Nimród Antal is a B-film classicist whose sensibilties belong to a time before pervasive special effects and whose skills have little to do with "delivering the goods" and a lot to do with bluntly, crisply delineating characters, actions, relationships and group dynamics. A real metteur en scène, an arranger of bodies and eyelines, a kindred spirit to Neil Marshall, Michael J. Bassett and Bill Duke (all three of whom were considered as directors for this movie) but more formally rigid, he prefers not to film space, but the distances at which people stand or sit together (bunched up like a fist, or, more commonly, spread out like five splayed fingers). As modern multiplex fare, Predators probably comes off as baffling: deliberate, extremely careful about its framings and the placement of actors within them, generous towards its ensemble cast and sparing with its star, with a near-total lack of showmanship or flash (exception: a Hideo Gosha-like duel in a field of wheat—but the unpretentious Gosha seems like Antal's kind of chanbara director anyway). Even the fact that Predators starts in media res, with a close-up of Adrien Brody's face mid-freefall above a jungle canopy, seems less like a clever conceit and more like a way to reduce action to its essential bits. But for all this bottom-half-of-the-double-bill purity, Predators has its shortcomings, and these shortcomings feel jarringly different from Antal's work on this and previous films and suspiciously like the movies of producer/scenarist Robert Rodriguez. Not quite "a film at war with itself," but one where the director and his handling of the actors eventually give way to the requirements of the script and the producer, only to win a humble little victory with the final shot.
The set-up is soft sci-fi short story simple: a mostly nameless group of strangers tumble out of the sky into a mysterious booby-trapped jungle and can't remember how they got there. There's more than a touch of Edgar G. Ulmer to the movie, but not because of the cheapness ($40 million budget or not, Predators looks like it was made for free, and as in Rodriguez' own movies, the effects look more like the work of high school hobbyists than professionals) and limited settings. The strangers debate where they could be, bringing up the possibility that they could all be dead and that this could be Hell or at least purgatory, unspoken setting of Ulmer's best films. A loose order emerges, with an American mercenary (Brody, muscled-out and looking a little like a handsome Paul Reubens) and an Israeli sniper (Alice Braga) vying for leadership. He fancies himself as a Hemingway character (or at least what he thinks a "Hemingway character" is), a professional with a sharp knife and no qualms about leaving a wounded man behind, like a Jimmy Stewart curmudgeon in an Anthony Mann movie. She's a benevolent John Wayne, a gunslinger with a weakness for the weak, more of a shepherd than a commander. He interprets leadership as providing an example to be followed (and anyone who strays from Brody's path has only him or herself to blame), she as protecting the ones being lead.
Then there's the bulk of the group—a war criminal from Sierre Leone, an oafish Russian machine-gunner, a yakuza, a Tijuana thug (Danny Tejo, naturally)—and its two liabilities—a serial rapist and a hapless weakling (Topher Grace). Eventually they meet up with Laurence Fishburne, a kook who's been hiding out in an abandoned mine for years. Fishburne is taking the Orson Welles Route, and, as in Antal's Armored, he takes full advantage of his newfound fat (at the rate his cheeks are growing, he'll look like Barry Shabaka Henley by 2020); if the old trim Fishburne had a fierceness, the new rotund one has a sluggish menace, his eyes half-closed, his crisp voice turned into a Hank Quinlan mumble-rumble. Every character, introduced through obvious details, is as simple and useful as a chess piece, and Antal uses the film to diagram their movements across the board (it's therefore no surprise when, in endgame, Grace is promoted from rook's pawn to queen).
But in the way those carefully composed images (punchy, but never pulpy) of people give way to haphazard and undistinctive effects shots, you start to the get the sense that character chess is more Antal's game than it is the movie's. The problem with Predators is that Antal knows his place too well; he acts like he's being allowed to direct the film, which is more or less true. Unlike the directors his works recalls—Ulmer, Raoul Walsh, Joseph H. Lewis, Don Siegel (moreso in Armored than here), even a little Jacques Tourneur—he refuses to confuse his own interests and fixations with the script's. The compulsion to take everything personally is the mark of the for-hire artist—or maybe just the artist in general. The rest are artisans. For now Antal is merely a very good decorator. He manages one coup, though, robbing the final shot of the ass-kicking "fuck yeah!" Rodriguez probably intended in favor of two badly battered people hobbling off into an uncertain wilderness.