1987's Predator is so much better than you remember, even if you remember it being pretty bloody great. Written by Shane Black (who also scribed Lethal Weapon before writing and directing Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys), Predator was framed as just another action blockbuster vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, yet proved a surprisingly smart and masterfully constructed thriller with equal measures of horror, science-fiction, eternally quotable lines and laugh out loud comedy. Best of all, its villain was something entirely new: a sneaky, lethal and superior hunting machine that could turn invisible as it hunted humans for sport like the antagonist from an alien version of The Most Dangerous Game.
Sequels followed. The first wasn't bad. The rest were. They even tried spinoffs, hoping the success and popularity of the Alien vs. Predator comic book series would translate to the big screen. It didn't. Now, some 31 years after the original, Black returns as both writer and director with The Predator. At the end of the day though, things probably would have been better if he hadn't.
If the original Predator defied easy categorisation, The Predator proves even harder, shifting from extreme gore and violence one minute to 80s-style quips and blokey banter the next. The hero this time round is Narcos star Boyd Holbrook, whose vanilla performance matches his vanilla character - a grizzled sniper who finds himself on the wrong side of a shady government agency after inadvertently establishing first contact with Earth's latest predatory guest. He's soon bundled in with a bunch of PTSD-affected military rejects as part of a smear campaign, only to have these so-called loonies become his reluctant allies in a desperate effort to stop the extraterrestrial killer and save his autistic son (whose savant abilities – surely one of cinema's most tired cliches – allows him to read and interpret the alien language). It's a mess of a movie, uncertain from its opening scene whether it wants to make you laugh, wince or hide behind your hands.
Black's strength has always been dialogue, so it's no surprise The Predator's less action-oriented scenes are also itsstrongest. Even in these moments, though, the jokes a wildly inconsistent, with every witty high point undermined by a crude, racist, bigoted or sexist jibe. Yes, soldiers are far from saints and doubtless many speak exactly like those presented on screen. Less so scientists whose behaviour in The Predator is often distinguishable from the soldiers around them thanks only to their white lab coats.
Performance wise, Olivia Munn does what she can with limited resources (including having her introductory sequence edited out of the film after she discovered her co-star in the scene was a registered sex offender and raised objections with the studio). She's one of a number of talented actors stuck with thinly-crafted actors, including Moonlight's Trevante Rhodes and Key & Peele's Keegan-Michael Key. Jake Busey also makes a cameo, marking one of the film's many tips of the hat to the preceding films (his father was in the sequel), with playful quotes, musical cues and various props all there to reward long-time fans.
The gritty action-comedy genre could well do with a comeback, and nobody would seem better placed than Black to make it happen. With The Predator, however, he falls short, delivering something that's entertaining at times but ultimately feels entirely forgettable. Certainly, it's a far cry from the brilliance of his original.