Twenty years ago, the sequel to the hugely successful, Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring, testosterone-fest Predator was released.
While Predator 2 was widely considered a sub-par sequel, one of its relative merits was to pull the curtain back -- ever so slightly -- on the titular creature's origins, revealing that they hunted other interstellar species. Among them: the screeching, acid-spewing beasts of Ridley Scott's sci-fi/horror masterpiece, Alien.
That changed the course of the Predator franchise, leading to years of comic books and video games devoted to exploring the creative and button-mashing possibilities that could be had with these adversarial monsters.
When the movie cash-in, Alien vs. Predator finally arrived in 2004, its general reek left most fans of the first film in the respective franchises wondering, "What the hell went wrong?" (Answer: writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson.)
But before all that, in 1994, Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) was tapped to write a sequel for the original Predator films that took a group of soldiers -- including Arnie's character from the first film -- on a mission that lands them on the Predator's home planet, where they wind up being hunted along with a plethora of other bizarre creatures.
It was an effort to combine some of the structure of Aliens with a return to the tone of Predator, while expanding the mythos. Flash-forward a decade and a half later and the guts of that script have been turned into Predators. Sometimes, these things just take that long.
The result, while falling short of the classic original -- or any aspirations to the scope of Aliens -- is still the strongest entry in the Predator series since the overly-maligned 1990 sequel.
Royce, a Hemingway-quoting mercenary, (Adrien Brody) finds himself leading a motley, multi-cultural pack of killers who have been air dropped into a primordial forest.
Among them are Nickolai (Oleg Taktarov), a Russian soldier; Isabella (Alice Braga), a sniper from a separatist group; Stans (The Shield's Walton Goggins), a vicious death row inmate; Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), an assassin for a Mexican drug cartel; Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a lethal yakuza enforcer; and Edwin (Topher Grace), an American doctor who seems to be the apple amongst the murderous oranges.
Soon enough, they realize that not only are they no longer on their home world, but they are also being hunted by bloodthirsty creatures, the likes of which they never imagined existed. Fortunately, the hunted were selected for their brutal senses of self-preservation insuring that they'd make good sport for the hunters.
They make pretty good sport for the audience, too.
Director Nimród Antal -- who made a splash with the wonderful Kontroll -- relies heavily on the interplay of his leads and the judicious use of his monsters to generate tension.
Call it Jaws 101; although in this case, it's not as effective because the protagonists of Jaws were all likeable, deeply drawn characters. While the anti-hero thing works for our main protagonists, they are thinly written, while characters like Cuchillo or Stans -- who dreams of getting home so he can snort a bunch of coke and rape women -- are difficult to pull for.
Antal elicits good performances from most of the cast, and I admired the slow burn pacing of the first act as he tries to generate the tension and suspense that the first film was lauded for. He doesn't quite get there, though.
The script isn't as vibrantly written as the original film, penned by the great Shane Black, which had more veins of genuine humor and character moments that intelligently took the audience off their guard right before grabbing their spines. Predators has an unremittingly dark feel that still mostly works but which hamstrings the film with its tonal superficiality.
Not that it utterly fails at suspense. A scene where the band stumbles into a heavily booby-trapped area (a nod to the traps Arnie set at the climax of the original) ends in gruesome and ominous discoveries that were appropriately foreboding.
And the sound design goes a long way into creating an unsettling atmosphere. Those strange human whispers that the Predators use to lure their prey remain creepy and effective.
Still, it feels like the script, re-worked by Alex Litvak and Michael Finch from Rodriguez's original, is trying too hard to emulate mechanics of the first film -- at least, in the first act -- though it does its best to put a twist on them.
That mostly changes once the hunt really begins. Predators is somewhat of a return to form for the iconic, dreadlocked, cranium collectors, hearkening to their original design (i.e. less like a member of GWAR) as well as adding a new variant, the Berzeker (Brian Steele, Wink from Hellboy II), a bigger, uglier, and more satisfyingly threatening iteration of the creature, which comes from a different Predator genus.
They are brought to life with great practical FX supplied by the masters at KNB (the film sadly dips into CG for the Predator Dogs, though their design and execution was still decent, overall), who also come through on the copious gore FX, as our anti-hero's get deboned, bisected or blown to meaty bits.
