By Derek May:
YIN: The Predator
The bar was so low. Heading into the theatre, I told the friends accompanying me that all it had to do was be better than Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. Seriously, how hard could that really be?
Apparently, I’m an optimist.
Shane Black, of all people, ought to have known better. He co-wrote and co-starred in the original Predator film back in ’87, still a magnum opus of action-horror to this day. He gives master classes on writing exciting, emotional action (I know, I’ve attended MANY of them). He cut his teeth reinventing the action genre with everything from Lethal Weapon to Iron Man 3. And yet, the man perhaps most qualified to spearhead this franchise into the future may be the one who ends up killing it, at least in my mind.
I’ll be fair and start off with what works. To no one’s surprise, the dialogue is crisp, often witty, and undeniably very funny—nothing unusual for Black and his stalwart partner Fred Dekker. Most of the main characters are relatively well-drawn, especially for an action movie, with even the supporting tier making strong impacts and doing an admirable job of distinguishing themselves from the herd. The plot has a number of unexpected twists, and the driving throughline is definitely an original take. The Predators themselves are moved forward as a species, given far more depth of culture and internal goings-on than we’ve certainly gotten to this point. If I’m being vague that’s partly because I’m avoiding spoilers, but mostly because that’s about as thin as the positive really gets.
Now let’s talk turkey.
It’s no wonder many will find the characters endearing. They are funny. Very funny. All of them. They are all the comic relief. All of them. And that’s just moronic. Having a couple of funnymen to break the tension is a welcomed and brilliant use of character. In this case, Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Jane would have been more than sufficient in that regard. But once everyone starts quipping—constantly—it serves not only to suck any measure of tension out of a film with action and horror at its very DNA, but trains the audience to laugh throughout, even at the most inopportune moments. Case in point: toward the end when two men were dying, what should have been a scene of gallant respect for two veteran warriors had the audience bellowing with mirth. And to be honest, I couldn’t think of a more perfect summation of the film as a whole.
Just about every character starts out relatively strong (in no small part due to the overlong 5-minute bus introduction scene) and devolves steadily over the rest of the film. Our hero, McKenna (Logan’s Boyd Holbrook), takes a number of intelligent steps to protect himself in the first act, and then for some reason makes a series of ever-more nonsensical and ridiculous decisions. Good thing he’s the leader.
Olivia Munn’s Dr. Casey Bracket starts out equally stout, offering a few nice moments between cringe-worthy call-back dialogue to make us believe she’s not only got the brains, but the guts to get through this alien ordeal. And while she may descend the least, she too becomes but a joke-delivery system. But my biggest disappointment is with Sterling K. Brown’s villain, Traeger. An actor known for his chops, for some inexplicable reason he decided to merge every scene-chewing, mustache-twirling villain ever put to screen into one cartoonish vessel of nondescript evil, grounded only by his excessive and gratuitous cursing (and believe me, I’m no prude about an F-bomb). Any authentic touch of menace evaporates the moment he opens his mouth, and his death—the one redeeming event to look forward to—is so utterly stupid and improbable that you can’t help but throw your hands up in surrender to the buffoonery.
But the movie is consistent if nothing else, this is all just par for the course. Black and Dekker eschew logic for set piece, or better yet sight-gag. Rules and setups are either dropped or simply outright broken. Bullets are effective, until they aren’t. Codes are unbreakable, until they aren’t. I won’t even get into how dismally absurd the Predator-dogs become. . . . Even the entire premise of the Predators’ journeys to Earth are laughably inconsistent, leading to what is quite possibly the dumbest ending to a film I’ve seen in many, many years.
So forget all that for a moment. Forget that the story is erratic and the characters become ridiculous. All we really want . . . what we came here for . . . what we were promised . . . is to see two things: a Predator eviscerating humans in fun, unique, and increasingly badass ways, and—in this particular case—a Predator versus SUPER-Predator throwdown for the ages!! Hell yeah!! Gimme that and I’m good!!
