This is sure enough a bizarre sight in the middle of all this shit!
—Clean (Larry Fishburne), Apocalypse Now (1979)
“You talk too loud.” The noisy humans roaring through Predators are startled to be so admonished: they’ve been running from predators, after all, stomping through jungle brush and firing automatic weapons awfully indiscriminately. Really, they’ve only paused now because they’ve run into a large figure with a predator’s helmet and a predator’s gun. Imagine how surprised they are when he takes off his helmet and—whoa!—it’s Larry Fishburne.
No one has too much time to stand around, so Fishburne (playing a character called Noland) invites the group back to his place. Here he sort of explains how he’s here, in an abandoned drilling facility that retains power enough for electric lights: like this new crew—led, more or less, by the ex-special ops-now-mercenary, Royce (Adrien Brody)—Noland was whisked from a war zone on earth to this other planet, essentially a game preserve where they’re the prey (see: Most Dangerous Game and its many clones). Royce has already identified his contemporaries’ origins: Isabelle (Alice Braga) is a guerrilla assassin, Mombassa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) is RUF (Sierra Leone’s rebel army), Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) is yakuza, etc. Still, as knowing as Royce likes to act, he’s taken aback when he finds out Noland was lifted out of the Vietnam war. To underline, Noland starts humming “Ride of the Valkyries.”
The moment doesn’t salvage Predators, a pedestrian, fanboyish rebooting of John McTiernan’s prototypically efficient action pic. But it does reverberate. Here’s the wondrous Fishburne, famously 14 years old when he and the other guys on the boat first listened to the Wagner in Apocalypse Now. Back then, he played Clean, and Clean was shot dead on the boat headed to Kurtz in Cambodia. But here, in a twisted alternate universe, Clean’s been salvaged. “I’m alive,” Noland informs the newbies, because he’s kept out of the predators’ infrared sight (again, allowing for the illogic of his generator). He’s Clean made into Kurtz, or better, Dennis Hopper’s wild-eyed photojournalist (“I wish I had words, man”). Or he’s not Clean at all, but someone who looks a lot like him and saw Apocalypse Now before he was snatched.
However Noland got here, he’s easily the weirdest, most compelling figure in Predators. First, he’s straight-up Newtish (see: Aliens), having spent decades alone, scurrying from the monsters, killing “two, maybe three,” and talking to an imaginary friend. Second, he’s not nearly so predictable as everyone else Royce is working with, that is, a multiculti crew of professional killers, much like the guys who fought alongside Arnold in 1987 (a saga recounted here by Isabelle, which makes plain she’s descended from Anna [Elpidia Carrillo], who told an earlier monster story for Schwarzenegger’s Dutch). And third, he’s got a personal thing going on with the predators.
Oddly and unfortunately, this last point isn’t exploited in Predators. Instead, even after Noland offers details on the predators’ habits and his own survival tactics (say, mud provides cover), no one pays much attention. Instead, the group persists in fighting amongst themselves, overkilling the film’s “message,” namely, that the humans are also predators. Of course, this is the same point made by the first film, from which this one quotes repeatedly. Both films drop their human teams into a literal jungle that’s also metaphorical: before, it was CIA man Dillon (Carl Weathers) who manipulated Dutch’s virtuous macho men while the predator picked them off like girls in a slasher film. Now, the crew begins as individuals, plummeting to the planet (most with working parachutes), landing hard and angry, alone and suspicious of one another.
No surprise, they learn to work together against adversaries who bigger, faster, stronger, and much better equipped (see also: Running Man, Con Air). Royce is the first to fall, the first to make a plan and the only one, apparently, to have read a book (he cites Hemingway: “Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter”). He also raises a worthy issue concerning patriotism and rationalization, telling Isabelle, “We both do the same thing: you just do it for a country so you don’t have to admit you like it.”
Isabelle narrows her eyes, impressed that he’s self-aware. But even as Royce is differentiated from, say, the death row inmate/psycho-killer Stans (Walt Goggins, typecast as yet another version of his brilliant breakout role, The Shield‘s Shane), he’s also like every other standard action hero who’s not Arnold (or maybe the younger, less tire Noland, either), but might aspire to be. The film does make moderately clever use of Royce’s smallness: no, he admits, he’s not large and strong, but he is “fast,” at which point he starts scampering around a lumbering predator, outsmarting it by virtue of being agile. Thne, when he slows for a breath, Royce is shot from below, so he looms. This image serves as a jokey stark contrast with the first movie’s shots of Arnold looming: the mud-slathered Dutch was a veritable man mountain, all colossal pecs and titanic delts. Royce embodies today’s military-mercenary model, less bulky, less moralistic, leaner and meaner.