Pop quiz, hotshot. What is “the most dangerous game”? a) lions b) tigers c) Parcheesi d) man. Anyone who’s read Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game”—or seen one of Hollywood’s umpteen knock-offs of it—knows the answer is “d.” Now, in an attempt to resurrect a moribund franchise, 20th Century Fox welcomes us back to the jungle for Predators, in which tall, dark, and ugly aliens again hunt humans.
Perhaps its best that Predators keeps its ambitions humble, but a dearth of inspiration makes this fifth Predator film dangerously close to a rehash of the first. Producer Robert Rodriguez would rather you think of it as “back to basics,” thank you very much, but, y’know, “tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to.” The broad-strokes plot repeats John McTiernan’s 1987 Predator: a platoon of humans tries to stay alive while hunted through booby-trapped jungle terrain by hulking laser-armed alien(s); the humans are dispatched one by one until a mano-a-alieno climax.
Okay, Predators sounds off a few new bells and whistles. Rodriguez’s dusted-off 1994 script (rewritten by credited scribes Michael Finch and Alex Litvak) nods to James Cameron’s Aliens by adding an “s” and, at least in theory, multiplying the threat. In addition to the “Classic Predator” (Derek Mears), we get the Falconer Predator (assisted by an alien bird), the Tracker Predator (who let the alien dogs out? he did), and the Berserker Predator, who doesn’t need a gimmick because he’s just a badass mofo (and a specialist in spine-ectomies).
Using new-and-improved alien technology, the Predators have zapped eight formidable humans to a game preserve planet, where they find themselves bafflingly in freefall. Once they’ve thudded to the jungle floor, Predators' opening leg plays as a sort of “Eight Characters in Search of a Captor,” or perhaps Lost in ten minutes: the characters amusingly cycle through theories, including that they’re dead and in hell, while the audience patiently waits for them to catch up.
The double meaning of the title is that the humans realize they’re “the monsters in our own world”: highly trained special-ops types (like Adrien Brody’s Royce and Alice Braga’s Isabelle), brute killers (like Walton Goggins’ Death Row inmate and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali’s death-squad soldier from Sierra Leone), a drug cartel enforcer (Rodriguez staple Danny Trejo), a Yakuza assassin (Louis Ozawa Changchien). The odd man out (Topher Grace, at his most weaselly) claims to be an everyday doctor, though Royce has his suspicions.
Director Nimród Antal (Vacancy) again proves his competence with genre material, and the script adds a couple of decent twists to the slasher-action formula: the aforementioned alien dogs, a stylish Bushid? bout pitting Predator versus katana-wielding Yakuza, a Predator vs. Predator smackdown, and Laurence Fishburne as a mad survivor (a witty callback to his early role in Apocalypse Now). Antal crucially limits CGI in favor of top-notch makeup and creature effects by the legendary Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger. Best in show goes to Goggins (The Shield), the underrated master at playing morally challenged, scary-funny killers. If only they had given him the picture instead of forcing him to steal it.