Predators (2010, Nimród Antal)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Eight strangers are transported to an alien planet to be the prey in a hunting ritual…

The cast: The characters are all human killers who’ve been kidnapped so the predators can hunt them. Royce, a former special-forces solider, is played by Adrien Brody. It’s an effective bit of casting against type: the usually soft Brody has fun going all gravely voiced and macho. Alice Braga plays the dour Isabelle, an Israeli sniper. Topher Grace gets both comedy and sinister stuff to do as Edwin, who seems to be a coward but is then revealed to be the most fucked-up of them all. Elsewhere, there’s Stans (Walton Goggins), a prisoner who boasts about “raping bitches”; Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), a Russian heavy; Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a mostly mute Yakuza; Mombassa (Mahershalalhasbaz ‘Mahershala’ Ali), a mercenary from Sierra Leone; and Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), a Mexican drug-cartel enforcer. As with Alien vs Predator, Arnold Schwarzenegger was asked to cameo as Dutch from Predator, but it didn’t happen. Presumably because he was Governor of California at the time.

The best bit: There’s a nice twist when Royce comes face to face with a predator. He thinks he’s a goner, but then the creatures removes his mask to reveals he’s actually a human in disguise. Noland (Laurence Fishbourne) has been trapped on the planet for so long that he’s gone a bit loopy. But he’s able to impart some fun exposition before being killed.

Review: Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City) had been touting to make this film since the early 90s, though when it finally got green-lit he moved to a producing role and hired another director. Nimród Antal does a decent job. The script might be a vague retelling of the original Predator story (tough guys in jungle get picked off one-by-one), but there are a few nice twists to the formula and the whole film is suitably atmospheric. We learn about the characters through behaviour as well as dialogue, and there are some flashes of humour. So while they’re stereotypes, they’re still more complex than the people in, say, Alien vs Predator. They’re also very far from being nice, which makes them more interesting and the story more unpredictable. And in terms of the movie’s look, long-lens shots make the jungle – actually in Hawaii – seem otherworldly, dangerous and threatening. On the whole, an enjoyable enough film. Nothing extraordinary, but better than I was expecting.

Seven spinal columns out of 10

Next time: Ridley Scott directs an Alien prequel? What could go wrong?!

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Aliens vs Predator: Requiem (2007, The Brothers Strause)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists. Not that it really matters with garbage like this one.

A hybrid of a predator and an alien crash-lands in modern-day America…

The cast: A dreadful collection of wooden, daytime-soap performances. It’s not long before you’re rooting for the monsters. The only notable actor is Reiko Aylesworth (24, Lost, my sexual fantasies). She plays Kelly O’Brien, a soldier who’s really picked the wrong weekend to visit home. There were plans to get Adam Baldwin to reprise his Predator 2 role of army guy Garber, but a new character was created instead.

The best bit: There isn’t one.

Crossover: The previous film had featured the head of Weyland Industries, so this one gives us a coda scene with a character called Miss Yutani. (Weyland-Yutani is the name of the all-powerful conglomerate in the original Alien movies.) At one point a character says, “Get to the chopper!” – a reference to Predator’s most famous line of dialogue.

Alternative version: Turns out, the DVD I watched *is* an alternative version, with seven extra minutes compared to the theatrical cut. Haven’t I suffered enough?!

Review: This staggeringly boring mess mines new depths of storytelling ineptitude. Thankfully it’s so badly lit you often can’t tell what’s happening.

One pizza box out of 10

Next time: The Predator series gets its Aliens…

Alien vs Predator (2004, Paul WS Anderson)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

October 2004. A satellite detects a heat bloom coming from underneath an Antarctic island, so a team of scientists and explorers head there to investigate…

The cast: The lead character, Alexa Woods, is played by Sanaa Lathan. She’s not terrible exactly, but doesn’t have much to work with. Other members of the team vary from the adequate (Colin Salmon, Ewen Bremmer) to the downright awful (Raoul Bova). Lance Henriksen appears in his third Alien film, playing his third character. He’s now millionaire businessman Charles Bishop Weyland (the ‘pioneer of modern robotics’), which is a multi-stranded reference. His company will later form part of Weyland-Yutani, the conglomerate from the 1979-1997 Alien films, while his middle name nods to the android Bishop from Aliens. Presumably that robot was based on this guy’s likeness. (Quite who Henriksen was meant to be playing in Alien³, therefore, is another matter.) In one scene he fidgets with a knife: another echo of the android.

The best bit: All the stuff on the Antarctic surface looks great, especially the terrific set of the abandoned whaling station. The weather conditions, the dramatic lighting, the sound design – they all help tremendously.

Crossover: Of course, the whole project is a crossover based on a comic-book series that began in 1990. As an in-joke, one scene has a previous ‘franchise mash-up’ playing on a TV: 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. Arnold Schwarzenegger was due to cameo as his Predator character, Dutch Schaeffer. However, the actor dropped out when he won a recall election in his bid to be Governor of California.

