"THE PREDATOR" — 3 stars — Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown; R ( strong bloody violence, language throughout, and crude sexual references ); in general release
"The Predator" gets a little too messy for its own good — both in terms of story and in gore — but longtime fans of the franchise should appreciate director Shane Black's high-energy installment.
The film is the latest in the violent, sci-fi action franchise Arnold Schwarzenegger kicked off in the 1980s. Black's effort is more of a loose sequel than a remake or a reboot, hence the distinguishing "the" in the title. His characters are aware of previous human encounters with the tall, dreadlocked alien race that hunts people for sport, and the script has plenty of winking nods to the original 1987 film.
This time around, the plot pits a new-and-improved Predator against a motley crew of gun-toting misfits led by an Army Ranger sniper named Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook). The 11-foot alien is on a mission to retrieve stolen Predator technology, and when McKenna grabs some of the alien tech, he and his family become a target.
After McKenna's early encounter with the aliens, top-secret Project Stargazer — led by the ruthless Traeger (Sterling K. Brown) — hides him in Group 2, the military equivalent of the loony bin, alongside a traumatized batch of characters that include fast-talking comedian Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), suicidal Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes) and Baxley (Thomas Jane), who has Tourette's syndrome. In the meantime, Traeger recruits an evolutionary biologist named Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) to deal with a situation that is quickly getting out of hand.
The plot also ropes in McKenna's autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), who demonstrates an abnormal understanding of the alien technology. Eventually, Rory has to team up with Bracket, his dad and the rest of Group 2 to take on the Super Predator, who brought along a pair of alien hunting dogs for his trip.
You have to give Black and Co. credit for working to create a more intricate plot, though they would have been better off paring down a character or two to keep things more focused. The mayhem of the new story marks a contrast to the original film, which quickly took things to a mano-y-mano showdown between Schwarzenegger and the original alien.
In spite of the film's strengths, you might be left feeling that a Schwarzenegger-level personality at its core — Dwayne Johnson seems an obvious choice here — would make "The Predator" considerably better.
But Black's effort really does have some strengths. From the opening moments of the film, "The Predator" maintains an engaging swashbuckling sci-fi energy and strikes a strong balance of humor and action that evokes the best of its genre.
Keep in mind though that the genre we're talking about comes with a heavy dose of action violence, gore and the kind of constant profanity that feels more arbitrary than natural. "The Predator" may be a movie that appeals to your inner 12-year-old, but it is certainly not appropriate for actual 12-year-olds, and at times Black — who actually had a supporting role in the original film — seems more interested in coming up with creative ways for his baddie to dispatch human cannon fodder than keep his story in check.
It all comes down to whether you're a fan of the original film, or just the franchise in general. If so, "The Predator" is a fun but flawed entry in a checkered series. For everyone else, take a strong dose of caution before getting on the ride.
"The Predator" is rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, and crude sexual references; running time: 107 minutes.