Monday, August 24, 2009

Predator

In the 1980s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the undisputed king of the Hollywood action film, cranking out hits like Conan the Barbarian (1982), The Terminator (1984), and Commando (1985), but the best of this crop, and arguably of his entire career, is Predator (1987), a testosterone-fuelled hybrid of action, science fiction and horror genres. At the time, he was an international movie star known for playing indestructible good guys (with the notable exception of The Terminator) but along came Predator where, for maybe the first time, it looked like Schwarzenegger was finally going to meet his match. With its Alpha male macho swagger and excessive display of firepower, the film epitomizes the materialistic brand of actions films that dominated the ‘80s thanks to powerful movie producers like Jerry Bruckheimer, Don Simpson and Joel Silver.

In Predator, Schwarzenegger plays Dutch Schaeffer, the leader of an elite special forces team that go into dangerous hot spots all over the world and retrieve people in trouble (as he says early on, “We’re a rescue team, not assassins.”). This time around, his mission is to go into some godforsaken jungle in Central America to find a cabinet minister and his aide whose helicopter was shot down by a band of guerrillas. They have to find the chopper and then follow the guerrillas’ trail. Along for the ride is Dillon (Carl Weathers), an old buddy of Dutch’s, who is now a CIA agent.

The helicopter ride into the jungle quickly establishes a pissing contest between all of these tough guys as Blain (Jesse Ventura) spits a nasty wad of chewing tobacco onto Dillon’s boot. The message is quite clear: Dillon is the new guy, the unwanted interloper in this tight-knit group. This scene also introduces us to Dutch’s team. You’ve got Hawkins (Shane Black), the wisecracking guy who tells dirty jokes – badly; Poncho (Richard Chaves), the one with the least memorable character traits; Billy (Sonny Landham), the tracker with an uncanny sixth sense; Blain, the good ol’ boy redneck; and his friend Mac (Bill Duke), the intimidating man of few words. One of the things that makes Predator so enjoyable is the interplay between the members of Dutch’s squad, like how Hawkins tells bad jokes to Billy, or the camaraderie between Blain and Mac. Right from the get-go you can tell that this is a tight-knit group from the verbal short-hand and familiarity between them. These actors manage to convey all of this in very little time and also make it believable.

Dutch and his team find the cabinet minister’s helicopter with two dead pilots and it appears to have been taken out by a heat-seeking missile – pretty advanced stuff for what Dillon said were a rag-tag group of guerrillas. Not long after, they find another crashed chopper but this time there are a group of dead Green Berets who were skinned alive and disemboweled. It is pretty obvious to all concerned that this is not the work of typical guerrillas. So who did it and why? We start to get glimpses of something shadowing Dutch and his team from its eerie-looking thermal image point-of-view.

Dutch and his team find the guerrillas’ camp and, in a masterfully orchestrated sequence, take it apart, killing anyone who gets in their way, save for a woman named Anna (Elpidia Carrillo), whom Dillon takes hostage. During this sequence we get to see “old painless” in action, a minigun that is normally used on helicopters, in the hands of Blain who uses it to shred the enemy in an impressive display of United States military power. Schwarzenegger even gets to let loose a couple of his trademark one-liners, like when he impales a hapless bad guy with a knife and says, “stick around.” But it is Jesse Ventura who gets the best line in this sequence when Poncho notices that he’s been shot and tells him so to which Blain replies, “I ain’t got time to bleed.”

What’s important about this sequence is that we find out Dillon lied to Dutch. The rescue mission was a cover story in order to get his team to wipe out a group of guerrillas that were about to stage an invasion across the border. This creates a nicely portrayed tension between the two men as Dutch realizes he can no longer trust his old friend. This sequence also gives the Predator a chance to study its prey for when it begins hunting them. We also see how tough and well-trained Dutch and his men are so that it makes them getting so easily dispatched by the Predator that much more impressive.

Predator starts off as a fairly standard action film as Dutch and his team track down and take out the guerrillas. However, director John McTiernan gradually introduces aspects of a horror film as the Predator begins hunting and picking off Dutch’s team. What makes this so creepy is the way the alien hunter is presented. It is able to blend into the jungle with a futuristic cloaking device that bends the light, making it nearly impossible to see. We also see things through its distinctive P.O.V., including how people’s voices sound distorted to it, only to be played back repeatedly as the Predator attempts to mimic them. This includes a few key phrases by Mac (“Anytime” and “Over here”) and Billy’s creepy laugh. The sudden nature of its attacks is also scary as we don’t know where or when it is going strike, putting us in the same boat as the characters. Because of its cloaking device, it appears as if the jungle comes alive and takes a victim, as Anna says at one point. There is one rather chilling moment when Mac confronts the Predator for only a moment and he sees its eyes flash for a second and then it’s gone.

