A crying Shane: Black is back with a disappointing sequel
By: Matt Brunson
Far be it for me to engage in spoilers right off the bat, so let’s keep this vague and just state that a particular character in The Predator (two stars out of four), the latest in the stop-start series that began back in 1987, dies. Obviously, a lot of people bite the bullet in a movie such as this, but this is a major character — among the five or six top-billed performers — and this particular death should be a major event. Yet the sequence in which he/she meets his/her demise is so badly edited and ridiculously rushed that I didn’t realize until much later that this person actually kicked the bucket. And neither did my buddy who accompanied me to the screening. And neither did the other two media friends seated next to me in the critics’ row. And neither did the other reviewer who caught up with me after the screening and asked (paraphrasing Fred Willard in A Mighty Wind), “Hey, wha’ happened?”
Clearly, clarity (or the lack thereof) is an issue in The Predator, the latest attempt to again jump-start a franchise that has basically been on life support since the engaging original. That nifty action flick found Arnold Schwarzenegger squaring off against an imposing extra-terrestrial hunter who, thanks to Oscar-nominated visual effects, was able to shimmer in and out of sight at will. Since then, there have only been a smattering of Predator pictures, and this latest entry more or less falls into line as yet another series entry that blows its potential.
Shane Black is primarily known in some circles for appearing in a supporting role in the original Predator, better known in other circles for penning such action romps as Lethal Weapon and Last Action Hero, and mainly known in my circle for writing and directing the underrated gems Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys. He takes on scripting and helming duties here as well, but the result is ultimately a disappointment.
Black is known for his he-man casts and quip-heavy dialogue, and both are on full display in this new film, which finds Army Ranger sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) squaring off against more than one predator with the help of his autistic young son (Room’s Jacob Tremblay), a courageous scientist (Olivia Munn) who got the call to study these predators because (I’m sure I heard this right) she once wrote the U.S. president when she was a little girl and told him she wanted to meet aliens, and a group of ex-army inmates who seem to have escaped from a dinner theater production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There’s the Jesus freak (Augusto Aguilera); the mutually combative BFFs (Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Jane), one of whom high-lariously suffers from Tourette’s; the suicidal sort (Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes); and one nondescript guy played by a British actor named Alfie Allen (making me want to ask — with apologies to Michael Caine — “What’s it all about, Alfie?”). This motley crew of PTSD soldiers is meant to represent the heart of the picture, but, frankly, their juvenile antics and moldy humor (lots of “your momma” jokes) quickly wore me out. Far more engaging is Sterling K. Brown, who’s cast as the primary (human) villain and seems to relish playing such a transparently odious character.
From a narrative standpoint, the script by Black and Fred Dekker (they made the dopey kid flick The Monster Squad together back in the ‘80s) might be the worst in the entire franchise — did I mention there are Predator dogs, one which becomes man’s best friend after someone throws it a ball to fetch? — but a talented cast and some exciting interludes during the first half compensate for the rampant idiocy. Still, enough is enough. Alas, the ending hints at a sequel, but unless they come up with a new angle, what’s the point? Alien vs. Predator didn’t quite do it in the past — might I suggest Smurf vs. Predator as an innovative way to goose the proceedings?
FAR FROM A cookie-cutter comedy that rolled straight off the Hollywood assembly line, A Simple Favor (three stars out of four) is basically Gone Girl if it had been played for laughs instead of thrills. Yet, even that description doesn’t hint at the dark depths occasionally found in an invigorating effort that doesn’t quite maintain its high-wire act yet deftly avoids a fall and a splat.
Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie Smothers, a widowed single mom who operates a cooking vlog. Her online videos already maintain a solid following, but they become even more popular once she uses it to relate the sordid tale of how her newly acquired best friend, the confident and no-nonsense Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), suddenly goes missing. Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding, currently enjoying great success as Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians) claims not to know the whereabouts of his wife, a stance also taken by her boss, fashion designer Dennis Nylon (a funny Rupert Friend). Concerned about Emily, Stephanie opts to do a little sleuthing on her own — an unwise decision since it brings such unpleasantries as incest, adultery and murder floating to the surface.
Directed by hitmaker Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy) and written by Jessica Sharzer (working from Darcey Bell’s novel), A Simple Favor is outstanding for about an hour, thanks to its unexpectedly dark themes, its mordant humor, and a knockout performance by Lively. But if the first half is mostly about the characters, the second part is chiefly about the mystery, and the movie isn’t quite as compelling as it works through its convoluted plot (some of which relies on happenstance) and employs dramatic devices that were already growing hoary back in the 1940s. Still, as a robust way for viewers to welcome the fall film season, A Simple Favor easily gets the job done.