“If it bleeds, we can kill it.”
With a movie this well-known, there is no way we can discuss it and award it the indulgence that it deserves without delivering a mountain of spoilers at the same time. So, if you are unacquainted with Arnie's big rumble in the jungle, I would advise that you to skip straight to the technical reviews and the overall verdict ... because the rest of us are “gonna have some fun tonight”.
Picture the scene - it's the steamy rainforest of Central America, the whole place is crawling with bad-ass guerrillas whose idea of the Geneva Convention is a good kicking followed by a bullet through the brain, battle-hardened Green Berets “out of Fort Bragg” are hanging from the trees, having been skinned-alive, and there's the biggest, baddest, meanest, ugliest alien uber-hunter on the prowl for human trophies. Do you really want to get on-board that helicopter and drop in for a quick couple of days sightseeing before bouncing back over the border? One blast of Little Richard hollering for “Long, Tall Sally” from the ghetto-blaster and, man, you ain't gonna hesitate. In fact you'd have to be “a slack-jawed faggot” to resist this close encounter of the grisliest kind.
“Dis cabinet minister ... does he always travel on duh wrong side of duh border?”
After the low-key but bizarrely well received Nomads, once action-master John McTiernan landed the dream-gig of the 80's and he couldn't believe his luck. Arnie Schwarzenegger, if not the face of the decade's most bombastic and gratuitous genre, then certainly it's body, was ready, willing and supremely able to leap into the fray after the double-whammy of Jim Cameron's The Terminator and Mark Lester's tongue-in-cheek, too much red-meat-eating Commando. With the Austrian Oak having proved that there was no man on Earth who could stand up to him, screenwriters and producers were forced to look elsewhere to find an opponent worthy of him and co-scribes Jim and John Thomas, together with high-concept producer Joel Silver certainly came up with something special for 1987's Predator. The film was an immediate hit with both action junkies and horror/sci-fi buffs, who all seemed to get their fix thoroughly satiated. Only Cameron's Aliens offered a similarly exhilarating combination of thrills and spills and, as history has shown, Fox was ultimately keen to capitalise on both of these fabulous franchises by, ahem, joining them together. As Arnie would say, “Bad idea.”
But regardless of what followed - and Stephen Hopkins' equally visceral sequel Predator 2 is actually a very rewarding continuation - it is to McTiernan's immortal original that we will always turn.
What makes Predator work so damn well is its galvanising premise. Take the age-old scenario of Ten Little Indians (or one ginormous Indian in the case of Sonny Landham's gruff tracker, Billy!) but throw in a hefty dollop of SF mystery and as much macho violence as you can fit into a hundred-and-six minutes, and you have the recipe for something profoundly exciting. Add an iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the top of his game, and the promise of a one-on-one so spectacular that no amount of sequels, studio mash-ups, comic-book spin-offs or foolhardy re-imaginings can equal, and you have a cult film in-the-making. Unusually for the genre, the Thomas' screenplay, with help from David Peoples, was an ensemble affair, at least for the first two acts. Arnie beefs up a smorgasbord of celluloid hard-cases as Major Dutch Schaeffer, another relocated European defending American Pride, after Raw Deal's Mark Kaminski and Commando's Germanic Col. John Matrix. As Blain, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, ex-Navy Seal and professional grappler, hoists a Gatling-gun around with him, whilst spouting red-neck vernacular as though each word was an incendiary. Bill Duke, last seen with a bloody table-leg growing out from his chest in Commando, is the very curious Mac. Too old and too much of a hustler to really be in the army, he arrives in a luxurious suit, like some gangsta who just happened to get on the wrong helicopter. Shane Black (screenwriter of Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout) as Hawkins and Richard Chaves as Ramirez, or Poncho, saddle up as the only two human-sized team-members, whilst the ever-scary Sonny Landham (48Hrs, Southern Comfort, Lock-Up) brings along some “hard” spiritualism as Billy, the fate-entrusted Cherokee scout with a voice so deep that Megalodon sharks paddle about in it. Carl Weathers is excellent as the chip-on-the-shoulder government-man, Dillon, desperate to get rid of that company tie and to don sweaty combat fatigues once again. And then there's Salvadore's cat-faced Elpidia Carillo as Dillon's “baggage”, guerilla prisoner Anna, who does surprisingly well against this steroid-packed wall of ultra male chauvinism.
