Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our inscrutable whims. This week: Against all odds, the event-movie movie season is in full swing, so it’s time once again to look back on unsung summer blockbusters—the flops, the critical bombs, or the merely forgotten Hollywood spectacles that deserve to be rescued from the trash bin of movie history.
Name a better way to start a movie than the main character waking up to discover they’re plummeting from the sky. That’s how Predators begins, with black-ops mercenary Royce (Adrien Brody) falling into a dense, mysterious jungle, with no clue how he got there. Of course, it’s the audience, too, that’s being dropped without warning or prelude into this Twilight Zone scenario. The movie wastes no time telling you that it won’t be wasting time; it cuts to the chase at 20,000 feet. You’ve heard of in media res? This is in mid-air res.
Royce isn’t alone. Once his parachute deploys, and he lands safely on foreign terra firma, he meets the fellow soldiers—all equally baffled by their circumstances—with whom he’ll be weathering this strange predicament. The gallery of unwillingly assembled toughs includes an IDF officer (Alice Braga), an RUF specialist (Mahershala Ali), a Yakuza assassin (Louis Ozawa), a cartel enforcer (Danny Trejo), a Russian grunt (Oleg Taktarov), an American death-row outlaw (Walton Goggins), and a simpering doctor (Topher Grace) who doesn’t seem to fit the badass profile. At once efficient and deliberate, Predators lets these uneasily aligned warriors slowly figure out what the audience presumably knows from the start: that it’s a giant game reserve they’re navigating, that they’re the game being hunted, and that the hunters are a familiar, dreadlocked, heavily-armed species of intergalactic Ahab.
It’s no great mystery why Predators failed to drum up big business in the summer of Inception: In re-launching a franchise that had petered out two decades prior, director Nimród Antal (Armored, Vacancy) and producer Robert Rodriguez leaned into the unfashionable values of a late-’80s blockbuster—the relatively lean and mean thrills of John McTiernan’s original. The fun of Predators is in the way it both honors that adrenaline-junkie classic and finds clever ways to tweak its design. The most fruitful deviation is in the makeup of the trigger-happy quarry, an ensemble more diverse in background, personality, and motivation. They’re strangers, not brothers in arms, and the possibility that not everyone is being totally forthright about who they are and what they know lends an extra tension to the survival games. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the humans are played by a cast of mostly terrific character actors (including a certain movie star whose mid-film, scenery-chewing appearance counts as one of several satisfying curveballs thrown by the creative team).
The script, by Alex Litvak and Michael Finch, introduces some nifty wrinkles in Predator lore, among them alien hounds and a civil war between different classes of the extraterrestrial sportsmen. There’s a very faint gravitas, too, in the notion that our “heroes,” a term to be used loosely here, are enduring a kind of karmic trial for their battlefield sins—a gladiatorial purgatory for lost souls of realpolitik conflict. (In this respect, Brody comes in handy in the lead; he may not be the most natural fit for the Arnold role, but he knows how to plant the submerged impression of a crisis of conscience.) Mostly, though, Predators just delivers 1987 style, and without a whole lot of winking throwback nostalgic-trip fuss. This isn’t one of those fan-fiction legacy sequels that became all the rage in the years following its release. It’s just a mid-scale franchise picture that understands what its audience might want out of a Predator movie, from the obligatory spine removal to no-brainer elaborations like pitting the hulking, clicking star attraction against a modern-day samurai.
Availability: Predators is currently streaming on Hulu. It’s also available to rent or purchase digitally.