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  • nickkarner

Predator (1987)


“Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat. And fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.” -K, MIB

These words are spoken by a weathered veteran agent of an elite organization tasked with keeping tabs on alien lifeforms residing on planet Earth. After years of dealing with hundreds of ooey, gooey extraterrestrials, he knows a thing or two about a thing or two. The special forces unit in Predator (1987) also had the requisite experience and reputation in dealing with any number of scenarios. The leader of this outfit, Dutch (action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger), is constantly told by his former combat partner, now CIA-affiliated friend Dillon (Carl Weathers, Action Jackson, Happy Gilmore, Arrested Development “Baby, you got yourself a stew!”) that he’s “the best.” While he and his crew take the necessary precautions before launching into any rescue operation, since they’re strictly “not assassins,” there’s a level of confidence and certainty flowing through each member of the group. Director John McTiernan’s masterful subversion of the action, sci-fi, and horror genre boils down to the very death of certainty. These men have faced many obstacles and who knows what kind of hardships they’ve faced. We’re never sure if this is the entire crew; maybe they’ve lost several other soldiers along the way. Regardless, the enemy they encounter in a jungle hellhole is like nothing they’ve seen before. Prior to this, the group was certain they could handle any situation. They were certain they could reach their rendezvous point. And they were certain their unseen enemy was human.

It may be due to the genre difference, but the Predator, played by the towering Kevin Peter Hall (Harry and the Hendersons, Without Warning, which shares many similarities to this one) and voiced by an uncredited Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime himself), is never mentioned in the same breath as Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger, despite his penchant for gory, vicious murders. The film Predator tends to get labeled as a classic testosterone-fueled 80’s action epic, which it certainly is, but the horror elements really are quite striking. The similarities to the slasher genre in particular rear their bloody head as we get a villain who can seemingly be anywhere at once, is supernaturally strong, and has a unique, heat vision-based, subjective camera POV. The brilliance of the screenplay by brothers John and Jim Thomas is not only the tightness of their plotting, but their willingness to leave many questions about the Predator unanswered. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas has been praised for never revealing the serial killer’s identity. In a similar vein, we get the bare minimum of information about the Predator’s origins. He’s from outer space, he has an arsenal of advanced alien weaponry, he hunts for sport, keeps his “trophies,” and his race appears to be somewhat honorable. I say somewhat because...come on. He’s got fucking lasers.

With the monumental success of Die Hard only a year later, Predator tends to get a bit overshadowed by McTiernan’s later successes. While the latter half of his career was marred by troubled productions (The 13th Warrior) and box-office flops (Rollerball, Wow. Remember when they tried to make Chris Klein a movie star?), his work in the late 80’s and early 90’s is representative of the kind of sophistication he brought to the varied projects he’d helm before being incarcerated for nearly a year in federal prison for perjury. Die Hard usually tops most lists for best action movie ever made and Die Hard with a Vengeance was the rare example of a great sequel that should’ve ended the franchise on a high note. Instead, it continued, ultimately committing cinematic hara kiri or at least eating its own tail. The Hunt for Red October and The Thomas Crown Affair are smart thrillers while Basic at least attempts to weave a mystery within a military-based story. Last Action Hero was a legendary failure, but no one can accuse it of being stupid, just ill-conceived. The only real duds are the aforementioned Rollerball and the wannabe dramatic Medicine Man. Predator’s strength lies in its no-nonsense approach. McTiernan stages action scenes with excitement and finesse, yet the most impressive scenes may be the quietest ones. If “The Spielberg Face” depicts people looking up at something with wonder, the cast of Predator stare into the unknown with a look of pure terror.

Endless shots of a seemingly empty third-world jungle (in a country that is never named, although a map in the beginning identifies it as Guatemala) force the viewer to lean in closer, desperate to spot the camouflaged, chameleon-like creature lurking amongst the trees. There’s a sense of foreboding as these awesome monolithic beasts seem to stare down on our heroes. After the Predator’s first attack, there’s a beautiful crane shot which follows a blood trail all the way up the tree trunk until it ends on the lifeless body of their friend hanging upside down, ready for skinning. It’s a tricky question of whether or not the film would work if there were no context for the presence of the Predator. In other words, would the film still be able to work if there were no shots of an alien ship? It’s clever to make us aware of an alien presence because then we’re wondering when it’s going to strike or whether it’s a friendly E.T. creature or a ruthless Martian hellbent on world domination. If we weren’t aware of where this thing came from, then the hair-raising scene in which a witness states “the jungle...it just came alive and took him” could really ramp up the suspense since we’d have no idea what the hell that weird translucent being was.