Easily the best display of firepower in Predator comes when Blain is killed and the surviving team members unload all of their weapons at the direction of the fleeing Predator, firing round after round in what has to be one of the most awesomely vulgar displays of firepower ever put on film (at least until John Woo’s Hard-Boiled). There is also plenty of man candy on display, like when Dutch and his team set a series of traps for the Predator and we get a montage of muscled, sweaty men grunting and flexing their way through it.

The screenplay even manages to squeeze in a few nice little moments between characters, like when Vietnam War veterans Blain and Mac comment on the harsh environment. Blain says it “makes Cambodia look like Kansas” and that if “you lose it here, you’re in a world of hurt.” Mac, in turn, gets a nice scene when he takes first watch one night and eulogizes his dead comrade, recounting a story about how he and Blain were the only ones to survive their platoon getting massacred in ‘Nam. The script also does a nice job of giving us a few tantalizing tidbits of the Predator mythology like when Anna tells her captors about how it hunted the people in her village during the hottest years ever since she can remember in a brief yet haunting speech. Among the cast members, Bill Duke does a great job of conveying his character’s gradual mental breakdown as he becomes obsessed with avenging his friend. This culminates in a fantastic sequence where he chases the Predator through the jungle raving to himself nonsensically.

McTiernan does an excellent job ratcheting up the tension and immersing us in the dense, atmospheric jungle, complete with various animal sounds that immerse you in the sights and sounds of this place. He really conveys a sense of place and the blistering heat as the characters never stop sweating profusely. Predator would be the beginning of a fantastic run for the director that continued with Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990) before stumbling with Medicine Man (1992), only to helm the commercial and critical failure Last Action Hero (1993).

Screenwriters Jim and John Thomas were influenced by ancient myths and the Brothers Grimm stories. They were also interested in films and stories about big game hunters in Africa and wanted to create a story where the hunters are the ones that become hunted. They wanted to write a screenplay about an alien big game hunter that comes to Earth to hunt Special Forces soldiers. They began work on the story during the summer of 1983 and called it Alien Hunter. The Thomas brothers started with the climax – a one-on-one fight – and worked backwards to create the story of the team of soldiers and their mission. They completed a draft of the script in September 1983 which involved a team of soldiers led by a Native American major. Over the course of the film, he would reconnect with his heritage and remember tribal legends. This would help him defeat the alien hunter.

The Thomas brothers had no agent and could not get anyone to read their script. While visiting 20th Century Fox, they shoved a copy of their script under the door of executive Michael Levy. Thinking that an assistant had put it there, he read and liked the script. Levy took it to recently promoted head of development Lawrence Gordon who bought it in early 1984. It was given to producer John Davis who had the Thomases polish their script for two years while he was busy with other projects.

In 1986, Gordon had backed Commando, an action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and was looking for a new project for the movie star. Gordon gave the Thomases’ script to his protégé, producer Joel Silver, who had overseen the production of Commando, while Davis hired John McTiernan to direct, based on his work on Nomads (1986). Schwarzenegger liked how the script started off as a war movie before becoming more like science fiction. He was also interested in playing a character who was more of a team player.

The original design of the alien hunter was that of a thin-legged creature with a one-eyed cow skull head and pincers for hands. McTiernan was not crazy about this look and Schwarzenegger recommended that they approach Stan Winston, who had worked with the actor on The Terminator. Winston started with an image Silver had come up with of a dreadlocked warrior and was sketching ideas on a plane to Japan with James Cameron. during pre-publicity for Aliens (1986). Cameron suggested putting mandibles on the creature’s face and Winston incorporated this into the design. Winston and McTiernan decided to make the Predator a bulkier, more physically imposing creature so that it would be a more credible threat to Schwarzenegger.

In assembling their cast, McTiernan and Silver wanted some of the actors to have military experience so that Dutch’s commando team would look and act more authentic. Richard Chaves was found appearing in an off-Broadway play about Vietnam. Jess Ventura had been a Navy SEAL in Vietnam and completed two tours there. McTiernan knew Bill Duke from AFI’s film school and had been impressed by his project work. Carl Weathers was an ex-professional football player and McTiernan brought him on board to act against Schwarzenegger to aid in the star’s performance. Sonny Landham had dabbled in pornos in the 1970s, worked also a stuntman and had a dangerous reputation so the studio’s insurance company stipulated that he would only be hired if Silver had a bodyguard to keep the actor out of trouble. Silver hired Shane Black in the hopes that the screenwriter would do rewrites on the script. Black refused to mess with another writer’s work without their consent and became a member of the cast instead.

