A version of this review appeared in The Age, June 10, 2010.
Predators, directed by Nimród Antal, has a terrific, attention-grabbing opening. Adrien Brody wakes in mid-air, a parachute strapped to his back. Landing with a thud, he jumps to his feet and tries to get his bearings in the dense jungle. Minutes later, a second package plummets to the ground, unwraps itself, and proves to be the grizzled character actor Danny Trejo, scowling like a bear roused from a winter nap.
The third special delivery is a sloppy bundle of flesh and blood which Brody dismisses with a glance: “His chute didn't open.”
It doesn't take long for more survivors to fall out of the sky, most of them killing machines inexplicably plucked from war zones across the planet. Brody's initially nameless character is identified as a US soldier turned mercenary, while his new friends include an Israeli sniper (Alice Braga), an African warlord (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), and a hysterical psycho (Walton Goggins) who boasts of heading the FBI's Most Wanted list.
The ringer is Edwin (Topher Grace), a mild-mannered doctor – but his presence is a minor puzzle compared to the bigger, more pressing questions faced by the group. Where are they? What mysterious force brought them together? And is there a way to escape?
Another week, another 1980s do-over. Predators doesn't waste much time on exposition, but we already know what lies in store – at least if we've seen the original Predator (1987), which found Arnold Schwarzeneggar in darkest Guatemala battling a generally invisible alien foe. Produced by Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), this update qualifies as a sequel rather than a remake, albeit one that ignores the existence of the less successful Predator 2 (1990).
Though Predator does not quite rank with the pop classics of its era, it was nonetheless a milestone for the director John McTiernan, then a promising new talent working his way towards to the triumph of Die Hard (1988). Predators is likewise an effective action-horror-suspense hybrid from an above-average genre artisan. Since making his mark at the Cannes Film Festival with his first feature Kontroll (2004), the Hungarian-American Antal has forged a honourable career on the outskirts of Hollywood.
Credited to the newcomers Alex Litvak and Michael Finch, the script for Predators delivers a steady supply of marketable one-liners and in-jokes. But Antal keeps the tone more sombre than flip, and focuses on conveying an eerie sense of entrapment. Where Kontroll portrayed the Budapest subway system as a metaphoric hell, here it's hinted that the characters could be literally dead, paying for their sins in some kind of afterlife.
Fans of Lost will find themselves on familiar turf, but thankfully most of the mysteries are resolved fairly soon. Still, Antal takes care we don't get too far ahead of the story as it unfolds – avoiding high-angle shots that would give a godlike overview of proceedings, and only occasionally letting us share the infra-red vision of the mysterious “predators” themselves.
From the outset we're made to feel that danger could be lurking anywhere – just offscreen, or in plain sight. Poisonous plants lie along the path, strange beasts growl, and even the rays of light between the trees slant threateningly downward. As for the human monsters, they might be the most deadly of all.
With his long, beaky face Brody is not the most obvious choice to replace Schwarzenegger, but as an action hero he's far more convincing than Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia. Though he's clearly keen to avoid being typecast in intellectual roles, he still plays a thinker as well as a fighter – determined to outwit his unseen enemies, and willing to put his comrades in jeopardy if it means gaining further information.
At one point, he even attempts to justify his bloodlust by quoting Hemingway. Correct me if I'm wrong, but surely Arnie never tried that.