As No Concessions heads off to the wilds of Wisconsin, land of Leinenkugels and cheese curds, for its annual constitutional a word must be said about Predators. The other week when I was off duty Popdose went Predator-crazy, with reviews of the 1987 original on Blu-ray, a look back at the series to date (two “canon” flicks plus the ersatz Aliens vs. movies), and downloads of the many songs inspired by them. OK, I kid, but there probably were one or two.
Now we have Predators, at least for another week or two. After a decent opening weekend it went down like Predator co-stars Jesse Ventura and Sonny Landham this past weekend, which EW.com’s Nicole Sperling attributed to its being “bloated.” Predators is many things (well, a few things, anyway) but if she’d actually seen the picture or read some of the 63% fresh reviews she’d know it wasn’t overstuffed.
Movies from the Robert Rodriguez cheese factory are never spendthrift. They’re often retarded and I lose a few brain cells on the theater floor when I go to see one but you’re not exactly in the presence of King Midas when his credit appears. The digital effects in this one, particularly the cheated-in explosions, are off the rack. And the title is a gyp: After Predator, and Predator 2, this is indeed the story of Predators, all three of them.
But in its own ramshackle, Scotch tape-and-Elmer’s-Glue way Predators hits the mark. Rodriguez, who compensates for his frugality by throwing everything and a house full of kitchen sinks at you when he picks up the megaphone, stayed safely behind the scenes here. The script, by Michael Finch and Alex Litvak, functions at about an eighth-grade level, at the high end of the Rodriguez curve. Christopher Nolan needn’t worry about the director, Nimrod Antal, nipping at his heels anytime soon but as his prior credits Kontroll and Vacancy showed the Hungarian-born filmmaker knows how to sustain tension for at least a minute at a time, no small accomplishment in these days of Red Bull hyper-editing.
Predators gets right back to basics, no urban mayhem, no damn aliens. We’re in the jungle again, an alien one, with multiple moons in the skies and warthog beasts that look to have strayed in from Pandora on the ground. The snaggle-faced predators, who are canvassing the universe for hunter types, dump a cadre of mercenaries and others with hidden agendas into this hostile if life-sustaining environment for sport, and the game is on.
The humans are parachuted in, which immediately raises the question of why the predators, who whisked them off Earth in a flash of white light, didn’t just deposit them safely in their game preserve. Like I said, eighth grade level. The prey has been recalibrated for our time, where Ah-nuld physiques are out and emo types are in, so we have Adrien Brody, the Oscar winner with the Robert Englund career (Splice, King Kong, The Village, the unreleased Dario Argento picture Giallo), as the nameless, glowering lead. Even with a six pack and glistening guns Brody looks more like a Pilates trainer than a threat to the galactic overlords. Still, he gives good mutter, which is what the final guy in a predator picture has to deliver, and is convincing when the movie swings into mano-a-mandible action.
The supporting cast is well-chosen: A hottie (I Am Legend’s Alice Braga), a bunch of plug-ugly male notties (Rodriguez and cult favorite Danny Trejo among them), and a couple of off-balance wisecrackers in Walton Goggins, who makes The Shield and Justified worth tuning in for, and Topher Grace, back among us after a long-ish spell where his career seemed to have been mysteriously hijacked to an alien game preserve. My favorite, besides the slick Yakuza gangster with the unlikely ninja skills (hey, they’re cool, like parachutes are cool), was Oleg Taktarov, a softhearted Russian bear with great worried eyes. Looser and funnier than I’ve seen him in some time is Laurence Fishburne, playing off his appearance in Apocalypse Now as an inexplicably well-fed scavenger (must have been those warthogs) and exposition resource.
The three predators? They aren’t bad, either—but, to paraphrase Lerner and Loewe, I’ve grown accustomed to their pussyfaces. They haven’t been given much in the way of new gimmicks or powers, and a subplot about their being different classes of predators is lost in the shuffle of brawls and chases. Predators is wise to lean on the original score and the original creature designs (strangely uncredited, as if they had fallen into the public domain), and the leanness and meanness of the premise. All it fails to deliver is a reason for those not on Team Predator to get back in the game.
If the predators were to return to Earth they’d meet their match in Jonah Hill. The circular young star of Get Him to the Greek looks impervious to all but the toughest alien carving knives. Cast as Cyrus, in the new comedy of the same name by mumblecore graduates Jay and Mark Duplass, he’s a brick wall made of solid blubber, blocking the exasperated overtures of mom Marisa Tomei’s new suitor, John C. Reilly. He won’t give an inch as the smitten Reilly, a loser in love, emphasizes, wheedles, and fights back against his passive-aggressive tactics.
I saw Cyrus a couple of weeks ago and was content to let it pass. It’s mildly amusing and also mildly off-putting, one of those semi-improvised productions where no one can think of anything wise or witty to say at certain intervals and the whole thing stutters and breaks down. Yet it’s holding its own at the boxoffice, which is always gratifying to see. Far be it for me to pee in the punchbowl, which Reilly might very well do in at least one scene (his character, a sad-sack freelance editor not unlike much of the staff at Popdose, is in perpetual need of serious advice). I just can’t get enthused one way or another, which is the hallmark, and the limitation, of most mumblers.
One thumb up, though, for Reilly, who’s better at filling in the blanks than any of his co-stars. (Hill is intentionally blank, and the uncomfortable humor the story musters is dependent on his poker face.) The movie starts with his still-concerned ex-wife, played by the formidable Catherine Keener, catching him jerking off, a one-time movie taboo now played for cringing laughs. Reilly not only survives this and other indignities, he makes us care about this guy, whose only hope of deliverance is the winsome Tomei. I didn’t really buy her interest in him, something the Judd Apatow movies now take on faith (middle-aged singlehood aside in real life Reilly would have as much luck landing Tomei as I might have had pursuing Diane Lane in my sad-sack freelance editor years). I did, however, believe his yearning.
Cyrus taps into the eerie intimacy single parents can share with their only children, a bond I’ve observed, and one that can be vaguely hostile to outsiders. It’s only a tap, though. The Duplasses seem suspicious of details that might better ground the story, like how Cyrus and his mom make a living, as if more penetrating observation might somehow violate their play-it-as-it-lays aesthetic. Guys, it wouldn’t hurt, and it would definitely help to make better use of the tools of your trade. You shoot movies like I take pictures of my daughter, close in and with an extremely clumsy use of the zoom lens, as if the function was newly invented and you were the first to use it. If you’re going to make movies that play like low-rent versions of Reilly’s comedies with Will Ferrell, make them to something resembling that not-high bar of professionalism.