“Review Proof” is a phrase that gets tossed around from time to time when a film in question is clearly made to be enjoyed on a basic level. It implies that the filmmakers behind it knew they were making a less-than-stellar movie but it didn’t matter because they also knew that they had a built-in audience that wouldn’t care about all the problems that emerge along the way. Basically “Review Proof” is code for “If you didn’t like it it wasn’t made for you.”
I however do not think that any film is “Review Proof.” It doesn’t matter if you’re making a feature adaptation of a fake trailer about a Mexican day laborer (Danny Trejo) out for head-chopping revenge against the man who framed him for murder (Jeff Fahey) and the man who killed his family (Steven Seagal) or a film about the liberation of a concentration camp. All films even the silly ones need to deliver on a fundamental set of criteria of dynamic characters involved in an interesting storyline that’s edited together coherently. If any of those elements are too far out of line it cripples the entire thing.
With Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis' grindhouse throwback film Machete there’s nothing wrong with the characters. Trejo was born to play the eponymous all-that-is-man stoic hero but the glue that holds the often messy film together are all of the supporting players particularly Fahey Jessica Alba Don Johnson and Seagal each of whom is having a ton of fun chewing into their extreme characters (no one can be just a federal agent or just a racist sheriff or just a drug lord; they have to be the most outlandish these-colors-don’t-run version possible). The film’s story isn’t exactly original but the “framed for an assassination” plot is a tried and true staple of the action genre for a reason so it hardly holds the film back. That pinpoints the weakest link in this rather simple chain as the film’s editing.
Unless one is curious as to how long a certain scene was one should never be motivated to look at their watch during a movie. But during Machete I couldn’t help but find myself constantly reaching for it as though it were some kind of lifeline wondering when the minute hand would discover the magic number that could rescue me from the increasingly grating affair. It’s disappointing that a film with as many decapitations and naked Lindsay Lohans as Machete can be boring but sadly that is the case here. Much of the film slogs through a swamp of story arcs that were seen coming from miles away completely forgetting that a movie of this nature needs to sustain its high (which essentially comes whenever Machete picks up well any object) without any dragging
distractions to kill the buzz.
It’s easy to admire Robert Rodriguez’s intended goal with Machete - to make the kind of offensive politically incorrect film that played in grindhouse theaters in the ‘70s and ‘80s - but good intentions only go so far. In a strange way Machete is almost too faithful to its ancestry. Sure the violence is awe inspiring (at one point Machete repels down the side of a building using someone’s intestines for crying out loud) and its adamant refusal to keep things comfy and PC is more than welcome but its pacing gives the film too much slack rope with which to hang itself.
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.