like Hostel and Hatchet. Vacancy at least felt like the kind of thing that might have ended up on the Video Nasties list and was surprisingly devoid of sexualized violence. Antal managed to squeeze a lot from a little: all he had was a motel and five characters. Like Predators, Vacancy has a better-than-average look and moments of real tension. What I might like most about Predators' script is the way it doesn't assume you know anything. If you'd never seen Predator you could get wrapped up in the guessing just like the characters but unlike the first film there is no pretext for their being hunted, they're just there and the only thing between them and the answer to the mystery is time. Seasoned veterans know what's after them, which might even make it more fun than if we went in blind. We know what's out there but Antal manages an excellent tease of a first act. He won't just cave in and indeed throws in more red herrings than you'll know what to do with but if like me you were aching to get down to business, you'll appreciate the lead-up to the first confrontation because it's both tense and knowing; it's all about guessing when they're going to strike first and seeing how much better or worse off this crew is than Dutch and his men.
On that front Rodriguez had said in interviews that he didn't want to just put Vin Diesel in charge of the drop-ins because then Predators would have seemed like just an imitation. There are already enough quotes from McTiernan's film, visual and spoken, without putting a surrogate Schwarzenegger in the lead role. We have a burly guy with a mini-gun, a disrobing before a knife fight, a different orchestration of Alan Sylvestri's score, the pulling off of the mask, a scene where our mud-covered bare chested hero says "Come on, kill me!" and at one point Alice Braga directly references the events of Predator. I was half-expecting the "one ugly motherfucker" line but then I learned that it does show up it's just hidden rather cleverly. So with all the reminders in place I guess it was wise to fill the movie with a more modern breed of tough guy. Adrien Brody, for instance, is no one's idea of an action hero but he does a fine job (though his nose is the most noticeably strange it's ever been). What the advantage of having a cast who's hero is led by an Oscar winner is that it sort of goes to show, even more definitively than Predator, that muscles aren't enough to sell a movie or survive one. Indeed one of the best bits in the film comes about when the strength of the burliest character has just failed him but because of planning, he gets the last laugh. It's a movie where strategy is the reason anyone survives as long as they do and guns are little more than props to keep the actors' hands busy. The script lets its heroes down in the third act by forgetting for a minute how clever it had been up until that point, but I think coming up with an ending to a long overdue sequel is a rather difficult business. How do you satisfy everyone and not betray the rest of the film?

In general Predators works because it's just as exciting and gruesome as the first film, if not a little more so because Antal goes out of his way to make us care about everyone in a way McTiernan didn't. You liked the guys in Predator because they were the heroes, not because they had particularly earned your respect. Antal had a greater challenge, getting you to like murderers (I found it especially troubling trying to sympathize with a member of a Sierra Leone death squad, knowing just what fucking monsters they are in reality) and then caring when they're in danger. To that end the set pieces are the ultimate test of the character development. I found myself genuinely concerned about the five or six characters who make it to the halfway mark and nervous whenever it became clear that they were about to be attacked (that Antal manages to make the predator at least semi-frightening again is something I could kiss him for; letting Greg Nicotero's make-up crew blow shit up kinda negates that especially when you remember that predators would never waste a skull). This is partly the script, which gives many of them families and histories communicated in a line or two, and partly the cast. Finally taking the correct cues from the Alien films, Predators is staffed with character actors who're a lot of fun to watch. Oleg Taktarov's Spetsnaz and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali's RUF member both come off as sympathetic despite having arguably the least to recommend them personally. Louis Ozawa Changchien's Yakuza is a blast because he says exactly eight words the whole film but manages to seem the most intelligent of the bunch. Danny Trejo is great because he made me appreciate the breadth of performances Trejo gives. Here he's a squinting, superstitious killer, all menace, no cunning. I'd taken for granted that Trejo really can act and when you compare his performance here to the one he gives in Heat or Halloween or any of the nearly 200 films he's been in since 1985, you realize how much he gives every one of his roles. Topher Grace will always be Eric Forman but as one half of the movie's comic relief he does just fine, in fact he gets the second best line in the whole movie. The best line goes to Walton Goggins, the other half, who plays the twitchy death row inmate with the shiv and no, I'm not going to spoil that one either. Suffice it to say he's the most fun of all of the guys on the planet, blissfully unaware of the ethics of the situation. In fact I think I probably liked him just as much as the reason that Predators is a subtly progressive, if not a feminist movie. That reason is Alice Braga. Braga may be incredibly attractive but she's also got the most aware of the all the characters and comes across as one of the most competent. She's the only one who sees this movie as a morality play. Brody's character puts together that they were all chosen to be hunted because they themselves have spent so much time hunting people but only Braga wonders whether returning to their home world is such a good thing, which incidentally is an excellent point. And though this could be read as her sensitivity being over-written (especially next to the rape-happy convict) but remember that she wouldn't be on the planet if she weren't one of the most deadly people on Earth. That Antal and Rodriguez both easily put her in the same category as Ali and Brody without once calling attention to her femininity (well, I guess Walton Goggins' line about how awesome her ass is isn't nothing but she and the film roll their eyes at it and once the action starts it's quickly forgotten) is a symbol of how far gender politics have progressed since 1987. They even resist the temptation of trying to make Brody and Braga fall for each other, though they stray perilously close to it at times.
I'd like to end by saying that among the several pleasant surprises in Predators are the references to other movies like the perfect tribute to Japanese Jidai-Geki just before the climax that gets everything right and specifically to Apocalypse Now. If you haven't seen the movie yet and don't want its most intriguing surprise ruined, then stop reading here and go out and see it. That surprise, for those of you still reading and the Japanese sex blogs that spam my comments section, is Laurence Fishburne. I had completely forgotten he was in the movie at all when I went to see it and when he makes his grand entrance I was stunned. He mentions being stuck on the planet for 10 seasons and though we never learn how long that is, he mentions being in Air Cavalry and then sings a snatch of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries", which is immediately supposed to make us think of Coppola's film, though presumably if he were in Vietnam, he would never have seen Apocalypse Now. But keeping in mind that Antal had the movie in mind makes the ending seem a lot more like a crib of Willard stalking Kurtz than of Dutch and the predator, even though it falls short of both of them. Fishburne's scenes are also interesting because they retroactively explain little things from the first movie like why the creature wound up on earth in the first place (turns out he was just looking for a place to hunt where he had no competition and no one actively hunting him). It also helps to see Predators as one long tribute to the Coppola film; jungle imagery, thinning cast of disparate characters (Brody - Willard, Grace - Chef, Trejo - Clean, Braga/Ali - Chief, Changchien - Lance or the quiet soldier with the grenade launcher at the Do Lung Bridge, Goggins could be any number of the war-crazed bit players including Chef or the photojournalist). Like Apocalypse, Predators is about the effects of war on humanity and the (in the latter film's case) literal impossibility of going back to the life you knew once you've hunted and been hunted (Antal quotes Hemingway, Coppola quotes Conrad). Predators is an action movie first and an art movie fourth or fifth but that there is something more here than you'd find in its competition. Go into most blockbusters (Predators hasn't turned out one of those) and you can't find half the things hidden away inside this movie. It's not perfect, I know that, but I was thoroughly satisfied regardless and I'd defend it against all those who won't, for whatever reason, give slightly ambitious genre films a chance.

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