The first time Predator caught my attention was via a box office report on pre-infamy Jonathan King’s BBC2 magazine show Entertainment USA. The movie had become a surprise hit during the summer of ’87 (beating The Witches of Eastwick to the top spot in their first week), and I was immediately enthused by the featured clip in which Arnie announced, in distinctive tones, “If it bleeds, we can kill it” Whatever it was, it promised extra-terrestrial thrills. The complete movie did not disappoint, and for a while there it ranked as one of my favourites of the era. Truth be told, it’s perhaps a little too rudimentary to hold the primal permanence of Alien (with its fantastic concept design and sublime atmospherics), or The Thing remake (with its undercurrent of apocalyptic paranoia), but it’s most definitely hatched from the same sci-fi horror/thriller DNA. Predator, like Alien, is what you get when a truly great director (and John McTiernan was undoubtedly that – maybe he will be again) is able to polish up relatively bare-bones material.
McTiernan now appears to be a Hollywood persona non grata following a prison sentence for wiretapping (he declared bankruptcy during his incarceration), but his double of Predator and Die Hard marked him out as the most talented action director in Tinseltown since James Cameron caused jaws to drop with his low-budget Terminator a few years earlier.
Unfortunately, McTiernan’s eye for a screenplay didn’t remain as sharp subsequently. The Hunt for Red October was a third huge hit, but after that he rather derailed decisively with Medicine Man and, yes, Last Action Hero. Reteaming with stars of earlier hits finally proved effective with Bruce Willis and the third Die Hard (and his second date with Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair; debut Nomads had flopped). After which, even his keen grasp of action dynamics appeared to desert him with an unwarranted Rollerball remake and the Rashomon-wannabe Basic. It would be nice to see McTiernan get another picture off the ground, as on peak form he’s one of the genre’s brightest lights, defining action cinema, along with Cameron and Verhoeven, for a whole generation.
Common to that trio is Arnie, of course. Predator was the real beginning of his mega-star status, and the point at which he would begin cannily allying himself with directors capable of spurring him on to ever-greater success; his transition from meat-and-potatoes action roles with (mostly) meat-and-potato directors to meat-and-potato action roles with (mostly) great directors. If this period ruling the roost lasted less than a decade, he burned extra brightly while it did.
Predator missed the 1987 Top Ten movies in the US by a whisker, and if his next two pictures (The Running Man and Red Heat) succumbed to a statelier performance, every subsequent release until True Lies would hit that year’s Top Ten. Except Last Action Hero (poor, unloved Last Action Hero). Predator’s achievement is all the more impressive given the production tribulations encountered (Kevin Peter Hall, who played the Predator and died at the age of only 35 in 1991, referred to the shoot as “a survival story for all of us”). It’s very easy to imagine the picture being just another Running Man or (sacrilege to its fans, I know) Commando had there been a workmanlike director calling the shots.
Jim and John Thomas (an unfortunate combination of names for the latter, obviously the product of cruel parentage) wrote the script on spec, and have subsequently been involved in mostly less than astonishing screenplays (Predator 2, Mission to Mars, Behind Enemy Lines; best of the bunch is Executive Decision, engineering the early and surprising exit of Zen ex-CIA superstar pie-muncher Steven Seagal). Their smartest move was to begin Predator (originally known as Hunter, and triggered by the spurious suggestion that Rocky’s next opponent would need to be from space if there were to be an equal match) as one thing then turn into something else, and to do so economically.
The first half hour is essentially a commando rescue mission, as Arnie’s Dutch Schaefer leads his team (Bill Duke’s Mac, Jesse Ventura’s Blain, Sonny Landham’s Billy, Richard Chaves’ Poncho and Shane Black’s Hawkins), accompanied by old associate Dillon (Carl Weathers) into Joel Silver’s favourite fictional Central American country Val Verde to rescue a hostage. There’s a sprinkle of dubious intrigue along the way (the mission was really to retrieve intelligence; at least the CIA hasn’t sent them searching for the Predator, à la Alien), but their mission is pretty much accomplished when they wipe out the guerrilla camp and head off for extraction with female guerrilla Anna (Elpidia Carrillo) in tow. Alas for them, but fortuitously for the audience, it’s then that the camouflaged, ominously clicking alien, thermal imaging equipment at the ready, begins picking the team off one by one.
This is a lean yet muscular picture, wrapping things up seventy minutes or so after the alien begins its hunt. The structure is simple but effective, aided by a David Webb Peoples rewrite (and no doubt Black pitched in too, on set, fresh from Lethal Weapon, and variously reported to have been there as a favour from Silver so he could watch McTiernan work, and to keep eye on the script and anything that needed amending; certainly, Hawkins’ crude jokes about his girlfriend’s pussy are Black through-and-through). That unpretentious quality, along with the part-and-parcel macho posturing and dialogue (encouraged by McTiernan, who wanted the actors to behave like a unit), led to a tendency to the dismissive among critics when the movie was first released. There is, however, an unmistakable touch of the self-conscious amid the grunting; Dutch and Dillon reuniting, their shiny biceps bulging like a couple of homoerotic peacocks, is about as ridiculous as such fare gets.
