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Sometimes you have to be dropped on an alien planet with a bunch of amoral killers to finally discover what it means to be human. The sentiment may be cheesy, but for some reason it works in the reboot/sequel hybrid Predators. I haven’t seen the first two installments, knowing only that Predator is supposedly a classic of the genre and Predator 2 is good for another reason to laugh at Danny Glover. After watching both Alien Vs. Predator flicks, however, I wouldn’t say I expected too much from the Robert Rodriguez produced, Nimród Antal directed version. So, it may be because my expectations were low, but I really thought this thing delivered on all promises. The horror aspects were effective in that the Predators are mostly cloaked for the duration—besides one somewhat silly, yet obvious mano a mano battle between two warriors—so the fear quotient relies heavily on the actors’ expressions; the sci-fi elements show through nicely with great art direction; and the action never lulls—if the human prey aren’t trying to kill each other, some beast is close by ready to pounce.

The trailer pretty much lays it all out plot-wise. Eight people awaken in midair without any recollection of how they could have gotten to the unknown jungle that breaks their fall. Untrusting of one another, they soon learn the environment’s unfamiliarity and the gutted soldier by mysterious means are somewhat more pressing issues. Putting petty testosterone-fueled feuds aside, the group bands together to search out what happened and why they’ve been dropped there together. Everyone is either military-trained or just plain sadistic—see Walton Goggins’s Stans, one more in a long line of believable rednecks on his docket—besides the odd inclusion of Edwin (Topher Grace), a doctor out of his element. No one has a clue about what their next move should be, but the survival instincts of an unnamed mercenary, played by Adrien Brody, plans a course of action based on what he’d do if on the hunting side of things. Acting like the predator he is, Brody begins to mark his comrades, using their strengths and weaknesses to find answers about their mutual enemy, a trio of monsters looking to evolve their skills en route to becoming the universe’s most feared foe.

As you can discern from the admittedly thin story at play, the filmmakers don’t expect anyone to read too far into things, hoping for some award-winning human drama. The series is labeled with the Predator moniker for a reason—it’s about the hunt and whether you have the stomach to defeat the force pushing against you. The screenwriters do a smart thing by bringing history into the fold, making one character aware of the evil lurking in the shadows. Isabelle (Alice Braga) is the lone killer who appears to have kept some form of a compassionate heart intact. She still fights for her country and not the pleasure of the kill, so she’s been privy to certain files and stories, including one from the lone survivor of a 1987 Guatemalan mission that stumbled upon a creature described in detail like the one she sets eyes on here. This seemingly small detail not only helps the characters believe the fact they are on a distant planet since the inhabitants have actually been seen on Earth, but also gives fans of the series something to latch onto. Rodriguez and company aren’t trying to recreate a formula over two decades old, they instead decided to expand upon what worked, bring it into the 21st century, and give their viewers a nostalgic taste of when action flicks ruled the box office.

All that mythology combining the Predator and Alien worlds may be cool on paper, or comics, or fanboys’ imaginations, but it never quite panned out in theatres. With Predators, we go back to its roots, forgoing expository tales of alien origins, instead going primal—man vs. beast, winner take all. They do attempt to go bigger, as any sequel does, by introducing a fun, four-legged animal hunter along with a completely unnecessary Predator sub-species. Expanding one side of the fight isn’t quite fair, though, so the humans increase too, both in numbers, (with familiar faces so as not to tip off who dies first), and intellect. Brody’s mercenary seems to have been bred for this fight, knowing exactly what he needs in order to get an edge and containing fearlessness in doing so, no matter the consequences. Braga is badass as usual, unfortunately becoming typecast regularly now; Oleg Taktarov again excels as the Soviet tough guy who is softer than first assumed; Grace is unsurprisingly neurotic comic relief; Danny Trejo makes his obligatory Rodriguez cameo; Laurence Fishburne shows he can play committable insanity; and both Louis Ozawa Changchien and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali steal the show for me. Changchien’s sword fight with a Predator is a definite highlight.

And while there are plenty of issues to be had with the film—including an unsatisfying conclusion leaving the sequel door wide open—it is well-paced, deftly orchestrated, and never lacking on the blood-pumping urge to watch something get maimed or killed. Everyone’s death is handled with purpose, though, no one is simply a pawn to be tossed away; they’ve all been chosen for a reason and as such serve it. I was with many outsiders who questioned the casting choice of Brody for leader of this ragtag bunch of displaced murderers, but he really does a great job. The guy looks the part, pushes back emotion for a stoic façade of self-preservation, and never falters in his goal for survival. He may not be the biggest of the crew, but he sure as hell would have my vote against any of the others on a straight-up sparring session. He shows how brains, anticipation, and confidence trump bulk, brute force, and strength almost every time. It’s much the same with the Predators, seeing the ‘Classic’ variety next to the newly created, and aptly named, ‘Berzerker’ incarnation. Berzerker may seem the one to fear, but when every single role in this film consists of a person—or thing—that has taken a life, all bets are off. And that’s the movie’s strength, keeping you guessing until the clichéd Hollywood ending stumbles on in.

Predators 7/10

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[1] Royce (Adrien Brody) and Isabelle (Alice Braga) take aim during their desperate battle against the alien Predators. Photo credit: Rico Torres
[2] Laurence Fishburne stars as Noland, a veteran of the human-Predator wars. Photo credit: Rico Torres