REVIEW: Ask Not What Predators Does For Adrien Brody, Ask What Adrien Brody Does For Predators
Not a sequel and not quite a reboot, Predators sits in that no-man's land of derivation, where a franchise is plundered mainly for its conceptual cachet, and continuity and reinvention are cast aside as hopelessly old-fashioned. Conceiving of their audience as a chronic video-game player, the filmmakers seem to have figured that fans want only minor variations on the same experience, over and over again. Not that such a calculation is below a franchise born as a goof (the original screenwriters were inspired by a joke that followed the release of Rocky IV: If that franchise were to continue, he'd have to fight an alien) and forced into the indignity of the Predator vs. Alien films. Fans of the original, which had Arnold Schwarzenegger wasting a killer extraterrestrial in Guatemala, have likely grown resigned to disappointment with its descendents; Predators will not change that entirely, but it may summon enough fond memories to sneak by.
Produced by Robert Rodriguez and directed by Nimród Antal, the film opens with a long and involving sequence in which a sort of United Forces of Benetton assembles in the heart of an unidentified jungle. Royce (Adrien Brody, fancy meeting you here) is an ex-military mercenary shown waking up in mid-free fall and barely opening his parachute in time. The rest of the group -- which comprises Danny Trejo as a Mexican cartel heavy, Alice Braga as an Israeli Defense Force soldier, Walton Goggins as a murderer on death row, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as a Sierra Leone soldier, Louis Ozawa Changchien as some sort of Asian mafia assassin, Oleg Taktarov as a Chechen rebel, and Topher Grace as a doctor -- all report having been kidnapped from their respective locales and waking up in mid-air. Extremely wary and completely wigged out, they prod and point guns at each other, looking for answers.
In fact, the first half-hour or so could be summed up as one long WTF: "Who the hell is this guy?"; "What the hell is that?"; "Who the hell would do this?" Nobody expects the dialogue of an alien-hunting film to rival Flaubert, but the run of go-to questions are the first sign that the film's pace is also prone to dithering. "It doesn't matter what happened or why," Brody eventually rasps. "We're here. The only question is how to get out."
I don't know, Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody -- I'm kind of stuck on the what and the why. For the role, Brody is newly jacked up (he gained 25 pounds but stays mostly clothed) and shaved down to the briefest buzz cut. His presence in the film was a source of consternation for franchise devotees when his casting was announced and abject fascination for me as I watched the finished product. Amid the macho poses and reloading of his unbelievably enormous weapon, I was distracted by the notion of Brody's participation as a kind of privately satisfying performance art (a similar impulse found James Franco doing a guest stint on General Hospital). He marches through the role with conviction -- Royce is an embittered vet and iconoclast with a taste for man-hunting and the Hemingway quotes to prove it -- and the slimmest hint of self-conscious jest.
Each member of the crew -- which weathers attacks from a herd of nasty, mini-triceratops-like monsters before the big guns are brought out -- is allowed a discrete measure of personality, and the actors make the most of it. Braga is a compelling mixture of warmth and grit, and Taktarov has a couple of the film's nicest and most human moments. [Those who are sensitive to spoilers may wish to stop reading here and skip down to the next paragraph.] The group realizes that they have been imported, as a sort of exotic game, onto a planet where aliens hunt other species for fun. It's a loaded concept that goes almost nowhere, with one brief allusion to the idea that they were chosen because they too enjoy the hunt, an unhappy aftereffect of combat.
Laurence Fishburne has a memorable cameo as a Kurtz-ian Navy SEAL who has outsmarted his captors for 10 years, but after his departure what's lacking in the film's atmosphere starts preying on what energy its stars have left. The aliens themselves -- who can avail themselves of invisibility cloaks, which is handy -- have no discernible personality and little to distinguish them in the alien canon of gaping maws and Day-Glo blood. In the absence of these overlords' being unveiled as more intelligent -- albeit gross-looking -- life forms, and because we're not made to care much who survived and who made it off the planet, a whole lot is riding on the film's late and biggest surprise: the unpredictable Adrien Brody's muscle-y reveal.