While most horror films use the cover of night to deliver their gruesome death scenes, most of Predator’s violence takes place in broad daylight, rejecting the silly idea that one could be safe when the sun is out. The maniacal laughter of a bad guy is a cliché that’s been used a million times before, but again, the writers find a way to make it not only fresh, but actually creepy. Another one of the Predator’s abilities is to record and playback noises and voices. When the stoic Billy (Sonny Landham, 48 Hrs., Southern Comfort) finally lets out a hearty laugh, it’s recorded and later played back to chilling effect as the dying Predator decides that if he doesn’t win, nobody will.

One of the best “left turn” movies happens to also be one of the greatest horror films ever made: Psycho (1960). While that film reveled in it’s shocking plot twist, Predator more-or-less begins as one film, then smoothly segways into quite another. Yet another level of certainty is upended as we meet Dutch and his badass crew. An elegant pre-credits sequence (very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing opening) lets us know right away that a space ship has landed on Earth. After that, it’s a straight-forward actioner all the way, a genre in which mega-producer Joel Silver has excelled (The Matrix, Demolition Man). If the film didn’t feature a sci-fi twist, it could have been a decent, if unmemorable rescue movie about a paramilitary group versus a huge guerrilla army. I’d forgotten about the opening in which we get to see the crew out of uniform. This is the only time we’ll ever see these men in civilian clothing, then it’s all business. While there are seven soldiers engaged in their mission, the fact is, we only care about five.

Shane Black, who was pretty much cast in the movie so he’d be around to do rewrites while Richard Donner put the finishing touches on Lethal Weapon (another Silver production), appears as a geeky, foul-mouthed radioman who gets iced first. All that’s left is a bloody pile of gore, which is discovered by the second “expendable,” a term used repeatedly and would later be applied to Sylvester Stallone’s action star reunion series. Richard Chaves’ Poncho is pretty much defined by three things: he’s part of the group, he has a sweet grenade launcher, and he gets slammed by a big ass tree trunk trap before receiving a laser blast to the face. Chaves (Witness, TV’s War of the Worlds) does his best to give the character some depth, but I believe he’s simply there to be the least threatening and therefore the one most qualified to monitor Anna (Elpidia Carrillo, Salvador, The Brave), a captured guerrilla insurgent. If they allowed Jesse Ventura to watch her, I think there’d be some problems.

The former wrestler-turned actor-turned Governor of Minnesota (!) was never as skilled or as popular as his counterpart Hulk Hogan, but he made up for it with an aggressive chutzpah which made him dynamite when a role played to his strengths. His motor-mouthed delivery helped him excel as an excellent commentator on World Wrestling Federation events and while I love his work as Captain Freedom in The Running Man, his minigun-wielding Blain is his finest cinematic hour. As Little Richard’s “Long, Tall Sally” blasts out of a radio and these titans of tough wait in their “choppah” to get to the drop zone, nothing is spoken, yet we immediately get the idea that these guys have been through a lot together. The silence is broken when good ol’ boy Blain, being the Southern gentleman that he is, offers everyone some chewing tobacco. When no one accepts his very generous offer, he makes it known that there’s a “bunch of slack-jawed faggots around here. This stuff will make you a god damned sexual Tyrannosaurus, just like me.”

One of my favorite bits in the BTS Predator video is a rare glimpse into the prank-filled world of the movies. Ventura was always the competitive type, but Arnold being a clever son of a bitch, had the wardrobe designers mislead Jesse to think his bicep size dwarfed Arnold’s. The video hilariously captures Ventura’s triumphant rant about his superior muscles and immediately cuts to Arnold revealing his ruse. Good stuff. It’s possible that Blain’s fairly early elimination actually enhances his character since his gruff demeanor may not have meshed well with the ever-escalating hopelessness of their situation. Still, anyone who can sell the classic and absolutely ridiculous line “I ain’t got time to bleed” will be sorely missed.

Delivering the film’s finest and most complex performance is Blain’s best friend, Sergeant Mac, played by actor-director Bill Duke (Deep Cover, Hoodlum). Rejoining Ah-nuld after his brief but memorable role as ex-Green Beret Cooke in Mark Lester’s fantastic Commando (1985), Duke brings an emotional intensity and power to a role which probably wasn’t nearly as captivating on paper. His decision to rarely speak above a whisper lends his character’s dialogue a potency which makes him both dangerous and mysteriously aloof. His immediate dislike of Dillon is palpable, if not downright hostile. He gets right in Carl Weathers’ face with: “You're ghostin' us, motherfucker. I don't care who you are back in the world, you give away our position one more time, I'll bleed ya, real quiet. Leave ya here. Got that?” Later, he’ll scare the bejeesus out of Dillon when he stabs a wayward scorpion off the CIA operative’s back. His response to Dillon’s nervous gratitude is a barely audible “Anytime,” another oft-repeated line from this film.

