Predators and Killers

July 15, 2010

John McTiernan’s tight, sparse and commendably pure Predator still stands as one of the finer action achievements of the 1980s, and though it has been sullied by a grim sequel borne out of the Jason Takes Manhattan mode and a pair of cinematic abortions that shall not be mentioned by title here, the simple concept still has allure.  For those living under a rock, it is basically a sci-fi Most Dangerous Game, with honour-bound but ruthless dreadlocked aliens hunting humanity’s finest killers.  While the original was happy for our heroes to tangle with a singular beast, Nimrod Antal’s Predators takes a cue from the Alien franchise by pluralizing both the title as well as the number of predators.

The characters are (quite literally) dropped into the narrative as the film opens with an unnamed mercenary (Adrien Brody) waking up mid-plummet with a parachute.  He finds himself on the ground with a rag-tag group of soldiers, killers, criminal enforces, and a doctor played by Topher Grace (no points for working out his character within ten minutes).  As the group of character actors, including Danny Trejo and Walton Goggins, begin to work together, they soon find that they have been dropped on an alien planet that looks similar to the jungles of our own with added planets hanging in the sky.  Clued into the fact that they’re not in Hawaii anymore, they work out they’re on a giant game reserve, only the game isn’t very much fun.

What follows is pretty straightforward.  Run, be picked off one by one, run some more, find ways to try to fight back, fail, run, and then work to outwit the enemy using cunning, grenades, a samurai sword, and a chiv.  The actors play it straight and they do it well, with Adrien Brody exuding dark, unwilling hero vibes to tough-girl-but-not-in-a-manly-way Alice Braga.  Special props go to Walton Goggins, whose redneck serial killer manages to be both convincingly amoral, funny, and oddly admirable in quick turns.  Grace gets saddled with the Paul Reiser in Aliens role, and while he does it well enough he’s really unnecessary and a bit tiresome by the end.

The film stays admirably simple, and yet the tension doesn’t build enough nor does it move as quickly as it should.  Based on a treatment by grindhouse connoisseur and Tarantino contemporary Robert Rodriguez, it stays true to the jungle-fun of the original but there are some nice but unnecessary digressions that are too eager wink and nod to the audience.  I’m not necessarily blaming Rodriguez for these, because quite frankly I have no idea what was written when and by whom (the screenplay is credited to newcomers Alex Litvek and Michael Finch), but it’s a problem I tend to associate with the generation that came up in the 90s indie-boom.  Laurence Fishburne turns up as a long-time survivor on the planet.  He’s loopy in a Colonel Kurtz sort of way, at one point even humming Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”.  Film fans (read: geeks) will know Fishburne got his break in Apocalypse Now, and while the cleverness is not lost anyone, it’s a sequence that stops the film in its tracks.  The fun little digression is not necessary, and neither is the pointless exposition it doles out.  Likewise, when Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), the yakuza hitman, stops running to fight one of the predators with a samurai sword, we get a nice, measured fight scene in a windswept field of tall grass, no doubt nodding back to the Japanese masters of old.  It’s decently done, but again, it’s unnecessary.  Coming at a point when we should be racing full tilt towards the inevitable, we don’t need to pause and take a step out of the narrative to admire the reference.

Still, it’s not bad as these things go.  I enjoyed it without ever being gripped or enthralled.  It is somewhat amazing that even as threadbare as the plot and background was, it still felt like too much.  In any case, a Predator film shouldn’t really be relegated to pleasant cinema fluff, but considering the last two outings the franchise has had, it is a significant step up.

Speaking of plots that are threadbare and still somehow overdone involving a number of killers, Robert Luketic has a new Katherine Heigl vehicle out called, appropriately, Killers.  Luketic, according to the Internet, made a name for himself with a highly regarded short film that led to his break-out directorial feature debut Legally Blonde, and he’s never looked back.  How fascinating would a documentary about the rise and settling of a young director into mediocre studio hackery actually be?  Certainly better than Killers, which has the ignominy of being absolutely dreadful and wrong-footed at virtually ever turn and yet not so terrible that I have actual angry feelings toward it.

Jen (Katherine Heigl) is on holiday in Nice with her parents, played by Tom Selleck and Catherine O’Hara.  Lazy exposition tells us she’s recently been dumped, but she’s okay with it when she runs into Spencer (Ashton Kutcher) in the hotel lobby.  They have an entirely unconvincing meet-cute, he’s there on a mission because he’s a CIA hitman, they fall in love in an unconvincing montage, he decides to get out of the hitman business, and they get married.  The difficulty in this situation is convincing us that the suave spy who wants a normal life actually sees anything in the bumbling, sheltered girl other than an ideal, and there is absolutely nothing here that makes anyone think he would go for her out of anything other than that ideal.  But pushing on, cut to three years later and they’re married with jobs and living in a large suburban home in what I am sure is middle-America’s aspirational vision of The Good Life.  One day Spencer gets a contact from his old handler, and soon enough their friends, neighbours, and deliverymen are all trying to kill him for twenty million dollars.  They run around for a day, sort it out in the most preposterously stupid way, and that’s the end.

I should point out that, for a comedy, there is absolutely nothing funny in the film.  They try, of course, but the gags aren’t any good, any hope of slapstick in the action scenes is taken away by the somewhat brutal nature of the killings, and the jokes are so slight and obvious that they depend solely on delivery, which neither of the leads manages to pull off.  Oh, and the mom is an alcoholic.  Ha ha.  Beyond that, there’s no real conflict other than the immediate one to resolve, and when it’s resolved so quickly and poorly, you realize there wasn’t much point to any of this.  Jen is angry for a bit that he lied about his past, but then she gets pregnant and soon enough doesn’t care.  Earlier this year there was a mediocre but occasionally funny Tina Fey and Steve Carrell vehicle called Date Night, which similarly descended into middling action mayhem.  While that movie was carried by a pair of talented actors desperately pulling the comedy out of the unfunny script (and doing it far better than the movie deserved), there was at least a character arc to grab onto.  These were nice people who loved each other but were stuck in the doldrums of middle age.  No matter how poor the film, it was enough to hang their performances on and give them a throughline to audience identification and, consequently, caring.  In Killers, no such arc exists.  They’re still totally in love three years later, they’re absolutely perfect in every way, and that’s that.

In its defense, the action scenes are directed with slightly more care than your average comedy-romance-action yarn, but not a whole lot.  That’s about the only defense there is, however, as the absurdity of the situation doesn’t raise it to the heights of being funny, but rather lowers it into the realm of nonsense.  How can all this destruction happen in such a tight-nit community, amongst a large neighbourhood block party even, and nobody else bats an eye.  How did they clean up the situation?  You would think that it might even be fertile territory for a send-up of this kind of suburban America, as though there’s a ridiculous and dark edge simmering beneath.  I saw an episode of Angel recently where a man was stuck in a hell dimension, in which he lived with a beautiful wife and neighbours, but once a day was led down to the basement where he was tortured and had his heart ripped out by a demon.  When the spell was broken and he escaped, that wife and those neighbours and the postman brought out automatic weapons and started tearing up the house to try to kill him.  There was more satire of said subject in 5 minutes of screen time in Angel than there was in the entirety of Killers, where nobody making the damn thing seemed to pick up on it as a possibility.

Still, I didn’t hate it, simply because it’s not worth an emotion that strong.  Nobody involved seemed to care enough to put any effort whatsoever into making the film, and so I don’t feel the need to put any effort in having any kind of emotional reaction to it, even it if that emotion is as slight as being moderately offended.  If they don’t care, neither do I.

-M

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