“I heard about that job you pulled off in Berlin, Dutch. Very nice.”
“Ya, like duh good ol' days.”
“Yeah, so how come you passed on Libya?”
“Ahh, it wasn't my style.”
“You got no style, Dutch. You know that. So, come on, why'd you pass?”
“We are a rescue team. Not assassins.”
Let's be honest, Dutch's of mob of alpha male misfits are hardly convincing as a “rescue team”, are they? You've got a “goddamn sexual Tyrannosaurus” packing heat with the machine-gun torn off the side of a helicopter. You've got a gangly-armed sprinter with glasses that would embarrass Mr. Magoo and an annoying tendency to spin out variations of the same poor joke, over and over. There's a bloody big, tough Indian who is very handily in-tune with nature, but when even he is of the opinion that “we're all gonna die,” morale is going to be a tough thing to keep up. Even the boss, who can hardly speak English, is just too damn immense to ever use stealth as a tactic! These guys are together for one reason and one reason alone - to blow absolutely everything around them to bits. And, in this department, Dutch's mini-platoon is one of the best! The attempted rescue of the captured Americans who have “apparently strayed off course” in this charming little country results in the kind of pyrotechnics and triple-figures bodycount that ends most other action movies - and this is just the start of their adventure! For these guys, a five-metre spread is merely the coverage of protein-supplement they have on their sarnies. And when one of their number starts insanely blazing away at seemingly nothing but the bushes, they all pitch in and unleash more ammunition and firepower than most countries have in their entire arsenal - without even first ascertaining just who, what or where the enemy is. No, these guys aren't a rescue team ... they're World War III!
“No blood. No bodies. We hit nothing.”
It even seemed as though the alleged rivalry between the 80's Gods of War, Sly Stallone and Arnie Schwarzenegger was reaching a level of almost playground mentality, with Arnie's film even snaffling Sly's Rocky co-star Carl Weathers over to his camp. Weathers, who was awesome as the Count of Monte Fisto, Apollo Creed, is similarly impressive here as the CIA's go-to action-man, Dillon, an ex-associate of Dutch's and a definite outsider in the pack, who may have a secret or two up his own straining sleeve. Immediately rattling the sinew-taut harmony of the group by going along with them and calling far too many shots, his years of desk-driving prove his strategic undoing out in the field. His men may have been in that chopper when it went down, but if he gives their position away one more time Mac's “gonna bleed him ... real quiet ... an' leave him here.”
McTiernan manages to have Dillon rub everybody up the wrong way, but it is testament to Weathers' grudging likeability that we just love having him around. “Are you telling me that Blain and Hawkins were killed by f*ckin' lizard? It's a bullsh*t psyche-job!” he yammers, totally insistent that the grave situation they find themselves in is easily surmountable. Whereas the rest of the crew are just jazzed-up prey for the beast, and Arnie is the leading lunkhead, Dillon is the one who actually goes through an arc, turning from nefarious liar to conscience-addled vengeance-machine when he realises that his mistakes have cost a lot of lives. And just how cool can one man look sporting two MP5's, a fully-loaded six-pack and a porn-star's moustache?
“You can't win this, Dillon.”
“Maybe I can get even.”
And then there is the Predator, himself. Eight feet of intergalactic Rastafarian rage, our hunter is like the best action figure ever created. With a shoulder-mounted plasma-canon, a wrist-scabbard that projects duel blades wicked enough to frighten a Klingon, a built-in nuclear deterrent and the physique of three bodybuilders all welded-together, this feller is the sort of thing that would give a Terminator nightmares. The charismatic, hard-working and, sadly, late Kevin Peter Hall had climbed into the rubbery suit of the mutant bear in Prophecy and launched himself on a career of hidden stardom beneath a plethora of monstrous masks. His recruitment to McTiernan's project was a gift from the gods. When original special effects man Richard Edlund sent over his rushed creation for the film's villain (which Jean-Claude Van Damme was initially earmarked to wear), McTiernan and his crew gaped in the wrong kind of horror when they opened up the crate containing it after its arrival in the jungle location in Mexico. Put quite simply, Edlund had botched it. Whatever this thing was, it wouldn't work at all. McTiernan begged makeup-supremo Rick Baker for what would actually be a second time to cobble a Predator together. But with a lot of post-production time on Harry And The Hendersons keeping him tied-up, Baker could only suggest that the man who had donned his Bigfoot costume, Hall, step into the breach - literally. Thus, the frantic search for someone to dress the huge performer (who would also play the goggle-eyed helicopter pilot at the end of the film) fell at Oscar-winner Stan Winston's feet. Having crafted the revamped Alien suit for Jim Cameron as well as birthing the hideous Queen, and delivered the Terminator to huge acclaim, he was more than up for the task. Part crustacean, part gargoyle, part professional wrestler, the Predator was all terrifying. And extremely cool as well. It was one thing to devise yet another monster, but it was another again to make it fascinating enough to linger in the mind. McTiernan didn't just want a guy running around the jungle in a rubber suit. He wanted something that was, at once, practical and intimidating, fantastic and yet spoke of an elaborate culture far removed from our own. He got his wish from Winston, all right, and the Predator has gone on to become one of the Titans in the Creature Feature Hall Of Fame.
