Here’s the next step in the “Stranger Things”-izing of our culture: In “The Predator,” the latest in the spotty sci-fi action franchise, Jacob Tremblay wears the alien Predator battle helmet out trick-or-treating and deals with bullies in precociously violent fashion.
More than three decades after Arnold Schwarzenegger rumbled in a jungle with the skilled extraterrestrial warrior in the original 1987 “Predator,” director/co-writer Shane Black puts invaders in the suburbs in the new effort (★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters nationwide Friday), a B-movie at its heart with big-budget ambitions. Full of rampant goofiness, extreme gore, a jumbled narrative and hyperactive pacing, "The Predator" is also funnier and more clever than one would expect, though at the same time it’s an ‘80s film that doesn’t realize it’s 2018 in terms of political correctness.
As in the first film, “The Predator” throws you right into the action with a galactic visitor crash-landing in Mexico. Former Army Ranger sniper-turned-mercenary Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is in the area and, knowing something's seriously strange, grabs some of the high-tech Predator swag. He mails it to Rory (Tremblay), his young son who has autism, for safekeeping before being captured and stuck on a bus full of fellow veterans with PTSD – called, no joke, the “Loonies” – on their way to lobotomies.
Meanwhile, Rory manages to turn on the Predator device, which brings a Super Predator – he’s bigger and more jacked up than his buddy – to Earth with his Predator dogs, and the kid, his dad, the soldiers and evolutionary biologist Casey Brackett (Olivia Munn) all wind up together as the misfit-filled last line of defense against the Super Predator’s nefarious plans for our planet.
Holbrook and “Moonlight” standout Trevante Rhodes (who plays calm and confident soldier Nebraska) both showcase action-hero mettle. They might not have the same muscular machismo as predecessors Schwarzenegger and Jesse “The Body” Ventura (Rhodes is pretty close, actually) but they're more relatable protagonists. Munn does her most satisfying work since “The Newsroom,” though her scientist is a smidge too battle-ready for belief. And Sterling K. Brown, who classes up the entire endeavor by simply being there, is joyfully smarmy as the gum-chewing antagonist in charge of the secretive government lab keeping an eye on the Predator population.
Black and Fred Dekker’s screenplay – their first cinematic teamup since 1987’s “Monster Squad” – features callbacks to the first two “Predator” films, plus expands the mythology (like tying environmental changes to Predator sightings). It’s got a wicked and quirky sense of humor: One running joke involves people questioning why it’s called a Predator when it’s really a hunter or, as the good doctor puts it, “a bass fisherman.”
Yet every insightful storytelling choice is met with a head-scratching one. (The most problematic decision was rectified before the movie's release, when the studio cut a now-infamous scene with Munn and a registered sex offender.) In one scene, two characters have a rather nuanced discussion about people on the autism spectrum, while in another Rory is met with an offensive term. Munn's and Tremblay’s characters are targets for the most questionable humor, not to mention one soldier with Tourette’s (Thomas Jane) and another tied to a friendly-fire incident (Keegan-Michael Key) who are oddly played for laughs. What would have worked in, say, 1987 just seems wildly out of place now.
Those things make “The Predator” a difficult sell, even for a super-fan of the original. The fact that it’s undeniably entertaining is even more disappointing when faced with the movie’s immaturity.