Black’s take on the ‘Predator’ saga is a briskly paced blast, but the tone is a bit off (Movie review)

“Iron Man 3” is one of my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, but I’ve heard it criticized for being a Shane Black movie in a genre where that doesn’t fit, and I have a feeling that critique might come up again with “The Predator.” Recently released on home video, this is another fun film from the director, but I admit the tone is off.

It’s a rip-roaring ride where all the actors are having as much fun as the audience, but the sense of menace and threat is missing. That’s not a common problem with Black movies – for all the humor, the stakes are still in place in his best films (“The Nice Guys” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) – but “The Predator” becomes unmoored by the end.

There is a ton to like about this fourth “Predator” film (sixth if you include the “Aliens” crossovers), starting with the fact that it’s consistently entertaining. Olivia Munn, who I didn’t realize was capable of such a solid performance, plays Casey, a civilian scientist-on-call who is asked to examine a captive Predator. Before she has time to do more than point out to her military handler, Traeger (“This Is Us’ ” Sterling K. Brown as a gum-chewing baddie), that this is a sport hunter, not a predator, the creature gets loose.

Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) then becomes the focal character. He’s a misfit soldier who gets thrown onto a bus with a bunch of other discredited grunts, many of whom the military has ass-covering reasons for discrediting. Black, co-writing with Fred Dekker, gives these guys sharp personalities, from the always-joking Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key) to the Tourette’s-afflicted Baxley (Thomas Jane) to the once-suicidal Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes).

It’s impressive how “The Predator” moves as a film. Even as we soak up who these people are and enjoy the initially awkward team-up between Casey and the boys, we are hit with more “Predator” mythology than in the previous five films combined, yet it flows well.

(SPOILERS FOLLOW.)

The first Predator is killed by a second, and there are also two Pred-dogs in play. Black’s knack for undercutting clichés is mostly to his credit; I like how the humans quickly put together the puzzle pieces about how there are warring factions of Predators and that the Pred-dogs can be tamed like Earth canines. Casey plays fetch with the Pred-dog – with a grenade instead of a tennis ball.

And it’s cool that the film positions autistics, namely Quinn’s son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), not as people with an affliction, but rather as the next stage of human evolution. That makes Rory a prize to the faction of Predators that aim to genetically engineer the most evolved traits of humanity into their own race, so they can then live on Earth after it has become too hot for humans. Some die-hard fans might say “No, the Predators are just hunters; that’s what makes them cool,” but I for one am OK with the new revelations. They don’t erase what has come before; they add to it.

A bigger problem with “The Predator,” as I noted, is the tone. While it has plenty of deaths, including gruesome ones, the film feels lightweight. Without many quiet moments to work with, Holbrook isn’t convincing as the kid’s father. McKenna’s nonchalance in situations where Rory is danger could be attributed to being a seasoned soldier, but because he’s so casual around the Predator, it’s a cue to the viewer to not take it seriously either. It’s also supremely weird that so much killing – and threats against the kid himself — is going on with Rory right in the thick of it. Rory’s ability to handle all of this could be attributed to his autism, but again, it’s strange.

When the rival human groups – the heroic military discards and the nasty Traeger and his men – team up against the Predator in the woods, the film invites a direct comparison to previous entries. It falls short against the classic “Predator” (1987). And even “Predators” (2010) – while certainly dourer than this film — drums up more suspense in the woods. Before the final act, though, it’s entertaining to see Predators pursue humans in settings we hadn’t seen much of before, from the science lab to a little league field to a residential house.

“The Predator” throws a lot of good stuff at the screen: The characters are quippy and smart, the action is well-rendered, and the revelations about the Predators’ motives are surprising. But the sense of a genuine threat gradually ebbs away and even the killings of people we’ve grown to like are thin on emotional resonance.

A final revelation about a power-suit dropped off by a good Predator sets up McKenna as the protagonist of “Predator 5.” But I cared less by the end than I did at any time before that. So this is ultimately Black’s B-game, but I’ll take his B-game over that of most writer-directors.

Click here for John’s reviews of all the “Predator” films.

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