While the action itself is evenly distributed, almost to the point you can feel the limits of the film's budget, it's still well-balanced, varied and sometimes inventive. One reverential showdown between the yakuza, Hanzo, and a Berzerker Predator winds up being a nice homage to the samurai duels of Kurosawa, right down to the windblown grass.
As Royce, Brody gets to flex his action chops in ways more convincing than his turn as Jack Driscoll in Peter Jackson's King Kong (a movie that hasn't aged well). He's basically the Arnie character from the original, though, despite the bulk Brody put on, he doesn't have that steely squint that made Dutch seem like a genuine threat.
Alice Braga is believably tough, though she has no antecedent in the original film; on the other hand, Changchien's yakuza character is a mirror of Billy (Sonny Landham) from the first flick who speaks very few words but shares the same nobility and connection to the environment. That makes them both that much harder to kill.
While the script suffers from an uneven pace, some narrative cheats toward the end and barely manages to achieve a sense of closure -- you know they already have a sequel in mind -- Predators is still a big improvement over the Alien vs. Predator efforts (and their ridiculous cross-over mythology).
Contrasted against the original two films, though, Predators is still the third best of the bunch.
The films of Jean Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children, Amélie) are feasts of sublime visual whimsy and dense production design that have few equals in modern cinema, though Terry Gilliam at his best certainly comes to mind.
Since he first crossed American radar, alongside erstwhile co-director and art designer Marc Caro (with the grimly hilarious Delicatessen back in 1991), Jeunet has earned his reputation as a unique stylist, honing meticulously crafted films with a distinct signature. He even made his fairly horrid Alien Resurrection visually appealing.
Micmacs is no exception. Slathered in a deco amalgam of steampunk, post-modern and cubist-art influences, there isn't a single frame that isn't packed with ridiculous levels of considered detail, as if Jeunet had an army of pixies doting over every element of his mis-en-scene.
But beginning with Amélie -- and the end of his collaborations with Caro -- Jeunet's films lost the sinister thematic underpinnings of his earlier output. While the fairy tale qualities and visual genius remained intact, his post-Caro works have, to varying degrees, emphasized Jeunet's penchant for quirk over the deeper, darker statements about human nature that made films such as Delicatessen and City of Lost Children such richly satisfying and excitingly strange cinema.
Micmacs isn't without something to say. This tale of a slacker named Bazil (Dany Boon), who lost his father to a landmine and his video store job to the bullet lodged in his head -- both manufactured by competing arms companies -- is at once satirizing corporate hegemony, government corruption and capitalist waste. But it does so with such an unrelentingly chipper tone that the inherent darkness of its themes is almost completely subverted.
The homeless Bazil falls in with a vagabond called Placard (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who salvages the cast off technology of the modern world to rebuild for practical, yet artistic, purposes. Placard brings Bazil back to his junk yard home, a scrap igloo of sorts, where he lives with a cadre of carnival oddities who all have some sort big top specialty.
Fracasse (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon) is a Guinness record-setting human cannonball; La Môme Caoutchouc (Julie Ferrier) is a contortionist; Calculette (Marie-Julie Baup) is freakishly nifty with numbers, weights, distances and measures, while Petit Pierre (Michel Crémadès ) is a tiny robotics expert.
They bond in solidarity with Bazil when a serendipitous epiphany leads him to discover the two men behind his downfall and the pivotal death of his father -- competing arms dealers with their fingers in plenty of dirty business. So, Bazil enlists his newfound family in a Yojimbo-esqe plot for revenge that hinges on playing the two businessmen against their mutual paranoia.
Micmacs twisting narrative owes much to a film noir template, melded with the anti-darkness of Jeunet's mirthful, eccentric characters and eye-popping color palette. The film wants to make you smile as well as keep you in suspense, but it seems more interested in the former. Jeunet's set pieces are all marvels of design, not only artistically, but also in terms of visual language that will keep you grinning even when Micmacs seems to be more preoccupied by itself than the audience.
Performances are uniformly fine and festive; I love Dominique Pinon's aging, rubbery face no matter what he's in.
Their overall sense of good cheer is disarming, even as it threatens to overwhelm any sense of narrative tension. There's something about Micmacs that almost feels like a holiday movie by way of Buster Keaton, if Keaton played it safe.
The charms of Micmacs are like a gourmet meal. An ample series of tiny plates, beautifully constructed by a master chef, that'll leave you hungry before you go to bed.
It tasted great, though.
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