Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, January 18, 2016

Recent Watches: Predator 2 (1990)

“Predator” was a genuine blockbuster in its day, propelled by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s star power, its explosive action and gory special effects. The central alien threat especially caught the public’s imagination. A series of comic books published by Dark Horse first began in 1989 and has run continuously, in one form or another, for the last twenty years. The comics proved popular enough that 20th Century Fox eventually started production on a sequel to the original film. The first comic series, retroactively re-titled “Concrete Jungle,” was an obvious influence on 1990’s “Predator 2.” Both stories see the alien hunter heading to a different location, a chaotic, crime-riddled city. Though not as theatrically successful as the first film, “Predator 2” has developed a following of its own.

In the year 1997, Los Angeles is experiencing a brutal crime wave. Rival Colombian and Jamaican drug cartels have turn the streets of the city into a war zone. The police population can barely control the violence, even with tough guy cops like Mike Harrigan on the case. The city is also experiencing an intense summer heatwave. The combination of hot weather and violent crime attracts the attention of another Predator, who begins to kill the drug lords. Harrigan at first suspects a vigilante is behind the crimes but soon discovers something unearthly is responsible. Interfering government agents are also after the creature for very different reasons.

The Predator’s iconic look was the result of a last minute re-design, giving little time for Stan Winston’s effects studio to fine-tune the creature’s design. For “Predator 2,” the studio had far more time to prepare for the movie. As a result of this and typical sequel escalation, the titular threat in “Predator 2” has more toys to play with. There’s a nifty net gun, with threads sharp enough to cut the captor’s face. The alien’s gauntlet now includes a blaster that fires two-pronged spear heads. My favorites are the rotoscoping spear and the self-guiding razor-bladed Frisby of Death. Since this is a different Predator then the one in the first, his look is slightly different. His skin has a different hue, his dreadlocks are rattier, and he has more fangs on his mandibles. (His mouth is also more disturbingly gynecological.) I’m fine with all of this. What bothers me slightly is the alien’s newly gained ability to speak, which he shows off twice.

There’s no clear fan consensus on “Predator 2,” though most seem to like it well enough. There’s one element where the sequel is obviously weaker then the original. The film was directed by a guy named Stephen Hopkins. An Australian filmmaker, Hopkins had previously made an obscure slasher flick called “Dangerous Game” and the inferior “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5.” He would later gift the world with several “Tales from the Crypt” episodes, “The Ghost and the Darkness,” and “Lost in Space.” I like a few of those movies but one thing is obvious after watching the sequel: Stephen Hopkins is no John McTiernan. The action direction in “Predator 2” frequently borders on incoherent. The opening gun fight is chaotically edited. When the Predator attacks two rival drug gangs, it’s not always obvious whose shooting at whom. The worst moment is when the Predator takes out an entire subway train full of armed commuters. Flashing between the light and shadow of the tunnel might have seemed like a clever way to build tension. Mostly, it just makes the scene difficult to follow. While Hopkins occasionally creates a memorable image, most of “Predator 2” is shot in the same flat, undistinguished fashion.

As originally scripted, “Predator 2” was going to feature Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch Schaefer once again. The production, budgeted at the same price as the original, was probably unable to fulfill Arnold’s then 30-million dollar paycheck. To fill the role of hero, Danny Glover was brought in. Filmed in-between the second and third “Lethal Weapon” movies, Glover gets to play a cop very different from that series’ straight-laced Roger Murtaugh. For that matter, Mike Harrigan more closely resembles Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs. Like that character, Harrigan is a wild card cop. He disobeys his boss’ orders to stop sticking his nose in the case. He pursues the Predator mostly as a matter of revenge, believing it responsible for the death of his friend. The part is more action oriented then Glover’s usual roles, given the actor plenty of opportunities to blast bad guys, cover himself in guns, climb down the sides of skyscrapers, and tussle with the main alien. Glover maintains a sense of humor throughout, gifting Harrigan with some fun characterization. He’s no Arnold but he makes for an amusing action hero.

“Predator 2” is smart enough to fill its supporting cast with actors from other memorable eighties action flicks. Taking up prime real estate among the cast is Bill Paxton. Paxton is on a similar page as Hudson from “Aliens.” Like Hudson, Jerry Lampert is a braggart and a joker. He’s constantly hitting on the female characters, providing silly comedic anecdotes. Unlike Hudson, he doesn’t freak out when under pressure and goes down fighting. Paxton brings a lot of humor and character to the small part. (This is the part that also gave Paxton the distinction of being the only actor killed by a Terminator, an Alien, and a Predator, at least until Lance Henriksen matched his record.) Playing the hard-ass government agent after the alien’s tech is Gary Busey. Producer Joel Silver had previously cast Busey as the bad guy in “Lethal Weapon,” giving this franchise another connection to that one. Busey is nicely manic in the part, as expected, butting heads with Glover. Maria Conchita Alonso, last seen as the love interest in “The Running Man,” and Robert Devi, last seen as the bad guy in “Licence to Kill,” also show up. Heck, I even like Morton Downey Jr., playing a variation on his actual public persona.

Another thing to like about “Predator 2” is the way it expands on the series’ mythology. The creature’s ethics are further revealed. When faced with a little kid wielding a plastic gun, the Predator determines the toy is harmless and doesn’t attack the child. Later, he spares the female cop’s life because he realizes she’s pregnant. In the final act, Glover successfully de-arms the hunter, leading him to retreat to his space ship. Not only do we get to see the inside of the Predator’s ship, earlier we got to see his trophy wall, filled up with all sort of exotic alien skulls. (Including a xenomorph skull, a reference to the “Alien vs. Predator” comic series.)  After Harrigan defeats the Predator, his entire tribe slinks out of the shadows. As a further display of their warrior honor, the aliens let the human go. The tribe leader gifts him with a flintlock from the 1770s, another suggestion that these creatures have been coming to Earth for a long time. All of this stuff would be further elaborated upon in the comics, novels, and video games. And it’s pretty neat, showing that a lot of thought went into this silly monster movie.

That last act is pretty satisfying, with Glover slicing the creature up with his own destructo-disc. There’s some decent humor too, when the alien unexpectedly drops in on an old lady. The future year of 1997 is mostly accurately displayed. The only obvious sci-fi element are the slightly modified guns the cops wield. “Predator 2” is not as smoothly directed as the original and the action isn’t as cool. The creature effects are good, the lead actor is solid, and the script is distant. It’s not as good as the first but makes for an all-right sequel. [7/10]

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