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'The Predator' premieres at Toronto Film Festival with controversy in the air, and conspicuous silence

'The Predator' premieres at Toronto Film Festival with controversy in the air, and conspicuous silence
Olivia Munn and Boyd Holbrook in a scene from "The Predator." (Twentieth Century Fox)

“The Predator” is unmistakably a Shane Black movie, right from the opening scene of its camouflaged sniper hero (Boyd Holbrook) wisecracking amid the nighttime flora. Lensed in meaty hues, he takes down a target with a casual head shot before an alien ship crashes into Earth to inaugurate the action-packed proceedings.

Predators? It’s got plenty, including impressive new variations on the extraterrestrial big-game hunter, major twists on the “Predator” mythology and a new squad of misfit warrior heroes (and heroine) who keep the film moving at a clip as they fight, survive and protect their way to the end.

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Eager fans amped for the Midnight Madness section opener packed Toronto’s Ryerson Theatre and cheered as Black introduced the movie Thursday, where they were the first to see the 20th Century Fox sequel ahead of its Sept. 14 wide release.

“You’re not going to see a film; you’re going to see a movie,” he said, thanking the studio and his cast.

The audience tittered and laughed at the screen throughout the film, appreciating its callbacks to the original (yes, someone utters that “Get to the choppah!” line) and self-referential but not deferential nods to the sequels and cross-overs history doesn’t remember so fondly — “Predator 2” (1990), “Predators” (2010), “Alien vs. Predator” (2004), “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem” (2007).

Most fans stayed in their seats to the end, when stars Olivia Munn, Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Jake Busey, Augusto Aguilera and screenwriter Fred Dekker took the stage. But as the lights came up after “The Predator” premiere, one person was noticeably absent as the credits rolled: Shane Black.

The director also conspicuously skipped the red carpet before the screening, opting to let the bulk of his cast field media questions about the film in which a young boy (Jacob Tremblay), soldiers (Holbrook, Rhodes, Key, Aguilera, Thomas Jane and Alfie Allen), and a scientist (Munn) take on a visiting Yautja and its vicious Predator “space dogs.”

Big, gory and irreverent, the breakneck pace of “The Predator”’s hard-R action is only rivaled by the nonstop flurry of jokes that turn this installment into the most comedic of the series — the “Monster Squad” of “Predator” movies.

It is, after all, scripted by Black and Dekker, the duo who in 1987 gave kickable cojones to one of the most iconic Universal monsters in vaunted horror history. It was the same year Arnold and his team of brawny commandos, coincidentally including a young Black in actor mode, tangled with the most lethal hunter in the universe.

Sterling K. Brown, Shane Black and Olivia Munn from the film "The Predator," photographed in the L.A. Times Photo and Video Studio at Comic-Con 2018, in San Diego, Calif., on July 19, 2018.
Sterling K. Brown, Shane Black and Olivia Munn from the film "The Predator," photographed in the L.A. Times Photo and Video Studio at Comic-Con 2018, in San Diego, Calif., on July 19, 2018. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

For some in the audience it was difficult not to think of the controversy that preceded the film’s TIFF debut, when an L.A. Times report revealed that Black had cast Steven Wilder Striegel, a registered sex offender, in his last three films including “The Predator.”

Alerted by Munn, the only primary cast member to share a scene with Striegel, Fox took action to cut him out of the film before the TIFF premiere. And the seams show in an abrupt establishing scene in which Munn’s evolutionary scientist character, Dr. Casey Bracket, is approached by government suits at the behest of a morally ambiguous government agent (Sterling K. Brown).

Throughout the film what many Black fans will recognize as the filmmaker’s signature irreverent, hyper-masculine sense of humor occasionally plays tin-eared, as when members of the misfit squad of military reject heroes led by Holbrook’s Quinn McKenna make feeble passes at her and make her the object of grossly sexist comments — jokes played winkingly in the film for laughs.

All of which might have gone over swimmingly had the specter of off-screen drama not hung in the air at the first public screening, which earned mixed early reviews and praise for strong performances by Munn, Brown and Rhodes.

Had he been onstage after the film, Black could have spoken not only to the fanboy-delighting action, alien gadgets, lore, references and dialogue that will win “The Predator” genre fans, but also to the ways the script’s deeper themes unintentionally echo the circumstances of its external controversy: That redemption can exist even for those whom society has deemed unfit, and that heroism exists within women and children, outside the traditional domain of muscled men with guns.

And while the male cast members seem to have gone largely untouched by the scandal, all declined comment to the initial L.A. Times report.

On a crowded sidewalk outside the theater before the film, before handlers whisked Munn away from the red carpet and toward the theater, it was she who was signing autographs when an unidentified man in the throng shouted loud enough for bystanders to hear, “Hey Olivia, my friend Steve says hi.”

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