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'Predators' loses thrill of the hunt

July 09, 2010

"Predators," plural, starts well and ends poorly, and in the middle it's in the middle. The original 1987 "Predator," featuring future politicians Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, was an entertaining hybrid of the commando genre and "Alien"-inspired science fiction. The new one, directed by Nimród Antal ("Kontroll"), lifts its building blocks from an unproduced 1990s script by Robert Rodriguez, who ended up producing the revised screenplay by Alex Litvak and Michael Finch.

For a while it's a worthy successor, or remake, or whatever it is. Instead of the Central American jungle of the original, the action takes place somewhere "else," let's say (the reveal comes early, but who am I to spoil your day?). In the prologue a motley multinational crew of thugs drop from the sky, having free-fallen from places unknown. They do not know each other and hail from different countries — Japan, Russia, what have you. What is this, a dream? Hell? "What if we're dead?" asks one of the eight, clearly a fan of "Lost."

Soon enough they determine their location and who's trying to eviscerate them. As in the Reagan-era version, the new film's dreadlocked monster can sense the presence of humans by their body heat. His stealthy point of view is depicted as B-grade infrared, heat-sensitive imagery. Also, as in the original, there's a chameleonic quality to the critter's comings and goings. There is more than one species of beastie this time, though. Some alarming four-legged spiky affairs come calling first, and in the rousing chase sequence showcasing their abilities the computer animation's quite impressive.

So is the cast. Adrien Brody's growling mercenary; Topher Grace's befuddled physician; Laurence Fishburne's wily survivalist; Alice Braga (zoo-wee-mama!) as the eagle-eyed sharpshooter — these are furrowed brows and sweaty countenances worth having in your killer-monster movie any day.

Why, then, does "Predators" begin deflating around the midpoint and never quite recover? It's a matter of scope. The early scenes, shot primarily in Hawaii, are spacious and expansive and nicely paced without becoming frantic. When the story relocates to the Fishburne character's grimy, claustrophobic domicile, the movie turns static. The filmmakers may have been going for an "Alien" industrial-grunge vibe, but the tension just isn't sufficient.

Some genre movies simply work out this way: Whatever their intentions or origins, they percolate for about an hour. And then they sputter and hope that a promising first half will be enough to get by.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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