A joke doing the rounds in Hollywood back in the mid- to late-80s inspired the 1987 classic Predator. The joke went that after four gruelling Rocky movies, the scrunch-faced boxer would have to fight an alien if they were ever to make a Rocky V. Predator creators Jim and John Thomas liked the idea so much they substituted Rocky for Dutch and created one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises of all time.
But much as the idea worked, the path of the Predator on the big screen has been a perilous one since. Predator 2 brought one of the hunters to the big city in futuristic LA that seemed to eerily prophesy the lawlessness of the LA riots, which would happen a few years after the film came out. But something didn't quite gel and it felt so far removed from the first as to put the Predator franchise on ice for years afterwards. A rumoured third film, which would have been set in the 18th Century, never materialised.
The Predator has appeared on screen since, in two risible AvP movies, but it was only just post-Predator 2 that Robert Rodriguez was first commissioned by Fox to write a third film, and he imagined a Predator movie that brought the action back to the jungle and multiplied the scale a hundred times over. Some 15 years later, Fox dug his script out of storage and set him to work.
Predators, which Rodriguez has produced with director Nimrod Antal installed, has every bit of the fanboy energy that Rodriguez clearly injected into that original screenplay – though Alex Litvak and Michael Finch have rewritten it since. But, crucially, it also has every inch of Rodriguez's filmmaking instinct too, so this is not the undisciplined mess it could so easily have been in the hands of a lesser team of filmmakers.
The plot is fairly basic, and requires little in the way of introduction. A group of humans from all walks of life – one's a Black Ops soldier, another a Yakuza, a third a San Quentin inmate – find themselves parachuted onto an alien jungle planet where they soon realise they're being hunted by something big, strong and fast.
It works because, like the original, it keeps the Predator off-screen for at least half its runtime, preferring instead to ramp up the tension of the unseen foe and introduce us to its fascinating group of disparate characters. Every one arrives fully formed, and as we learn their back-stories – not explicitly, but through subtle ticks of character set against prejudices we bring to the cinema – we feel like a part of the group and take the journey with them. In so doing, we feel every punch and want to duck every blast. Forget 3D, real immersion comes from storytelling this strong.
When the action does arrive, the film is electric. The new Predators slot perfectly into the canon, and the production mixes things up by suggesting a clan war between the different Predator species on display, with a new and less honour-bound set proving to be the real monsters. One is the dog handler, responsible for unleashing a pack of Predator hounds on our unsuspecting posse. Another controls robotic drones to scout the terrain ahead. Their master is the horrifically bestial Berserker, the film's big bad, whose only motivation is death and destruction.
And just as the brilliant original made best use of the jungle environment as an alien, inhospitable assault course for its band of killers, so the Predators hunting planet is an endurance trial for the human characters. It's not long before they're comparing it to hell, and the more time we spend there the harder it is to argue.
Of the cast, Adrien Brody acquits himself best as Royce, in a role few would have expected the Oscar winner to be suited for. When he goes hand-to-hand with the Predators, it's testament to his ability to make you believe his fitness that you genuinely don't know who'll come off worse. He's not as ripped as Arnie, but it doesn't seem to stop him kicking just as much ass.
In fact there are few weak links in the ensemble and the real shame is that, of course, some of them have to be dispatched relatively early on, so we only have one or two scenes to spend with them. Topher Grace is particularly enigmatic as the twisted doctor who at first seems out of place in a group of hardened killers until they start to learn his dark secrets.
Only Laurence Fishburne's Noland feels really out of place. He's a survivor who's been hiding on the planet for ten years, but we see little evidence of his evasive skills and his ever-increasing insanity is more comic than tragic.
Hollywood has had something of a 80s renaissance this year, with the testosterone-driven likes of The A-Team and The Expendables hitting cinemas. But even they are tonally of this decade. Predators is something different, a tone altogether absent since the days of the original. That it also stands up as a film of today makes it all the more enjoyable.