“Hey, Billy, give me a way oudda dis hole!”
“The only way outta here is that valley that leads away to the east ... but I wouldn't wish that on a broke-dick dog!”
Wisely keeping his monster hidden, Jaws-style, for two thirds of the film, McTiernan expertly builds the suspense and unease of the situation. Hints of Predator-vision give nothing away about the nature of the beast. Once-impressive, and still incredibly bizarre looking flash-cuts of the cloaked Predator - looming up behind Hawkins, say, or batting its green-neon eyelashes at Mac - tantalise still further, dragging out our combined sense of wonder and dread. Only when we see the shape of the Predator's hand - huge and clawed - as it watches the life drain out of a crushed scorpion do we get some real indication of what our boys might be up against. A spot of tree-top DIY surgery is brilliantly done - we can't take our eyes off the hunter's spooky first aid kit, or the wacky things that it is doing to its wound. The frame doesn't show us enough of the thing - mottled, almost decomposing flesh, like something hauled from out of the sea, weird armour - and we long for a proper view. And when it comes, it doesn't disappoint.
“RUN!!! GOOOO!!!!!! GET TO DA CHOPPAH!!!!!!”
Forget “I'll be back.” For my money, the above is the Arnie Schwarzenegger line to die for.
Arnie, himself, was born to play this role. There are those who regale his T-800. Those who prefer his ogreish, and oafish Conan. I must admit that there was a time when I idolised his super-soldier, Col. John Matrix, but now I just find that gun-toting 'n' doting Daddy a buffed-up embarrassment. No, Arnie's most defining moment, most irresistible calling card comes courtesy of Dutch Schaeffer. “You're looking good, Dutch,” murmurs R.G. Armstrong's relieved General, languishing in what must be the worst and most forgotten posting in the American Military, in positive awe as all his prayers appear to be answered with Arnie's cigar-chewing, tee-shirt bursting arrival on the scene. With a grin as wide as the span on the rotors of the helicopter that brought him in, his own customised flat-top, and an arm that can probably be seen from space as it bullies Dillon's pencil-pusher to the ground, Dutch simply is the idealised dream of physical perfection. Schwarzenegger's own confidence was at its absolute zenith at this time. Whereas Stallone's heroes were always flawed and much more human and fallible, Arnie's were utterly impervious, steel-hewn warriors from a race that just could not be defeated. As you watch his arrival and then his brazen destruction of the guerilla camp, lifting a truck and rolling it, laden with explosives, at the enemy, you begin to wonder just what any self-respecting alien hunter is thinking even tackling this guy. But the magic comes later on as, unnerved by the increasingly mysterious and deadly incidents that are plaguing his team and their seemingly impossible exodus from a jungle that makes Cambodia look like Kansas, we see Dutch's resolve begin to come undone at those muscle-bound seams. With Billy so spook-uh-ed and something definitely out there waiting for them, all his training and his experience seem suddenly inadequate. Look at Arnie's face when Poncho informs the team that their firing squad failed to hit anything other than the trees - the creeping realisation that the Predator is faster and smarter than them genuinely seems to turn his blood cold. Although, you have to admire the way this trepidation is then turned on its head when, after they discover that they must have wounded it, Dutch utters the iconic line “If it bleeds, we can kill it,” and Alan Silvestri's pounding, rhythmic score kicks-in with an antagonistic swagger.
“We began finding our men without their skins. And sometimes ... much, much worse.”
