"Predators" starts with a man, played by Adrien Brody, waking up in freefall, plummeting down from the sky into unfamiliar jungle terrain. At the last minute a parachute opens from the pack on his back, and he lands without injury, but he's not out of danger. Soon he meets others like him, all unaware of where they are or who brought them there. A few introduce themselves by name, but these are used so sparingly, it's far easier to identify them by their actors: Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, Alice Braga, Danny Trejo, Walton Goggins, Oleg Taktarov, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, and Louis Ozawa Changchien. All of them are professional killers, some from armed forces and some from organized crime, and most are heavily armed. The only odd one out is Topher Grace's young civilian doctor who appears completely out of his depth.
The humans are not alone in the jungle, and soon discover they are much farther away from home than they initially believed. Since every commercial and trailer for the film has already given away the film's thinly veiled premise, I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to spell it out here: "Predators" is a science-fiction variation on "The Most Dangerous Game," where the eight humans are being stalked by a group of alien hunters for sport. The only way for them to survive is to turn the tables and target their pursuers. The original 1987 "Predator" is not required viewing for "Predators," but the story deliberately builds on concepts from the first film, and contains so many little nods and homages that fans familiar with the franchise will get far more out of it than newcomers.
It's great to see an action film that gets back to basics, sticking its cast in an inhospitable environment, giving them lots of guns and pointy weapons, and pitting them against big, scary monsters with very simple motivations. In the jungle, it's either kill or be killed. You know exactly who you're rooting for, the few big plot twists are telegraphed long in advance, and there's never a question as to who will survive and who won't. If you know the genre at all, you'll probably even be able to work out the order in which the characters will expire. There's nothing new or innovative going on, but that's a plus in this case. Instead of expensive CGI, we see more reliance on stunts and practical effects. The lush real-world scenery adds more atmosphere than a computer program could ever generate. And finally, there are few elaborate action sequences, so the actors actually have more time to establish their characters and play off of each other.
Make no mistake, this is a cheesy action film, and it knows that it's a cheesy action film. The 80s survival-flick formula is followed to the letter, ancient clichés are resurrected without irony, and bad dialogue abounds. Mercifully, there's only one brief attempt to inject anything resembling thoughtful commentary on the events that unfold. The film's only real aim is to deliver thrills and chills, and it succeeds admirably in that regard. Much of this is due to the straightforward, bare-bones plot, strong direction, and a very good cast full of solid character actors. Adrien Brody might not be the first name you consider for the lead of an action film, or the twentieth, but he pulls off the role without a hitch. Alice Braga, the only female member of the cast, easily keeps up with her male co-stars while retaining a sympathetic humanist streak that never reads as soft. Topher Grace, Danny Trejo, and the rest all get their moments, and all come off very well.
There are a few regrettable missteps that take away from the picture's effectiveness. There's a long sequence involving a dead spaceship in the second act, that gives us lots of exposition about previous hunts, the two types of aliens hunters, and hints at some internal conflicts, but also stops the whole movie in its tracks for about fifteen minutes in order to do this, and wastes a very good actor's performance in the process There are character reversals and left-field saves that happen without any sort of set-up, and late in the second half we get two hand-to-hand fights that are conceptually interesting, but look absolutely ridiculous in execution. One involves two aliens grappling with each other like a pair of WWE wrestlers. The other involves Louis Ozawa Changchien wielding a katana in a windswept wheat field.
"Predators" should provide a good kick-start to its franchise, which has endured several bad sequels including two team-ups with the "Alien" Xenomorphs. My hope, however, is that it'll also be a wake-up call to the industry that the lavish, soulless, CGI-heavy action movies that have been so prevalent lately aren't much of an improvement over the old fashioned, down and dirty kind that they made twenty years ago with a fraction of the money and none of these fancy new technological advances. "Predators" uses a few CGI aliens, but mostly it relies on cleaned-up versions of the same effects that the 1987 original did. The movie feels less like a sequel to "Predator" than a successor, as it hews very closely not only to the story, but the filmmaking sensibilities that made the first one so memorable.
I hope the film does well enough to net another sequel or two, because after "Predators," I'd love another trip back to the jungle.