Apparently, I’m an optimist.
The gaggle of cannon-fodder characters survives WAY too long, with nary a Predator in sight for 80% of the film. Once we do get a hunt, it feels rushed, tacked on, an “Oh, shit! That’s right, we were supposed to do this at some point!” When the characters finally do meet their end, as mentioned before, it comes far more down to laughs and absurdity than genuine thrills or excitement. And as for the epic Predator-bowl? It was like watching Ali vs. Mr. Bean . . . all five seconds of it. Even the special-effects on the Super-Predator or for naught, as the shots are dark and hard to distinguish, lacking the detail of what is supposed to be some very cool upgrades . . . I guess.
Black and Dekker seem to have run out of ideas. They just keep rehashing diluted versions of the same tripe they’ve been coasting on for years and hoping we don’t notice. Let’s consult the checklist: Christmas setting, big city, overly-mature-for-their-age kid, quippy dialogue. This time we get: Halloween setting, small town, autistic kid who’s able to solve puzzles no adult can, quippy dialogue. See? Totally new. The kings have worn out their clothes, and the sight compels you to avert your eyes.
The Predator is a mess from start to finish: a litany of ill-placed jokes, poor story choices, inconsistent motives and narratives, a dearth of worthy action, and a severe absence of Predators being Predators. This franchise deserves more. Better. It’s not exactly rocket science. I can’t believe I’d say this of a franchise I’ve loved since I was far too young to have seen it, but I hope this bombs enough that Black at least is never allowed near this series again. The grand-daddy of action may be finally past his prime. If you’re as big a fan of these films as I am, my best advice is skip this. If you want a proper Shane Black Predator film, pull out your ’87 bluray and bask in its greatness. And if you want to see Black doing what he does best, check out his smaller, more intimate films like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or The Nice Guys. But big-budget films do not seem to be his forte—at least not anymore. Save your money.
YANG: Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan
At this point, you’d be forgiven if you thought the new Amazon Prime series following the early exploits of CIA analyst Jack Ryan was nothing more than a cash grab beating a horse long since dead. I mean, after twenty-one novels, five films (with only three being well-received), and now on its fifth actor, how much more mileage can they get out of this guy?
Turns out there’s life in the old boy yet.
John Krasinski defies just about everyone’s expectations and presents Ryan with a depth and nuance we’ve sorely missed on screen since the 90s. The funnyman is certainly likable, and brings a boyish charm to the role. But there’s no denying that he’s as capable of mining dramatic complexity as he is pumping what surely must have been an Arnold-approved ton of weight. He wins you over with his aggressive yet never-hateful determination and sense of justice, and of course, plenty of gratuitous ab-shots.
The mental/physical mix is vital, as the franchise hinges as much as on its action as on its intricate chess games between heroes and terrorists. What makes it all unique is that Ryan is NOT necessarily an action hero. Sure he’s got the marine background and knows how to hold his own, but he’s also a desk-jockey, writer, and number-cruncher. Therefore, finding believable ways to inject a relatively sedate Ryan into the fire have been hit-and-miss over the years, with films often struggling to find the right balance.
And “balanced” is a worthy accolade for the new series. The format allows showrunners Calrton Cuse (Lost) and Graham Roland (Fringe) the time needed to delve into the finer details of characters on both sides of the fence. With a fairly straightforward plot—a Bin-Laden-esque Middle Eastern terrorist organizes a series of attacks across the world, which only Jack Ryan can thwart—is a smart approach in that it leaves room for exploring motivations, relationships, and sympathies on many sides.
We pick up Ryan a few years out of the marines and a few years into his job as a CIA financial analyst. From the get-go, we find him a man haunted by being the sole survivor of an attack during his deployment that left him as scarred inside as out. In an initially jarring yet beautifully synchronistic pairing, Ryan is inevitably tethered to a new boss suffering from his own destructive past. Veteran character actor Wendell Pierce takes over from James Earl Jones as James Greer, who we know will eventually morph into one of Ryan’s closest friends and confidants. This being the beginning, they pretty much hate each other. As Ryan begins to piece together clues no one else sees, Greer provides an odd-but-effective mixture of support and resistance.