You also have to admit that knowing how the whole thing will end does not, for one second, dilute the palpable terror as Dutch runs for his life through the jungle, leading the Predator away from Anna in a heroic act of self-sacrifice. He may be able to magically avoid those rocks after his initial plunge over the cliff, his body even pivoting sideways through the air during his frothy descent over the waterfall thanks to that wacky camera shot, but there is no escaping his shock and fear and sheer desperation when, with a gob-full of mud, he crawls away to hide in the shadows of a tangle of upturned tree-roots as the Predator, de-cloaking after the river has frazzled his light-bending camouflage, stalks up behind him. “He couldn't see me,” sighs an incredulous Dutch, discovering an unexpected virtue of a mud-bath ... but he is bloody lucky that the Pred can't hear him either! Our first view of the monster is awesome enough - we are still unsure just what we are looking at as it rises from the river (are those tentacles?) - but even before we can fully appreciate that super-sleek battle-mask, McTiernan goes a step further and bestows us an even more jolting second reveal when that mask finally comes off. With only his second feature film, the director shows real visual and thematic panache, as well as a crackerjack sense of pacing, with each set-piece topping the previous one. A trait that he would go on to reinforce with the first Die Hard.
“He didn't kill you because you weren't armed. No sport!”
The final act, when Dutch goes toe-to-toe with the beast is a euphoric celebration of primal testosterone. Naturally, it mimics the duels between David and Goliath, Achilles and Hector and Spartacus and Draba from the ancient world, but, very keenly, it also observes the esteemed genre-bouts that have gone before it, and pays respect to Kirk battling the Gorn in Star Trek, or Commander Koenig pitting his wits against some tooth 'n' claw monstrosity on a similar planetoid arena in Space 1999, or even the celebrated episode from The Outer Limits when a human couple are planted in an alien battlefield to see how they fare against another, more volatile race (which, incidentally, is virtually the plot for Predators, isn't it?). Sussing-out a means of effecting his own camouflage, the super-trooper fires an arrow through a tree trunk and wraps up explosives in fetching packages of leaves, all the while McTiernan fabulously intercutting Dutch's preparations with the Predator ripping out Billy's spinal cord and then polishing his collection of fresh skulls. The chapter even plays out like a mini-movie, the fight covering acres of ground, our two combatants tit-for-tatting with spears, lasers, blades and finally fists. This mano-et-Predo bout is certainly bravura stuff. Hall was elated that he could actually get to whup Arnie's ass for most of the sequence. The performer always insisted that given the shape he was in at the time, he could have wasted the Olympian easily even without the claws and the guns and the blades. He made a point of injecting some personality into the creature too, with lots of subtle gestures and movements, not least when he accidentally discovers the row of spikes that Dutch has sharpened in a little trap for him and does a little Predator double-take.
“Come on, kill me ... I'm here! Do it now! Come on! KILL ME!!!!”
So many glorious moments are packed into the film.
Have a look at Arnie blowing his own long-standing buddy from the bodybuilding days, Sven-Ole Thorsen (frequent bit-parter in his movies from Conan onwards, and the guy who played Tigris of Gaul in Gladiator) as the guerilla chief, clean through the wall of his wicker-work HQ. Serves him right for just standing there reading a map whilst his militia are getting decimated all around him. “Knock, knock!” There is an A-Team sort of lunacy to the big battle in the enemy camp. “I ain't got time to bleed, fool!” you can imagine BA Baracus spouting as Blain, whilst Mad Murdoch, doubling for Poncho, chimes-in with “Oh, okay ... you got time to duck then, BA?” as he fires paint-filled, explosive cabbages at some crafty sonofabitch who is dug-in deeper than an Alabama tick. Bodies are catapulted through the air on springboards that are considerably better hidden than the ones seen in Commando, and filmed with that upside-down tracking camera-move that the Stephen J. Cannell show loved. McTiernan handles his troops without common sense, but oodles of style. “Stick around!” Dutch goats as he impales a jundi to a pillar with a machete he just happened to have in his pocket. The choreography is broad and silly. The bad guys couldn't even kill themselves with a Predator self-destruct button, and why should the heroes just use a couple of well-aimed rounds when a zillion makes a much bigger mess? It is pure pantomime ... and we love it. Over-ripe. Over-cooked. Over-the-top. Outstanding.
“So you cooked up a cover-story and dropped the six of us in a meat-grinder. What happened to you, Dillon? You used to be somebody I could trust.”
