Predators is the bleak, thousand-yard staring Ginger Rogers to the original movie’s muscular Fred Astaire. Instead of a close-knit team, this group are individuals. Instead of the Predator coming to them it kidnaps them and drops them on a game reserve planet. Instead of the hunt being a finite ordeal, the movie closes with the characters gearing up to go through the next stage.
That notional fire team first. Royce, played by Adrien Brody, is a whispering mercenary with a massive shotgun and an even larger ability to solve problems. Isabelle, played by Alice Braga is an IDF sniper with a secret. Edwin, played by Topher Grace, is a doctor who is COMPLETELY NORMAL. Danny Trejo is Danny Trejo only he’s called Chuchillo this time and is a drug cartel enforcer. They’re joined by death row inmate Stans played by Walton Goggins, Spetsnaz soldier Nikolai played by Oleg Taktarov, Hanzo a yakuza enforcer played by Louis Ozawa Changchien and Mombasa, played by Mahershala Ali, a Death Squad member.
So, tropes galore? Check. Token woman? Check. So far so Predator, right?
Predators is the first outright horror movie in the series and a big part of that is down to these exact tropes. As Isabelle figures out, they haven’t been brought in as game, they’ve been brought in as worthy opponents. Each one of them is a predator, each one of them is incredibly dangerous and very few of them deserve to go back to Earth. How they deal with that and how they’re changed by their experience, drives the movie in a way the series hasn’t got close to since the original film. Isabelle thinks she’s damned and learns she may not be, Royce discovers he’s allowed to let other people in, Stans is taught something approaching decency by Mombasa even though they arrive trying to kill each other. Hanzo picks the exact time and place of his death. None of them are redeemed but most of them finish in a very different place to where they started.
Noland is not so lucky. Played with typical aplomb by Lawrence Fishburne, he’s a survivor, the supposed pinnacle of evolution. He’s also profoundly unbalanced and ruthless, attempting to kill the other survivors to get their equipment. Noland is the embodiment of what Royce thinks he is; an amoral problem solver who will kill others to make sure he survives. It’s a great interlude (And one originally written as Mike Harrigan from Predator 2) and one that hides the major emotional turn of the movie inside an action sequence so you don’t notice it at first.
What’s especially interesting is how as the humans evolve, the predators devolve. The movie takes a massive chance by showing us not only more of Predator society but making sure we don’t like what we see. The predator civil war that’s hinted at, combined with the barbarism shown by the three predators stalking the characters makes them fallible, even if still almost un-killable. They’re cruel as well as brutal, malicious when they were previously simply terrifying. An extra level of intimidation put in place by their fallibility instead of removed by it.
That reversal of expectation is where Predators lives. Everything from Royce’s emotional awakening to the (admittedly massively telegraphed) reveal on what sort of man Edwin is makes it clear that even the tiny certainties of team, mission and skills from the original movie can’t be relied on here. Instead, all Royce and the others have is their wits, their breath and the last few minutes before this all starts again. There’s no chopper to get to, no respite before the next round. Just the last two predators standing, getting ready to take on whatever comes next in this constantly impressive, constantly surprising and remarkably bleak chapter of the franchise.