More than once in “The Predator,” a slicked-up, snarked-out piece of action-comedy bloodletting from the writer-director Shane Black, the characters pause to debate whether their enemy really deserves the name he’s been given. Considering the relative patience and sophistication with which this alien assassin tracks his targets, they reason, he’s not really a predator so much as some kind of sports hunter.
But it’s a futile discussion. The name “Predator” has stuck to him and his masked-and-dreadlocked cohorts in six different movies now, and besides, “Alien vs. Sports Hunter: Requiem” just doesn’t have the same drawing power. In any case, this gory, frenetic jape is less interested in quibbling over semantics than in signaling its own insouciant self-awareness. You’re watching a Shane Black picture, which is to say a movie that proudly knows it’s a movie and means to treat its derivative material with a flippant, genre-savvy wink.
This approach is hardly surprising at this point, but neither is it entirely without its pleasures. Black has made his career injecting a heavy dose of comic irony into old genre standards. His directorial efforts include “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “The Nice Guys,” both sly riffs on L.A. noir, as well as the third and most subversive “Iron Man” movie. He approaches the meathead action clichés of the 1980s and ’90s with unmistakable relish, in part because he helped mint some of those clichés in the first place, as a writer on the “Lethal Weapon” franchise and an actor in John McTiernan’s original “Predator,” with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And so “The Predator” will make you laugh and groan in ways that its 1987, 1990 and 2010 Pred-ecessors didn’t, at least not intentionally so. The punchlines are plentiful, the scares nonexistent. From the beginning, the script, written by Black and his frequent collaborator Fred Dekker (“The Monster Squad”), strikes a tone somewhere between sarcastic and slapdash. The first thing we see is an alien ship manned by a Predator (why bother with the element of surprise?) hurtling toward Earth and crashing somewhere in the Mexico jungle, just in time to upset a tense hostage situation and leave a lot of narcos dead.
The sole survivor of this skirmish is an ex-U.S. military sniper, Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), who suddenly finds himself in possession of some high-tech alien weaponry. Before long, however, he is apprehended and tossed into the same government facility where the unconscious Predator has been laid out on a slab, to be studied by a team of scientists (led by an arrestingly sinister Sterling K. Brown) who have been keeping tabs on the Predators’ regular visitations to Earth.
Naturally, the Predator doesn’t stay unconscious and shackled for long; nor is he the only one of his nasty kind to appear on the scene. It eventually becomes apparent that the Predators are playing their own most dangerous game, one that involves high-speed intergalactic pursuits and seems designed to exact as much human collateral damage as possible.
The movie, with similar playfulness, has McKenna join forces with “the loonies,” a raucous crew of PTSD-scarred banter machines played by Trevante Rhodes (the genial standout of the bunch), Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen and Augusto Aguilera.
Also along for the noisy, splattery mayhem is an evolutionary biologist named Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), who is brought in for her scientific expertise but soon finds herself relegated to the all-important tasks of running around with a gun and turning the heads of her male team members. (At one point, her survival depends on her ability to strip naked as quickly as possible in a quarantine zone, a gag that feels too sloppily executed to even count as gratuitous.)
Meanwhile, the task of figuring out the Predators’ game plan falls to McKenna’s son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), a boy genius who’s on the autism spectrum. Whether this plot development is meant to inject some sweet sentimentality into the picture, or to mock the very idea of sweet sentimentality, remains unclear.
And so it goes with “The Predator,” whose motives manage to be both utterly transparent and a bit of a blur. From time to time its mix of foul-mouthed bro camaraderie and in-your-face violence nods in the direction of modest entertainment value, but the net effect is a whiplash-inducing muddle. The movie is full of noise and energy but devoid of real wit, coherence or impact: One minute someone’s telling a vagina joke, the next minute a guy’s getting his limbs ripped off. Everything on-screen is accorded the same weight.
Well, maybe not everything. Much of the media coverage of “The Predator” has been dominated by the news — first reported in The Times by my colleague Amy Kaufman — that before releasing the movie, 20th Century Fox had ordered the removal of a scene featuring the actor Steven Wilder Striegel, a close friend of Black’s who had already appeared in two of his earlier movies. That decision was made after Munn, the only principal cast member to appear in the offending scene, found out that Striegel was a registered sex offender and informed the studio.
The reviewer’s job, of course, is to comment on what is on the screen rather than what isn’t. But it also means refusing to separate what’s on the screen from its real-world context. That Munn has been outspoken on the issue of Striegel’s hiring, in contrast with her male co-stars’ more circumspect reactions, is hardly a surprise. But it takes on particular resonance in the case of an aggressively testosterone-driven entertainment, in which a bunch of raucous dudes yuk it up relentlessly while mocking and sidelining the smart, capable woman in their midst.
I don’t mean to belabor the connection, or to read too much into the umpteenth movie about a green-blooded homicidal E.T. “The Predator’s” ugly brush with #MeToo accountability might well be irrelevant to its quality. It also might be the most interesting thing about it.
Rating: R, for strong bloody violence, language throughout and crude sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: In general release
‘Predator’ director Shane Black skips TIFF Q&A amid controversy over casting of registered sex offender