Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Director Report Card: John McTiernan (1987)

2. Predator

Was 1987 the best year for cult-favorite genre cinema ever? Look at the list of classics released that year: “RoboCop,” “The Monster Squad,” “The Princess Bride,” “Evil Dead II,” “Hellrasier,” “Spaceballs,” “Near Dark,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3,” “The Running Man,” “Witches of Eastwick,” “Prince of Darkness,” “Harry and the Hendersons,” “Opera,” “Stagefright,” and yet more. Sitting high atop that list is “Predator.” After emerging as the greatest action icon of the decade, one thing was apparent: No man on earth could defeat Arnold Schwarzenegger. Thus, first time screenwriters Jim and John Thomas cooked up a screenplay where the Austrian Oak would face down the ultimate killer… from outer space. (Okay, the script was actually written with the other great action star of the eighties in mind.) The script crossed the desk of Joel Silver, the biggest producer of the time, who got Arnold attached. Soon, a murderer’s row of bad ass dudes would follow, along with masterful monster maker Stan Winston. The biggest risk was the one behind the camera. John McTiernan had a single weirdo horror flick to his name and no action credits. The gamble paid off. “Predator” would become a macho monster classic and make McTiernan a go-to action filmmaker.

An expert team of commandos, led by “Dutch” Schaefer, head into the jungle nation of Val Verde, with the stated mission of rescuing informants captured by an insurgent army. After taking out the army, and discovering that they’ve been lied to by their bosses, the team starts to notice something strange in the jungle. A seemingly invisible force cut the men down with ease. As the men are killed off, one by one, they begin to realize they are being hunted by something.

Perhaps the reason “Predator” has endured over the years, graduating from mainstream blockbuster to beloved cult classic, is because it skillfully combines several different genres. The film obviously fits the mold of an eighties action movie. The presence of Schwarzenegger, and a supporting cast full of equally muscular tough guys, supports this. However, the first act barrage of explosion and machine gun fire is slightly misleading. Soon, “Predator” reveals itself as a sci-fi/horror film. The film cleverly uses sci-fi elements to create a cinematic villain not quite like any other. Story wise, “Predator” isn’t much more then a combat-heavy, monster-ified variation on “And Then There Was None.” The alien picks off the men in a way not totally unlike a slasher flick. There’s even a tinge of a conspiracy thriller, with the way Dutch’s men are being manipulated by government suits. Impressively, the film’s hash of genres never feels awkward. The opposite is true. The story’s evolution from action flick to body count film to monster movie feels completely natural.

That combination of story types feeds into “Predator’s” sense of thematic irony. This is a movie about the toughest guys on the planet being out-matched by something entirely unexpected. However, the camaraderie among the men is what provides the story’s secret heart. These guys are ridiculously macho. Arnold greets Carl Weathers with a bulging bicep hand shake. Jesse Ventura spits tobacco and calls everyone faggots while proclaiming his dinosaur-like sense of sexual superiority. The squad share a brotherhood. This is why Dutch is so pissed off when he finds out Dillon was lying to him. Most affectingly, this is why Mac goes into hysterics when Blaine dies. He gives the dead man a final drink and calls him his bro. Like any great eighties action flick, the movie’s homoerotic streak is barely subtext, causing the film to border on camp. However, among the glistening bodies and bulging muscles, one can actually make out some pathos in the way the guys rely on each other.

Despite the explosive beginning being an extended act of misdirection, “Predator” in no way defies eighties action expectations. The film is full of cinematic carnage. Dutch and his team descends on the enemy’s base. Arnold pushes a fucking truck into a building, providing the movie’s ridiculous feat of strength. The team cut through the forces, gunning down an astonishing number of guys in a surprisingly short amount of time. There are fiery explosions, men are gun down, and flaming bodies are thrown through the sky. Arnold even gets off some one-liners, like the all-time classic “Stick around!” The artillery on display here is massive, with a collection of giant machine guns, including the type of mini-guns usually attached to helicopters. The guns’ power is displayed when the guys decimate a small portion of the jungle, de-foresting a stripe of land with ease. It’s awesome.