The three-month shoot was done on location in Mexico in and around the small town of Puerto Vallarta. McTiernan and the film’s cinematographer Donald McAlpine wanted to shoot in a deeper jungle located in Palenque but studio executives did not agree. McTiernan figured that he didn’t have the clout to change their minds but ended up re-shooting as much as he could at Palenque anyway. The director had the cast show up to Puerto Vallarta a week before the start of principal photography so that they could get used to the environment and to have military adviser Gary Goldman teach them how to move in the jungle and act like Special Forces soldiers. On non-shooting days, Goldman put the cast through routine marches so that they would bond as a team and appear on film like guys who had been together for years.

The cast and crew faced all sorts of challenges during the shoot. The filmmakers did not realize that the forest in Puerto Vallarta sheds its leaves in the autumn. The leaves started to fall two weeks into principal photography and the crew had to glue them back onto branches. For many shots that were done from treetops, McTiernan would join the camera crew in the trees. One time, he fell out and hurt his wrist. The director was too embarrassed to say he was hurt and only discovered after he returned home that his wrist was broken. Several cast members experience stomach flu during the shoot. After picking the wrong restaurant to eat in, Schwarzenegger was put on a saline drip to rehydrate himself. A few weeks later, the hotel water supply was contaminated and almost everyone, except for Carl Weathers, wasn’t told until the next day.

Early in the shoot, the final Predator costume had not arrived and McTiernan shot the footage of the invisible Predator with Jean-Claude Van Damme in a red suit, which was removed in post-production. McTiernan wanted the cloaked Predator to leap through the threes in a way that a human could not replicate and tried a monkey in the red suit but all it wanted to do was hide or try to take the suit off. The director was not happy with Van Damme’s performance and the martial artist was less than thrilled about playing a special effect without credit in an uncomfortable suit. Van Damme claims he quit (but changed his story later on and said that Silver fired him) because he refused to do a stunt. In Jesse Ventura's autobiography, he alleges that Van Damme intentionally injured a stunt man. At any rate, Van Damme was removed from the film and replaced by the seven foot, two inch tall Kevin Peter Hall.

Predator was generally not well-received when it was first released. In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell described the film as "grisly and dull, with few surprises.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Stack wrote that “the film is a rather pointless thing when you get down to it, has little of the provocative intelligence that was found in Terminator, but at least it's self-propelling in terms of suspense and cheap thrills.” Cinefantastique magazine’s Dean Lamanna wrote, “the militarized monster movie tires under its own derivative weight.” However, Roger Ebert was one of the few critics to champion the film. He wrote that “it has good location photography and terrific special effects, and it supplies what it claims to supply: an effective action movie," but still noted that "the action moves so quickly that we overlook questions such as why would an alien species go to all the effort to send a creature to earth, just so that it could swing from the trees and skin American soldiers? Or, why would a creature so technologically advanced need to bother with hand-to-hand combat, when it could just zap Arnold with a ray gun.”

Despite the negative reaction, Predator was a hit with the general public both in its theatrical release and on home video. It went on to spawn an inferior sequel, starring Danny Glover, a fantastic comic book mini-series by Dark Horse Comics, and two Alien vs. Predator films. All of them pale in comparison to the original, which still holds up today because of the fantastic premise, the solid cast of actors, the ingeniously designed creature, and the surprisingly memorable dialogue. Ah yes, the insanely quotable dialogue. In high school, my best friend and I used to love to quote from this film all the time, especially Schwarzenegger’s dialogue (always with his trademark accent). There’s not many films of this kind where you remember dialogue from it years afterwards and what is missing from a lot of films of this type today. Will anybody quoting from Alien vs. Predator ten years from now? Doubtful. People will still be quoting and enjoying Predator and that is a pretty good legacy for any film.

12 comments:

  1. J.D.:

    A great retrospective of Predator, a film I admire very much. Made me want to haul out my Predator DVD again...

    Although created in the "militarized" Rambo/Aliens 80s vein, I always felt that Predator actually pushes back against the myth of American military invincibility in a fascinating way.

    The first half of the film is designed to "pump up" the (American) men on the elite team as crackerjack action-heroes...but then, the Predator turns things around (after the village fight) and takes everyone down a notch. We thought we had the biggest guns, the best technology, the superior know-how...

    I love the film's last act too: Arnold versus the alien in a prehistoric jungle. Each depending on wits, skill, cunning. It' a beautifully photographed and stirring sequence that raises the film to a whole different level.

    Just great stuff (and a great flashback!) Thanks for the detailed look.

    best,
    John Kenneth Muir

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  2. Great look back at one of the best action/sci-fi films of the 80's. McTiernan really came into his own with this (till as you reminded us, Medicine Man - plus he was the wrong type of director to have taken on The Last Action Hero; I'd blame the producers, there).