I love the way that Poncho mocks Dillon for losing their captive - “Maybe you ought to put her on a leash, agent-man” - before she outwits him only a couple of moments later with a clonk on the head from a chunk of wood. Mac's crudely wistful reminiscing beside his buddy's corpse (“Wound's all fused and cauterised ... what the hell could have done this to a man?”) just before his actually incredibly creepy encounter with a wild boar. The skin-crawling little monologue that Anna delivers to her captors/saviours about what happens to the men of the jungle in the hottest months, capped-off with one of DOP Donald McAlpine's sinuous and moody refocused shots from her face to a considerably more edgy Dutch's. Billy turning around and refusing to run any further, opting to make Big Medicine out of a gallant last stand which, showing surprising confidence, McTiernan only allows us to hear and not to see. Poncho's gun visibly shaking as he trembles before the approach of the Predator, and Dutch booting the M203 out of Anna's hands and then decorating the screen with a dazzling muzzle-flare of full-auto venom. And, of course, Mac and Dillon's famous dual attack in a doomed attempt to settle a score. All together now ... “Ahhhhh see youuuuuu ....”. How weirdly cute is it the way that Dillon actually looks along Mac's outstretched finger before clocking what it is he is pointing at “past them trees”? But how horrible is that leg-twitching death-throe of Mac's after his brains have been blown out? And what about that little red-dot triangle of taunting death that signifies your game is over? It is all class of the most adrenalised kind.
All the while Alan Silvestri keeps the momentum pounding with his brash militaristic score. The best cues? The jungle trek as the team move out after casually massacring the guerillas, swift percussion capturing the tribal pulse of the setting. The building of the Boy Scout trap out of jungle vines, Silvestri literally drumming-up our support and our morale with increased tempo and vigour as Dillon reluctantly joins in the physique-rippling jamboree. And, of course, Dutch's battle preparations before the main title fight, Silvestri's wild crescendo issuing as gloriously exciting a war-cry as that bellowed out by Arnie beneath that iconic full moon. He would revamp and energise the same score for Hopkins' sequel, and many of his other compositions, from Back To The Future to Beowulf, would utilise similar motifs.
“Do you remember Afghanistan?”
“I'm trying to forget it.”
In many of the earlier prints numerous errors could clearly be seen. Most famous of all was Carl Weathers' real arm taped in plain sight to his side during that, otherwise, terrific 360-degree twirl to reveal the bloody stump that remains of the fake arm that the Predator blew off. I always loved to see that, but they got wise to this gaffe a long time ago, and now, as with some wire-removals that have taken place in other, even older films, they have doctored the shot and there is now no trace of Dillon's third arm. Perversely, I kind of miss it.
This is also a film that has the unbelievably good-natured charisma to actually allow its cast to gurn playfully, one by one, at the camera in the blissfully cheesy end credit roll ... so there's no way that any of the tongue-in-cheek black humour was unintentional. Elpidia Carrilo smiles beatifically whilst Jesse Ventura spits tobacco at our feet. Shane Black looks up from his Sgt. Rock comic to grin innanely, whilst Sonny Landham delivers a belly-laugh so mighty that we can hear it even though its sound hasn't been recorded. And whilst Bill Duke offers us a swig from his hip-flask, Carl Weathers performs perhaps the most over-the-top, cringe-inducing “gee, folks, it's only a movie ... look, I've still got all my arms!” routine you can imagine. And with a sly little wink from Richard Chaves, only Arnie, himself, manages to preserve his dignity with a snatch of footage culled from the film, itself. But this is great fun that totally sums up the camaraderie and infectious zeal of the production. All that is missing from the roll-call is the slogan “You have been watching ...”
Along with Back To The Future, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Rambo, Rocky IV, Lethal Weapon, The Terminator and Die Hard, Predator was one of the defining moments in 80's Cinema. That it still commands such a hold over us with its fury, frights and fantasy shows how rock-hard a concept it was. And nor does it age, either, as that throwaway quip about Afghanistan so presciently shows.
It Came To Earth For The Thrill Of The Hunt ...
It Picked The Wrong Man.
If the stuff that Blain chews makes him a 'goddamn sexual Tyrannosaurus', our alien friend must consume it by the skip-load! It is not Oscar-worthy material, but in and of itself, this is a genre catalyst that has proved enormously influential and set the very bench-mark for others to follow. Predator is, and always shall be, awesome.