Pierce somehow manages to craft a character both instantly relatable and completely enigmatic. In lesser hands, some of the wildly contrasting choices might seem completely out of place and drag the show down, but Pierce somehow makes each decision totally organic. It leads to a fascinating role reversal towards the end between Ryan and Greer, with each having benefited from time with the other, and bonded through a mutual earned respect.
The journey allows Ryan to open himself to the fledgling romance that will eventually lead to marriage and children with Dr. Caroline “Cathy” Mueller, played by Aussie Abbie Cornish. Following one of the more amazing meet-cutes of television history, Cathy is solidly developed as a successful, intelligent medical researcher who finds herself inexplicably, though believably, crossing paths with both Ryan and his mission. Cathy isn’t there simply to help Ryan over his demons (though she does to a degree), but to offer a legitimate ally in the struggles both internal and external. While most of their time together is spent stoking the fires, it’ll be interesting to see the relationship move forward in the future.
Equally impressive is the attention given to the villains. While there’s no question that what they are doing is wrong, there’s enough backstory to provide sympathetic motivation, without justifying or accepting the end results. Israeli thesp Ali Suliman plays, oddly enough, Suleiman, the mastermind behind the plot. Suliman brings no small measure of humanity to what could easily be an inhuman monster.
Instead, we see how a young boy moves from tragedy to tragedy, slowly becoming disenfranchised until finally radicalized in a French prison. At each step we see that this is no madman out to simply hurt the world, but a highly intelligent, highly organized, and highly motivated individual with a message and mission, and that is what makes him both compelling and terrifying. A banker, a man lacking any real military experience, is able to assemble a trained army, and execute a series of coordinated attacks. And the sad part is, it’s believable. Suliman’s Suleiman is so compelling an antagonist, we’d love to see him continue forever if we didn’t also need to see him ultimately thwarted so badly.
Saudi actress Dina Shihabi presents an intriguing counter as Hanin, Suleiman’s wife, who eventually discovers what her husband is doing and embarks on a mission to save her children from the brewing conflict. Seeing this female perspective, and representing a counter to such radicalized ideology, presents a vital representation that not all Muslims, even those closest to the source of perverted dogma, wish ill of others. Hanin is that most human of refugees, struggling to free her children from madness and death. And that struggle extends even to those she tries to save. In another brilliant twist, her young son chooses to stay with his father, a choice with heartbreaking but compelling consequences.
The game played out across the world stage is intricate enough to hold our attention, but never straying too far into convolution. There are some elements that we solve before Ryan, but as we have more information to work with, it’s not to be unexpected, and doesn’t detract from the enjoyment or tension. Instead we are driven to follow the character chase the breadcrumbs, and fortunately we never have too long to wait. With only eight episodes, the pace needs to be constantly moving. While never breakneck, each episode finds its equilibrium to allow time to breathe and reflect even as the tension is slowly constricted until the inevitable final showdown. By then, we’re invested enough to accept that it must, naturally, comedown to Ryan and Suleiman, and cliché as that might be, still ends up a satisfying conclusion.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan finds a way to stick to the formula that catapulted the character into the mainstream to begin with, while also injecting a fresh sense of modernity. The series format, much like he novels, allows for a slow and methodical development of the characters and the judicious use of action makes it enthralling rather than distracting, keeping the focus on the story and the people. Less cynical than 24, less serious than The Americans, and with a touch of lightness akin to Alias, the new Jack Ryan series is the most solid entry in the franchise since Ford’s days in the role, and may just reinvigorate it for a whole new generation. Time will tell if they can maintain this level of quality, but if they can, we may have years more of desk-jockey action ahead of us.