After Blain is killed, Mac gradually succumbs to vengeful madness. Unlike so many films which treat a descent into madness as an immediate event, Mac’s mental instability is preceded by a tender and calm level of professionalism. He reminisces about he and Blain’s miraculous survival during a battle and tells Dutch simply, “He was my friend.” I got legitimate chills as composer Alan Silvestri’s melancholic trumpet solo plays while Mac says goodbye to Blain. When he grabs Blain’s minigun, nicknamed “Ol’ Painless,” you can feel his rage as he leads the barrage of gunfire which annihilates an entire acre of forest. The makers of Ferngully would be pissed. I’ve always loved the sound of the whirring minigun after its load has been spent. It’s the only sound to be heard as the group surveys the devastation they’ve wrought in the hope of eliminating their enigmatic foe.

What makes the relationship between Dillon and Mac so strong is the change both of them go through in their final scene together. Mac has officially lost it, muttering the lyrics to “Long, Tall Sally” as he intentionally drops pieces of equipment in his pursuit of the Predator. We get a sense of this as the blue razor he’s constantly dry shaving with snaps in two, leaving a long gash on his face. Dillon goes after him, prompting Dutch to realize that despite Dillon’s earlier betrayal by lying to him about their mission, Dillon is still an honorable man at heart. The film is brutally uncompromising as this should be a heroic moment for these enemies that have become friends. Dillon joins Mac in the brush as Mac whispers, “I see you,” and stares at the camouflaged Predator in a tree.

Both of them have scores to settle and even seem poised to get the drop on the Predator. No such luck, as another one of the alien’s weapons includes a three-dot laser sight which absolutely blows Mac’s head apart. I admit, when Carl Weathers sees Mac’s face, I don’t believe there’s any way he’d still have a face after such a blast. There’s a hell of an outpouring of blood coming from the back of his head. Dillon gets to have a solid moment of bravery as he attempts to fight, even though his right arm is blown off, the gun in his dismembered hand still firing off round after round. The slasher aspect of the Predator’s personality arrives once again as a jagged double blade springs out from his wrist and he impales poor Carl.

While Arnold convincingly plays the leader of this unconventional outfit, the most fascinating member of the group is their scout and tracker, Billy. A Native American soldier who wears a medicine bag around his neck, he has a keen sense of smell and even a supernatural understanding of his surroundings. His quiet but imposing demeanor hides a deep connection with nature which gives Dutch and his crew an advantage against both their enemies and the elements around them. Tiny little character bits, like a moment where he chops a vine in half to drink from its roots, do so much to establish his knowledge of the jungle. He senses something watching them, but of course, he doesn’t know what. Reportedly, Sonny Landham nearly wasn’t cast because of his erratic behavior and the studio being unwilling to insure him. Fortunately, things worked out and his work here is exemplary. In fact, he’s so chill and Zen-like, that it was honestly surprising when I found out about his wild ways. What makes Landham’s presence so unique is that with Schwarzenegger as the leading man, we expect the big final showdown to be between Arnold and the monster. Of course, this does indeed happen, but Landham is so magnetic and spiritual that we long to see some kind of conflict between Billy and the Predator. McTiernan correctly chooses to leave Billy’s ultimately doomed fate off-camera, but the lead-up, with Billy throwing down his gun, pulling out a huge knife, and even ritualistically cutting himself, is wild. My only gripe is that the scream the survivors hear doesn’t sound like Billy at all. I doubt he’d have survived in hand-to-hand combat, but without that knife, he might’ve had a chance.

How It Should Have Ended is a very funny YouTube web series that I feel exemplifies the revisionist thinking that runs rampant on the internet. While I’m sure prior to the advent of Reddit and message boards people would talk amongst themselves about the alternate ways a movie’s plot could’ve gone, HISHE occasionally happens upon a brilliant idea for the movie they’re skewering. Their Predator episode is a prime example. Dutch figures out that the Predator doesn’t attack Anna because she’s unarmed. “No sport in it" is his explanation. In the HISHE video, they simply throw down their weapons and the Predator hilariously tries to coax them into picking them up, ostensibly so he can kill them. It’s very clever and a decent point. If they’d simply thrown down their weapons, maybe they could’ve gotten “to the choppah!” Speaking of which, most of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s one-liners in any of his movies have benefited enormously from his thick Austrian accent. The line “Get to the chopper!” would never be as amusing without that intonation. However, he still gets to say the amazing “If it bleeds, we can kill it,” which is pretty awesome.

