by Tony Dayoub
Midway through the Robert Rodriguez-produced Predators, when we meet Laurence Fishburne's shell-shocked Noland, an Air Cav relic who's managed to survive through seven, no, make that ten hunting seasons in the alien game preserve Adrien Brody's group of cutthroats now find themselves in, that's when I knew I could trust director Nimrod Antal (Armored) to steer this popcorn movie to a satisfying conclusion. Looking as bloated and vacant as Colonel Kurtz did in his earlier film, Apocalypse Now (1979), Fishburne borrows some of Brando's emotional baggage to tell us volumes about Noland in the short space of time he is allowed to bring his pivotal cameo to life. Antal underscores the references in this scene as if to concede that yes, he could cite other, better-known movies with the proper potency if he chooses. But he lingers in this mode only long enough to prove it's not what he's after.
No, Predators is an entirely different kind of movie, the kind the summer season is usually made for. And in this diffuse year of mediocre, underperforming hits fueled by shaky-cams and 3D smoke-and-mirrors Predators stands out for being the closest film to reach the addictive heights of "pure cinema" I've seen in months. The ever-changing framing distances keep the film clean and dynamic. The camera is stable when it glides through a shot. Not a stray word is wasted on character development, or plot for that matter, unless it also serves the purpose of propelling the story forward. Little time is wasted on explaining the film's setting, and even less time is spent on establishing its short-lived archetypes which double for protagonists. In fact, we don't find out Brody's mercenary's name until Predators is almost done.
Anyone presuming I mean any of this as a knock against Predators would be mistaken. It is refreshing to see a film which so expertly creates suspense and interest with so little exposition getting in the way. This kind of film, the sci-fi action movie, often makes the mistake of confusing us (either deliberately or not) with lengthy explanations that amount to nothing of real value and, more likely than not, only open holes in the plot. Predators succeeds by concentrating on the objective the human quarries pursue as they struggle against their alien hunters: survival. In that respect, of all the directors who have taken a stab at continuing this franchise, Antal gets closest to reaching a parity of tone with the first Predator (1987).
I say closest because Antal does make at least two rather marked concessions which break with the tone he strives for. The first is the Apocalypse Now interlude which I forgive because the respite it offers works as a smooth bridge between the frenetic rising action of the first half of Predators to the falling action of the second half. The second is a rather inappropriate setpiece which stops the forward progression of the movie cold, a bit of fanservice where a Yakuza hitman duels with one of the hunter-aliens in a windswept field of tall grass. While simultaneously evoking the spirit of the traditional samurai movie, it also wears its "wouldn't-it-be-cool-if..." factor too plainly on its sleeve.
Nonetheless, Predators deserves to be recognized for achieving its small ambitions efficiently and intensely. Credit Nimrod Antal, a young director with loads of potential, for subsuming any personal marks of auteurism to deliver a great action movie freeof any ego and attaining the kind of bleak but satisfying resolution that is a hallmark of this genre. In the short hour and three-quarters of its running time, Predators reignites a film series which fizzled far too early in its lineage, and promotes its director to the action film big leagues.