Predator (1987, John McTiernan)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A crack team of commandos are sent into the jungle to rescue a captured diplomat. But they encounter a ruthless alien, who starts to pick them off for sport…

The cast: As a film-obsessed child I had an enormous man-crush on Arnold Schwarzenegger; or rather the films he made. Here he plays Major Alan ‘Dutch’ Schaefer, the cigar-chomping leader of the special-forces team. Because it’s an 80s Arnie flick Dutch has a couple of James Bond-style puns, but they don’t fit the film’s tone at all. It’s not one of Arnie’s best performances. Much better is former Rocky star Carl Weathers as George Dillon: the only character with any kind of complexity, he lies to the others then realises he’s fucked up. The rest of the team are played by Bill Duke (decent), Jesse Ventura (barely an actor), Sonny Landham (who was such a fruit-loop the producers insisted on a minder to keep him in check), Richard Chaves and Shane Black. Black is an interesting piece of casting. He’s a really good screenwriter (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, Iron Man 3 and others) and was given the minor role of Hawkins so he could be on set to do any last-minute rewrites. Given that he’s not an actor, he’s actually okay. Hawkins’s character trait is that he tells bad jokes. Incidentally, two of the cast feature in other 1980s Schwarzenegger films: Duke had been in 1985’s Commando; Ventura was in 1987’s The Running Man. Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally cast as the predator, but looked weedy next to Schwarzenegger, Weathers and the others so was replaced by seven-foot-two Kevin Peter Hall. Elpidia Carrillo plays Anna Gonsalves, an underwritten woman the team rescue from the bad guys. At the end of the film there’s a credits sequence where the actors smile at camera in time with their names appearing. I’m going to assume that the idea was stolen from Hi-De-Hi.

The best bit: The most successful aspects of the film are the visual effects used for the predator’s POV shots and for when it’s ‘cloaked’. The former is a thermal-vision image where heat shows up against the blurry background, while the latter has the creature only visible as a see-through shimmer.

Crossover: Watching the Predator and Alien movies at the same time is an idea based on the later films featuring both monsters. However, the two series share a connection at this point too. Unhappy with the original creature design, McTiernan hired visual-effects guru Stan Winston to come up with a new predator. Winston doodled his initial ideas while on a flight with his friend James Cameron, who’d just directed Aliens. Glancing at the drawing, Cameron suggested that Winston add mandibles – hence the predator’s distinctive multi-jaw face, which in no way reminds me of a vagina.

Review: There’s a scene about halfway through where the characters know the predator is nearby so all fire their guns into the jungle. Despite a deafening hail of bullets, they hit nothing but foliage. Director John McTiernan has said that this was a joke on his part. A satire of brainless, gung-ho action films. The characters have all this hardware, he chuckles on the DVD commentary, yet are ultimately impotent. Well, he’s being extremely disingenuous. Earlier in the film, an attack on a terrorist compound is staged and shot like a music video. There’s a pornographic excitement about guns, bullets, deaths, muscle-bound men and explosions. The notion that any irony is on show is funny in itself. (Admittedly, the film does have some spoofy moments: surely it’s a joke when Dillon’s arm is ripped off but keeps firing the gun it’s holding.) The bad guys in that compound, by the way, are from some unspecified Central American country and are barely seen let alone fleshed out. They’re just A-Team villains, there to be killed by the untouchable heroes in slow motion. God, I sound like an old fart moaning about violence. I actually love action films and have no problem with violent stories. But there has to be more class to them than this. This movie doesn’t seem too concerned with plot or characterisation. The only woman in the story, for example, is an embarrassment. Anna Gonsalves has no dialogue in English until nearly an hour in, does nothing but provide exposition, then is absent from the climax. In its favour, the film can be seen as some kind of Apocalypse Now in reverse. The characters’ journey ‘upriver’ only takes up the first half-hour of the story – it’s then about them trying to escape. On that level, the story works well and is tense and exciting. It takes the predator a while to show up, but it’s clear he’s not just a mindless killer. For him, this is a game. The film then becomes obsessed with the rituals of hunting. The predator refuses to attack the unarmed Anna; Bill Duke’s Eliot superstitiously scrapes his bald head with a razor; Dutch has slashes of camouflage make-up that make him look like some kind of New Romantic tribal leader, then in the final act he improvises a series of traps. Not as smart as it thinks it is, but still enjoyable enough hokum.

Seven pussies out of 10

Next time: The predator takes LA…

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