Prior to the final showdown, we get one of the film's most suspenseful moments. Dutch has slid down a hill and fallen into a river. He crawls onto the shore and gets covered in mud. He has a rare moment to catch his breath, but then an invisible shape splashes down and reveals itself. When he realizes the Predator’s vision is based on body heat, he devises an elaborate series of booby traps to defeat this angel of death. It’s a powerhouse, impressive montage where the muscle-bound former Mr. Universe uses brute strength to set his traps. His almost primordial roar as he readies himself for battle is so powerful that it causes the Predator to whip his head up and take notice. As disgraced fighter pilot Ted Stryker once said: “I guess the foots on the other hand now.”

What makes Predator so refreshing is that up until this movie, Arnold’s screen presence, thanks to his famous body, often appeared indestructible. Remember, this is after The Terminator and Conan, so he was practically Godlike in appearance. While I do wish we’d gotten at least a few more shots to establish how truly tall Kevin Peter Hall was as the Predator, this was the first time we were actually afraid for Arnold’s safety. He gets his ass kicked, even when the Predator decides this human is his ultimate prey and foregoes any of his advanced weaponry. Dutch is a worthy opponent and, say what you will about Predator 2, we discover just how much honor the race of Predators have in the sequel. The final insult, and what adds up to essentially a fail-safe, is the disturbing self-destruct sequence, with its rapidly disappearing lights and maniacal recorded laughter. This monster literally goes nuclear, setting off what appears to be a small thermo-nuclear explosion, ensuring that no one will ever know it existed.

Of course, this movie would merely be Jean-Claude Van Damme running around in a crappy-looking red suit if it weren’t for the work of genius make-up artist Stan Winston. One of the most famous lines that you’d get in trouble for repeating on the playground is “You’re one ugly motherfucker.” This bit of dialogue had to be justified by a brilliant creature design, and Winston delivered with Oscar-nominated work. The script gives just enough information and glimpses of the Predator to get some sense of what he’s all about, but just barely. It’s clawed, reptilian-like hands fumble for the various medical tools it uses while tending to his gaping wound; bright, neon green blood dripping out. Since we know so little about this beast, we’re not even certain whether the mask he wears is indeed a mask. It’s intimidating for its lack of expression. The almost-Rastafarian dreadlocks are a nice touch. When the helmet/mask is removed, the movie does not disappoint. It’s a literal monster and the stuff nightmares are made of.

It can’t be overstated how well-constructed the Thomas’ script is. While a few characters may be a tad extraneous, they’re part of the story and the shared sense of desperation works wonders in drawing the audience into their plight. Predator, and to a lesser extent Predator 2, would be Jim and John Thomas’ most important work, with Executive Decision and Behind Enemy Lines running at a distant second. Both are solid thrillers which are certainly entertaining, but they’d never again come up with such a deliriously bold and original concept as Predator, originally titled Hunter. The train wreck that was Wild Wild West need not be mentioned. Of course, this lean, mean 107-minute film didn’t edit itself, so the film features stellar work by veteran Oscar-nominee John F. Link (Die Hard, Road House) and Mark Helfrich (Brett Ratner’s regular editor and I Come in Peace/Dark Angel). The previous work of Oscar-nominee DP Donald McAlpine (Moulin Rouge, Breaker Morant) is surprising considering how well-shot the action sequences are. Most of his work was in character dramas, but the awesomeness of the slow-motion falls and fluid camerawork is undeniable. Mix in Alan Silvestri’s Saturn Award-winning score, which takes a staccato, urgent tone when it’s not being overly sentimental about the loss of a soldier’s life, and you’ve got the recipe for a hit movie.

Predator is a quintessential “Dad Movie,” but then again, most Arnold movies are. I know for a fact that my dad showed this to me when I was barely 10 and it blew my mind. Maybe not as much as the three-boob chick in Total Recall, but it was an experience nonetheless. It’s a guy’s movie through and through, with an energy and a total understanding of what it takes to rise above the genre trappings of action, sci-fi, and horror. The film is the very definition of macho, featuring muscles as far as the eye can see. The now-famous “You son of a bitch” line that Dutch delivers followed by a playful arm-wrestling match with Dillon is justifiably famous and exemplifies exactly what we come for when we stick an Arnold movie into our VCR’s. We want to see powerful men fire weapons and blow stuff up. With Predator, we get all of that, but we also see them as more than just muscleheads thanks to the strong writing and direction. They’re three-dimensional characters who face off against an unknown enemy that’s ten times more deadly than anything they’ve ever encountered. This experience humanizes them and that’s what sets the film apart. Vulnerability. We come to care for these men and this lone woman, and that’s a testament to how excellent Predator truly is.