Alternative version: An extended version is available on the DVD. The only addition that improves the story is a short prologue set in 1904 at the Razorpoint whaling station.

Review: A horror movie lives or dies on whether we care about the characters. Think of the first Alien movie and you think of Ripley and Dallas and Kane. Think of its sequel and you think of Hicks and Hudson and Newt. Here, sadly, the people are all bland and forgettable. The opening third features several moments where a character is introduced or focused on – yet it’s all so bloody mechanical. Ewan Bremmer’s Miller has children back home; therefore, says the film, we should like him. It’s not enough. It’s just people trotting out their quirk or showing off a speciality. The writing *never* feels organic or fresh. After an opening that’s brisk so at least keeps your interest, the team find a pyramid under the ice. They explore, deducing centuries of back-story and deciphering ancient hieroglyphics with ease. (Channel 4’s Time Team could have done with these people – they took three days for each dig and sometimes found bugger all!) However, once the monsters show up, the film becomes very dull very quickly. On the upside, clearly some thought has gone into a way of bringing the two species together. The solution – that predators have visited earth before and use xenomorphs for sport – uses the rituals of hunting from Predator and the horrific life cycle from Alien. An inventive idea. The story also takes an interesting turn for the climax when Alexa forms a truce with the lead predator. And on a technical level the film is perfectly accomplished. As a throwaway B-movie, it works fine. But it’s just not in the same league as its antecedents.

Five Pepsi bottle-tops out of 10

Next time: Even more aliens versus predators!

Predator 2 (1990, Stephen Hopkins)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Los Angeles, 1997. A predator is loose in the city and is picking off rival gang leaders…

The cast: The lead is Danny Glover, who’d recently played another cop in two Lethal Weapon films. In fact, Lieutenant Mike Harrigan is basically Lethal Weapon’s Riggs and Murtaugh combined into one person. It’s an unconvincing performance. Kevin Peter Hall climbs into the predator suit again, though this is a different individual from the 1987 film. Gary Busey is another Lethal Weapon alumnus, here miscast as a shifty agent called Peter Keyes. Maria Conchita Alonso is Harrigan’s spunky sidekick, Detective Leona Cantrell, and is just as rubbish as she had been in The Running Man. Bill Paxton adds a bit of fun as light-hearted detective Jerry Lambert. Robert Davi (Die Hard, Licence to Kill) has a tiny role as the police chief. Adam Baldwin (later a regular in Firefly) is Keyes’s second-in-command. During an info-dump about the events of Predator, we see a character from that film on a monitor: presumably because Arnold Schwarzenegger’s image rights were too expensive, it’s Anna Gonsalves rather than Dutch Schaefer.

The best bit: The predator attacks a subway train. A great set, which convincingly shuffles from side to side, and epileptic lighting. Scary stuff.

Crossover: The creatures from the Alien and Predator films first appeared together in February 1990 in a comic book called Dark Horse Presents #36. As a nod to the comic, the Predator 2 design team placed a xenomorph skull in amongst the predator’s trophies of its kills. Additionally, this film features a casting crossover with the Alien series. For a giggle, let’s assume that Bill Paxton’s Detective Lambert is the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Private Hudson from Aliens.

Review: The first image of the film is terrific. A helicopter shot swoops over thick woodland, making us think we’re back in the world of the first movie – but when it breaks the treeline we see Los Angeles in the distance. The urban jungle of LA is, for some reason, set a few years into the future. So it’s therefore grimy, rundown, trashy, and there’s a war going on between ethnic-minority gangs over money, cocaine and power. Right from the first scene this is over-the-top, schlocky stuff that’s difficult to take seriously. The script is clichéd and crass, while the cast is largely terrible. Yet everything has an undoubted vibrancy about it. The substance might be nonsense but the cinematic style – brisk editing, good camera movement, a solid Alan Silvestri score – pulls you through. For instance, there are a number of well-constructed shots. The first scene in the police station features a 64-second long take. The camera passes the busy front desk, the detectives’ bullpen and every 1980s-Hollywood-cop-shop stereotype going (yes, there are prostitutes!) before finding Harrigan, who we then follow into his boss’s office. It’s just one of a few instances where a camera move is artful and revealing. They deserve better material. The first half of the movie also really pushes a film-noir feeling – most evident in a penthouse crime scene and Harrigan’s office with light coming in through blinds – and there are flashes of Robocop-style satire when we see clips from a lurid TV news show. However, halfway in, once the plotting stops and the film becomes an extended chase scene, it gets really boring. It doesn’t help that Glover has to keep talking to himself because the sidekicks have all been dispatched. That device worked in Die Hard, but Harrigan is no John McClane. There’s only one reason why it’s worth watching until the end. The predator’s spaceship, where the climax takes place, is *great*. Vaguely Mayan or Aztec-looking, it’s both beautiful and strange at the same time. (By the way, the production designer was Lawrence G Paull, whose work keeps getting praised on this blog. He was also responsible for the physical style of Back to the Future and Blade Runner. In short, he’s a genius.) Predator 2 ain’t subtle, but it is quite fun. A guilty pleasure.