So too, Blain’s signature “I ain’t got time to bleed”, particularly as delivered by Ventura, couldn’t be more self-aware. On top of which, Arnie breaks the nominal verisimilitude by throwing out sub-Bond quips (“Knock, knock!”, “Stick around!”) The movie wholly embraces its clichés regarding noble warfare, bravado and waxing lyrical about old missions. It even throws in Landham as the mystical Native American with insights into the beast. As is typical of such pictures, the token female (in acute contrast to the unsculpted testosterone of The Thing; it might have looked a bit “pansy” to have these ripped guys sweating profusely at each other without a chick to confirm their essential heterosexuality) is mostly redundant, except to be protected (and survive).
The picture opens in near-imitation of The Thing, a spacecraft dropping the Predator off for a bit of R’n’R hunting in the jungle, so it’s never in any doubt that something unearthly is coming. I’m not sure how feasible it would be to switch genre unprepared like that; instead, like Psycho, it’s a question of when the main event begins. McTiernan quickly establishes his jungle as an unsettling place with an invisible menace lying in wait; when the action kicks in, it’s effective, precise and dynamic, its director exhibiting a deceptively effortless knack for escalating tension and – crucially – a clear understanding of spatial geography (which would serve him beautifully in his next film); the action is propelled with supreme confidence, judiciously incorporating slow motion when appropriate.
First Hawkins is killed, then Blain, and an attempt to snare the creature (more manly muscle-baring is a prerequisite in preparing the trap) leads in quick succession to Poncho’s injury, Mac’s exploding head and Dillon’s dismemberment (machine gun still firing). Poncho and Billy follow; the latter, being Native American, must sacrifice himself in a bizarrely futile ritual confrontation, leaving it to Dutch to face the mandibled monster.
These characters are all very basic, but as such serve the greater purpose. Everyone, perhaps with the exception of Chaves, is clearly delineated, if in the crudest of terms. Weathers brings the legacy of Rocky with him, an ideal shorthand, while wrestler Ventura is a walking moustache with attitude and a winning delivery (“This stuff will make you a goddam sexual Tyrannosaurus” he says of his chewing tobacco). Ventura, of course, went into the political arena, elected as a (Independent) governor of Minesotta in 1998; Arnie was elected governator of California in 2003 and Landham ran for Kentucky the same year. Another shared attribute of these comrades is directing; Duke, Black, Landham, Arnie and Weathers all went on to call the shots on movies, albeit the latter two only on TV. Perhaps McTiernan gave them the bug.
Duke even gets to engage in some “proper” acting (most of his peers weren’t going to be causing much of a stir in that direction), going a bit loony and grieving over the death of Blain, accompanied by Silvestri’s rather OTT militaristic funeral dirge. That’s my only complaint regarding the composer’s work here, though; the Predator score is a thing of magnificence, adding enormously to the tone and tension, with a memorable urgent, vigorous main theme and sinister rattles cuing us into the creature itself.
Stan Winston’s creature design is justifiably iconic, albeit – not unlike the alien – used to progressively diminishing effect. The bodybuilder Predators of the post- Alien vs world have been decidedly at odds with their sleeker origins. For a monster decided at short notice – Van Damme didn’t work out in the original get-up, and James Cameron suggested something with mandibles while sharing a flight with Winston – it has endured remarkably.
McTiernan shows an acute understanding of how best to present the creature; in small doses, concealed, unseen (“He’s using da trees”), or partially revealed in quick cuts or long shots, accompanied by those sinister clicking sounds, with nods to relatives (the scorpion) and clues as to its nature (a clawed hand, fluorescent green blood). Ultimately, though, its cachet is one of “cool”, like Boba Fett, showing off smart costuming, dreadlocks and gadgets (the laser gun), rather than anything innate, in and of itself, which is probably why subsequent outings have rendered it rather passé (there’s the Predator code, but that gets old quickly). Hopefully Black and Fred Dekker, with their upcoming new instalment/reboot, can add some mythological substance to the beast.
The unveiling is saved for the last ten minutes, to a memorable Arnie response (“You’re one ugly motherfucker”) and the showdown is effectively intense (as the trailer man sagely advised, “But this time, it’s picked the wrong man“), the Austrian Oak believably outmatched and required to use his wits and cunning to bring down the colossus. Who nearly gets the last laugh by self-immolating.
The movie, very much in contrast to Alien and The Thing, doesn’t lend itself to 10,000-word theses on its hidden depths, but one might read something of a reversal in the military scenario; the beleaguered “Americans” (that’s “Dutch”) learn from their mistakes in Nam, adopting guerilla warfare tactics to defeat a better armed and technically superior foe. It was, after all, the ’80s, with Reaganomics encouraging an unappetising era of vacuous rhetoric and flag-waving. Dutch makes a point of stating his team follow righteous objectives, but the picture nevertheless forms part of mini-boom of making the military fashionable again.
Predator would warrant a sequel three years later, and like the same year’s Robocop no one turned out to be much interested in the return. Arnie demurred from appearing (notably, he hasn’t reunited with producer Joel Silver since), and it fell to the unlikeliest of action heroes to take up his mantle. This might be the perfect vehicle for Austrian Oak, though, as far as unadorned heroes go. We can believe in him here more readily than in many of his roles, McTiernan ensuring he fits his surroundings rather than lumbering awkwardly through them (having got to the choppa, it’s whispered he may feature in Shane Black’s reboot). Predator might not be the brainiest of sci-if action vehicles, but it has more than earned its place in the top tier of alien-suspense auctioneers.