Right from the beginning, “Predator” is hinting at its eventual transformation into a body count flick. As they march through the jungle, the squad discover a collection of flayed bodies hanging from a tree. The movie’s gore, when up-close and personal, can be surprisingly visceral. The dripping bodies are extra wet. The deaths of the commandos are more violent and effecting then the faceless insurgents gunned down by the heroes. Hawkins’ death is shocking, coming out of nowhere, blood splattering on the woman’s face. Blaine’s death is sudden, the strong man being cut down by a wayward laser blast. The way the bodies are torn apart, flesh and blood spurting apart with ease, is still effectively gruesome.

The movie slowly reveals its primary threat. Imagine seeing "Predator" for the first time, not knowing anything about it. Before the opening credits roll, a mysterious space ship is seen drifting by Earth, dropping a pod of some sort. Throughout the early part of the film, we see the main characters being observed by… Something, through infrared vision. It’s taken for granted now but, in 1987, when the Predator picks up the dead scorpion and we realize this is a living thing after the men, it was a surprise. The movie smartly reveals the creature slowly, through his rippling reflection like camouflage or the flashing yellow eyes. By the time we get a good look at the monster, when he’s mending his own wounds or caught in a net, the effect has been established.

It’s in the second half, “Predator” reveals its slasher roots fully with increasingly elaborate death scenes. The audience gets a POV view of Mac’s exploding head, the Predator’s cannon blasting the innards of his skull all over the camera’s lens. Dillon goes down the hardest. Something that has always struck me is the way his dismembered arm jiggles as it falls from his body. Carl Weathers’ death screams are especially brutal as the Predator skewers him. Billy makes a brave last stand, his death occurring off-screen. However, his body is the one we see cleaned, his skull and spine yanked from his body. The violence escalates so strongly that when Poncho is taken out, it almost seems like an afterthought. After the carnage displayed on-screen, a laser beam to the head barely registers.

Watching the movie as a teenager for the first time, what fascinated me about the Predator is all his awesome gimmicks. That the creature would inspired a series of hugely inappropriate action figures is no surprise. The Predator has plenty of built-in action features. What made the biggest impression on pop culture is the alien’s ability to cloak himself. Invisible when standing still but visible as a shimmering mirage when moved, the ability has been referenced and copied endlessly over the years. The creature’s shoulder-mounted laser cannon with the way it slowly clicks around is cool and well-known. However, the triangular laser sight that proceeds it is far more iconic, at some point becoming the unofficial symbol of the entire series. Even the Predator’s retracting dual wrist blades are famous and beloved, giving the monster a versatile weapon attached to his hand.

While the Predator’s arsenal certainly made an impression on an army of young boys, the film’s surprisingly large expanded universe would instead play off the alien’s sense of honor. The Predator is not an unknowable alien threat like the xenomorph of the “Alien” franchise. Neither is it strictly an unstoppable killing machine, like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. Instead, the creature only attacks those that are a worthy opponent. Dutch even realizes this, discouraging the film’s sole female character from fighting back. When facing down the hunter, mano-on-monster, the Predator sheds his advanced weapons, choosing to fight his opponent on equal ground. The film draws a direct parallel between the Predator’s sense of honor and the samurai’s Bushido. When incapacitated, the Predator kills himself, committing honorable seppeku then face defeat on the battlefield. The alien’s mask even looks a little like a samurai’s helmet.

Another feather in “Predator’s” cap is the mysterious, illustrious Schwarzenegger factor. Dutch is, in some ways, a variation on Arnold’s usual character type. From a distance, the character looks identical to John Matrix from “Commando,” with their similar uniforms and preference for one-liners. A closer inspection notices that Dutch has some facial stubble. This is a hint towards him being a rougher, slightly darker character. When he finds out his team was being misled, he’s pissed in a way that’s different. Most importantly, unlike Matrix or the Terminator, Dutch is actually human. He can be hurt. He can be bested. It’s not the character’s massive bulk that sees him through but his on-his-feet strategy and cunning. Naturally, Arnold’s charisma and command of the screen is unmatched. Even in a movie full of macho men, Schwarzenegger is still the king of the pack.

