I struggle to think of another ‘80s film icon that has endured as strongly as the Predator despite only having been in a single good film. That’s not so much a dig on how bad Predator 2 and the pair of Alien Vs. Predator films are (though all three are certainly worth the derision) as it is a testament to how good the character is. His origins are an enigma but his motivations require no grand backstory: He’s an alien hunter who likes to keep the skulls of his prey as trophies. It’s simple really. And that’s why Predators the two-decades late sequel that should-have-been instead of the previous trio of disappointments works as well as it does.
Director Nimrod Antal and screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch have cut out all distractions all the fruitless complications most sequels experience as they try to overly explain any unanswered questions from the first film. Their story ignites with a bang and shows no immediate signs of pausing for needless introspection. Predators opens with Adrien Brody’s character falling from the sky into an unknown jungle where he meets up with a handful of fellow air-dropped jarheads each as equally confused as to what’s going on as the next. The audience knows exactly what’s going on though. They a collective sampling of Earth’s most lethal badasses have been parachuted onto an alien game preserve for the hunting pleasures of the Predators.
The first 30 or so minutes of the film are a much-needed refresher course on not only how to do ensemble-based action movies but how to make a film that cashes in on a previous phenomenon without betraying the people who made it a phenomenon in the first place. We know just enough about the characters to let our own real-world instincts fill in any of the gaps. And since we know the Predators are out in the jungle patiently stalking Brody and his defacto gang of killers there is also no need to de-cloak the alien killers prematurely. The result is an exciting feels-like-the-good-ole-days start to a movie that is constantly on its toes as it pits the group against a host of interesting challenges the Predators’ planet has to offer both old (elaborate hand-made traps) and new (they aren’t the only dangerous things the Preds dropped in by parachute).
However that is only the first 30 or so minutes of the film. Sadly around a third of the way through Antal and company have reached their cruising speed and from there on out Predators enters a predictable trajectory that doesn’t really aspire to introduce and explore more of the Predator world. For sake of keeping this review spoiler-free I’ll leave out the specifics but a plot device is introduced that promises to be yet another wild-card for the movie but it just shows up pauses to provide unnecessary exposition and then disappears. Unfortunately the momentum of the movie never fully recovers from this small but crucial misstep.
When it’s on fire though Predators is a total blast of all the extreme machismo and action-movie staples that made John McTiernan’s original such a seminal entry in both the sci-fi and action canons of cinema. Antal really knows how to balance an ensemble cast giving each character enough screen time to be memorable for one reason or another be it the weapon they carry or the lines they deliver lines seemingly engineered to be as quotable as possible (Walton Goggins’ dialog alone is reason enough to like the movie). And he also has great instincts for how to maximize the scale and scope of set pieces transforming jungle that is claustrophobic in one scene into a landscape so sprawling it seems like it could never be escaped in another.
That said even with a film that is significantly more exciting in the beginning than it is in the end a movie that is one-third great and roughly two-thirds above average isn’t exactly something to be angry about. Especially not in this summer’s current film climate where most releases have been unilaterally bad. It’s just unfortunate that Predators’ pacing problems later on the film give one’s mind plenty of time to wander to start to notice the gaps in the characters and internal logic within the script. Those are things you never really want to spend time examining in any action movie let alone a Predator movie. Had it come out when it was originally conceived by Robert Rodriguez over fifteen years ago it would have been perfect for the time period. All these years later though one must wonder how all those uneven spots weren’t ironed out in the intervening time. But all things considered this is unmistakably a Predator movie and to that end Predators is a faithful respectful hat tip to a franchise loved the world over.