Seven ugly motherfuckers out of 10

Next time: Even more Aliens…

Predator (1987, John McTiernan)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A crack team of commandos are sent into the jungle to rescue a captured diplomat. But they encounter a ruthless alien, who starts to pick them off for sport…

The cast: As a film-obsessed child I had an enormous man-crush on Arnold Schwarzenegger; or rather the films he made. Here he plays Major Alan ‘Dutch’ Schaefer, the cigar-chomping leader of the special-forces team. Because it’s an 80s Arnie flick Dutch has a couple of James Bond-style puns, but they don’t fit the film’s tone at all. It’s not one of Arnie’s best performances. Much better is former Rocky star Carl Weathers as George Dillon: the only character with any kind of complexity, he lies to the others then realises he’s fucked up. The rest of the team are played by Bill Duke (decent), Jesse Ventura (barely an actor), Sonny Landham (who was such a fruit-loop the producers insisted on a minder to keep him in check), Richard Chaves and Shane Black. Black is an interesting piece of casting. He’s a really good screenwriter (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, Iron Man 3 and others) and was given the minor role of Hawkins so he could be on set to do any last-minute rewrites. Given that he’s not an actor, he’s actually okay. Hawkins’s character trait is that he tells bad jokes. Incidentally, two of the cast feature in other 1980s Schwarzenegger films: Duke had been in 1985’s Commando; Ventura was in 1987’s The Running Man. Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally cast as the predator, but looked weedy next to Schwarzenegger, Weathers and the others so was replaced by seven-foot-two Kevin Peter Hall. Elpidia Carrillo plays Anna Gonsalves, an underwritten woman the team rescue from the bad guys. At the end of the film there’s a credits sequence where the actors smile at camera in time with their names appearing. I’m going to assume that the idea was stolen from Hi-De-Hi.

The best bit: The most successful aspects of the film are the visual effects used for the predator’s POV shots and for when it’s ‘cloaked’. The former is a thermal-vision image where heat shows up against the blurry background, while the latter has the creature only visible as a see-through shimmer.

Crossover: Watching the Predator and Alien movies at the same time is an idea based on the later films featuring both monsters. However, the two series share a connection at this point too. Unhappy with the original creature design, McTiernan hired visual-effects guru Stan Winston to come up with a new predator. Winston doodled his initial ideas while on a flight with his friend James Cameron, who’d just directed Aliens. Glancing at the drawing, Cameron suggested that Winston add mandibles – hence the predator’s distinctive multi-jaw face, which in no way reminds me of a vagina.

Review: There’s a scene about halfway through where the characters know the predator is nearby so all fire their guns into the jungle. Despite a deafening hail of bullets, they hit nothing but foliage. Director John McTiernan has said that this was a joke on his part. A satire of brainless, gung-ho action films. The characters have all this hardware, he chuckles on the DVD commentary, yet are ultimately impotent. Well, he’s being extremely disingenuous. Earlier in the film, an attack on a terrorist compound is staged and shot like a music video. There’s a pornographic excitement about guns, bullets, deaths, muscle-bound men and explosions. The notion that any irony is on show is funny in itself. (Admittedly, the film does have some spoofy moments: surely it’s a joke when Dillon’s arm is ripped off but keeps firing the gun it’s holding.) The bad guys in that compound, by the way, are from some unspecified Central American country and are barely seen let alone fleshed out. They’re just A-Team villains, there to be killed by the untouchable heroes in slow motion. God, I sound like an old fart moaning about violence. I actually love action films and have no problem with violent stories. But there has to be more class to them than this. This movie doesn’t seem too concerned with plot or characterisation. The only woman in the story, for example, is an embarrassment. Anna Gonsalves has no dialogue in English until nearly an hour in, does nothing but provide exposition, then is absent from the climax. In its favour, the film can be seen as some kind of Apocalypse Now in reverse. The characters’ journey ‘upriver’ only takes up the first half-hour of the story – it’s then about them trying to escape. On that level, the story works well and is tense and exciting. It takes the predator a while to show up, but it’s clear he’s not just a mindless killer. For him, this is a game. The film then becomes obsessed with the rituals of hunting. The predator refuses to attack the unarmed Anna; Bill Duke’s Eliot superstitiously scrapes his bald head with a razor; Dutch has slashes of camouflage make-up that make him look like some kind of New Romantic tribal leader, then in the final act he improvises a series of traps. Not as smart as it thinks it is, but still enjoyable enough hokum.

Seven pussies out of 10

Next time: The predator takes LA…