Speaking of those macho men! “Predator” packs its supporting cast full of equally tough guys. Carl Weathers, looking far more swole then he did in any of the “Rocky” films, gets the most material to work with as Dillon. Weathers has a good-natured rivalry with Arnold that quickly turns sour. Even as the character is bitching about what’s happening in non-belief, he remains charming. Sonny Landham, who had previously appeared in the Joel Silver produced “48 Hrs.,” is well cast as the mysterious, humorless Billy, who is far more observant then his comrades. Jesse Ventura, whose action movie career never really took off compared to his co-stars, is certainly entertaining as the hyper-touch Blaine. Bill Duke, another graduate of “Commando,” starts seemingly normal but goes to the unhinged places the actor is best at as the film goes on. In contrast to the rest of the team is Shane Black as nerdy comic relief Hawkins and Richard Chaves as the less quip-happy Poncho. Elpidia Carrillo has the thankless job of playing the only woman in the movie, who isn’t much more then a screaming distressed damsel.

Like most everything else about the character, the Predator’s design has become well-known and well-liked. But it wasn’t always that way. As originally envisioned, the movie’s central threat was a long-necked, bug-like, reptilian monster. The design was laughable and awkward and rightfully discarded. Stan Winston, whose reputation was already established from “The Terminator” and “Aliens,” was brought in. For that matter, it was the director of those movies, James Cameron,  that suggested one of the creature’s most memorable elements. The Predator’s mandibled face is threatening. If you’re willing to get Freudian, it’s almost gynecological, a perhaps deliberate contrast to the hyper masculine heroes. The alien’s dreadlocks and fishnet armor don’t seem to serve any practical purpose but they are cool. So is the creature’s glowing green blood, spiny skin, reverberating laughter, and strangely human eyes. The final best touch is that the threat even towers over Arnold, due to the casting of the 7 foot tall Kevin Michael Hall in the suit.

In it’s last act, “Predator” goes from an ensemble film to a solo affair. Dutch’s team is killed off, leaving only him alive. A montage ensues that would rival any of the “Rocky” movies. Arnold covers himself in wet mud, to hide his heat signature. He builds a number of handheld weapons and booby traps. The soldier gets in touch with his primitive side, becoming a more primal hunter. This is ultimately what gives him the edge over the monster. Only after abandoning his guns and bombs does he become strong enough to stand up to the beast. Is the movie making some sort of statement about war? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s just an utterly bitchin’ finale for an awesome action flick.

Elevating the film is John McTiernan’s direction. The editing during the action scenes are furious, going so fast that they border on incoherent. Yet the goal is clear, when we see the bullets land and the men tossed through the air. A repeated trick McTiernan uses that is amazingly effective is a close-quarters dolly shot on the actors’ faces as they run through the underbrush or slide down a cliff side. Also powering the film is Alan Silvestri’s incredible score. The thumping bass provides a wholly earned intensity. The souring horns gets the audience excited. The clicking and throbbing of the score recalls the strange noises that the extraterrestrial threat makes. It’s one of my favorite scores and really solidifies “Predator’s” status as an awesome action flick.

Plenty of attempts to follow up “Predator” would be made. Video games, toys, two sequels of varying quality, hordes of books and comics, and even a recently announced reboot have come since then. A natural seeming cross-over with the “Alien” series would appear in comics and beget two massively disappointing film adaptations. Not to mention a few rip-offs. None of them would truly match the overly masculine charms of the original. You can’t catch lightening in a bottle twice. When a cast this amusing gets together with a director this solid, a script this clever, and creature effects this amazing, there’s little room to top it. Critics weren’t impressed at the time but the consensus has come around since then. “Predator” is awesome. [Grade: A]

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