Did you know there are scientifically documented cases of very young children who had spontaneous memories of things and people and places they could never possibly have known about? Apparently The Return’s screenwriter Adam Sussman discovered this phenomenon and created the character Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar) a young woman who since she was 11-years-old has been having disjointed flashbacks of some horrible attack she never experienced herself. She flashes regularly on a dank bar paintings of seahorses and ends up hiding from a man who calls her "Sunshine.” And who knew hearing Patsy Cline on your radio would spell supernatural trouble? The best part is when Joanna has one of these episodes she ends up cutting herself. Needless to say the girl’s a tad screwed up. Eventually Joanna finds herself inexplicably drawn to La Salle Texas where she finally starts to piece together the murder mystery that has been plaguing her for so long. Thank god! Someone just needs to hand Sarah Michelle Gellar a Coke and a smile. Forget about being a scream queen Gellar has become the queen of depression with the two Grudges and now The Return under her belt. She has actually made an art form of sad teary-eyed stares in the mirror sinking onto a bed with head in hand and general malaise. She also plays scared pretty well but deep down you know at any moment Gellar can get all Buffy the Vampire Slayer on whoever is threatening her especially as the tough Joanna. But the actress has to be getting tired of all this despair so let’s hope she decides to move on. The other Return cast members really aren’t worth mentioning except for a brief appearance by Sam Shepherd as Joanna’s dad. One can only imagine he did this for some extra cash. The Return is one of those cases in which the trailer makes the movie look a hell of a lot scarier than it really is which is probably why the studio didn’t pre-screen it for critics. It’s a marketing ploy of course pitching a thriller with an established horror actress attached--except this time they are messing with their built-in audience. Reminiscent of the truly creepy What Lies Beneath The Return may have a few jumps and bumps here and there but as a ghost story there isn’t any oomph. Maybe it has something to do with the ultra-depressive main character who isn’t nearly developed enough. We aren’t invested in what happens to Joanna or the woman periodically possessing her so she can solve her murder. The Return doesn’t measure up to its expectations lulling us instead of thrilling us.
There was a fresh quality to the original Spy Kids. The idea of two children finding out their parents were superspies whom they wind up having to rescue showed a new twist on kid empowerment. Unfortunately that fresh imagination which appealed to audiences and catapulted the original into a smash hit is not as prevalent in the sequel. What writer/director Robert Rodriguez does instead is further the story along; now there is a whole new branch of kid spies at the OSS. Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara) and older sister Carmen (Alexa Vega) are now star Level 2 agents but brother/sister agents Gerti (Emily Osment) and Gary (Matt O'Leary) Giggles are quickly becoming stars in their own right. The two rivaling duos set off on a mission to a mysterious island their objective to locate and destroy a device that could wipe out all the world's technology. On the island they discover weird animals roaming around created by a mad scientist (Steve Buscemi) who is hiding somewhere on the island. Juni and Carmen soon run into big trouble when their gadgets and gizmos don't work. They have to use their wits to figure things out but a little help from the whole family--dad Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) mom Ingrid (Carla Gugino) and their grandparents (Holland Taylor and Ricardo Montalban)--doesn't hurt either. The time has come for a little family power to save the day.
Vega and Sabara continue to do a nice job in their roles as Carmen and Juni especially Vega. It is fun to see how she's grown up over the last year. Carmen is a young woman now and her amorous feelings towards Gary Giggles add a nice touch to her character. The interesting mother/daughter conflict between Carmen and Ingrid which was explored in the original has now switched to a conflict between Juni and his dad. Gregorio feels like his son doesn't need him anymore now that Juni is a super kid spy. It doesn't hold up quite as well. Sabara gets a little romance of his own in the form of the U.S. president's daughter (played by How the Grinch Stole Christmas's Taylor Momsen) and he handles the chores as little leading man well. Osment (who is a spitting image of her older more famous real-life brother Haley Joel) and O'Leary make nice additions to the story as the rival Giggles and if there's a third Spy Kids we hope they'll be a part of it. As far as the adults Banderas does well with his comedic moments but he and Gugino almost seem like caricatures of the loving parents they fleshed out so well in Spy Kids. Taylor Montalban and Buscemi are simply wasted. Period.
Spy Kids 2 relies more on special effects and gadgetry than the original did and that's a shame. The heart of Spy Kids was about family and trust but Rodriguez has chosen to focus more on the spy aspects than family issues in the sequel. Of course some may disagree with this assessment because the theme of family is certainly prevalent in Spy Kids 2. It just seems much more superficial and forced than the first. The thing to point out however is the special effects are not nearly as spectacular as they could have been. If the film is hyping itself as action-packed with gadgets galore then one might expect glorious visuals. Instead the effects are reminiscent of the early '70s Sinbad B-movies even down to Juni and Carmen fighting skeletons. And the island looks more like it should belong to Dr. Moreau with odd combo animals like the spider-monkey (half spider half monkey of course) and the slizard (you can guess). Maybe Rodriguez intended to use this particular style and if he did he should be told it didn't really work that well.