    The firepower sequence after Blain is killed is one of the foremost, all-time. Yes, Woo did fire it up in his best, Hard-Boiled. But his lack of authenticity when it came to some of his endless capacity firearm displays, put the bullet-counters and combat gun tactics hounds (who really appreciate what Michael Mann regularly accomplishes with his attention to such details) off. However, they are stylistically without par.

    I can't recall at the moment where I read it, but the other wonderful aspect of Predator was what the cinematographer pulled off on this jungle shoot. One of the hardest things you can do (in the jungle, dominated by one color) is show the detail of the landscape. His lighting of those scenes in particular was masterful.

    JKM's comment is also spot-on, too. Another great review/analysis, J.D. Thanks for this.

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  3. John Kenneth Muir:

    Thanks for the very kind words, my friend! This was a really fun review to do and gave me an excuse to watch PREDATOR a few more times.

    Good call on how the film kinda celebrates but also messes around with the "militarized" actions films of the 1980s as you put it. As you point out, the first half sets up Arnold and his crew as this super elite commando unit but once the Predator sizes them up and starts picking them off we realize just how out of their league these guys are. heh, not even ol' Painless can stop the Predator.

    I also agree about the film's last act. It is very satisfying and sees Arnold going back to basics to take down the Predator but only just barely and even then the alien still tries to finish off Arnold (and half the jungle!).


    le0pard13:

    Thanks for checking out this post and for the kind words. It really is a shame about McTiernan's career. I was totally on board for DIE HARD, PREDATOR and RED OCTOBER (which I hope to tackle at some point) but then he started to lose the plot. I did enjoy his remake of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR even if it was completely unnecessary.

    Good point on John Woo's total disregard for ammo count in his films but I always felt that he really wasn't concerned about that stuff so it usually doesn't bother me. But you're right about the authenticity factor in Michael Mann's films, I always think of the bank heist in HEAT. Wow.

    And good call on the cinematography in PREDATOR. It's something that isn't mentioned much is actually very good. I love the atmosphere of the film and how you are immersed in the jungle. It is also particularly effective once the Predator starts hunting Arnold and his guys.

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  4. I'm embarrassed to admit it sometimes, but Predator stands as one of my favorite films of the '80s. For sheer thrills, imagination, muscular artistry, technical proficiency, and subversive subtext, Predator is the action movie of its decade to beat, easily superior to the great but comparatively overrated Die Hard. I love how the ending results in the Predator sacrificing himself with a bomb whose fallout resembles a nuclear blast, a loaded idea that one could argue predicts the future results of the nuclear arms race and American imperialism in third world countries pertaining to terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

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  5. Great post. You definitely shared a lot of info that I didn't know. This is one of my favorite movies of the 80's. I must have watched this over and over. I first saw it at the theater with my uncle, my brother, and one of my cousins. We all got a kick out of it. This was when Arnold could do very little wrong. This has been one of my favorite posts you've done so far, and you've done a lot of really cool ones.

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  6. drowland811:

    I agree, PREDATOR is one of my fave films of the 1980s as well, for all of the reasons you mentioned. It's just one helluva entertaining action film.

    "I love how the ending results in the Predator sacrificing himself with a bomb whose fallout resembles a nuclear blast, a loaded idea that one could argue predicts the future results of the nuclear arms race and American imperialism in third world countries pertaining to terrorism and nuclear proliferation."

    Interesting! I never thought of it that way but you make a very intriguing point.


    Keith:

    Thanks for the kind words, Keith. I had a blast writing about this film as it is one of my faves from that decade.

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  7. Ah, one of my favorites. The Predator resembles stories of "Springheeled Jack," a bugaboo who supposedly tormented people in London for a short period. But what I like best about the film is how the Predator is made to be a lot like a human hunter, as seen by his animal prey:

    1) His camouflage renders him nearly invisible unless he moves.
    2) His weapons strike from a distance and outgun his opponents exponentially.
    3) He mimics his prey like a hunter's call to distract or lure them.
    4) He collects trophies and seems preoccupied with the size of their skulls.
    5) He doesn't shoot the females. This gets mistaken by Dutch, "he was unarmed! no shport!" but he Predator kills off the wounded man without a thought, minutes later.

    This stuff seems obvious to me, but Ebert missed it in his review. The alien is on vacation, hunting. It's only when Dutch fights back that it decides to go one on one, and drop all its advantages (except its massive strength). The end battle is great, but part of me wanted him to be in a powersuit, and be a little weakling once Arnie defeated him- like a human would be vs. a bear.

    I'm glad you like Bill Duke's work as Mac. It gets goofed on a lot, but the scenes like that- which take the premise seriously- are what make the movie so memorable. Arnie barely mugs for the camera. It's sad that McTiernan is actually in prison as we speak, and I hope he gets back to making movies this great action. We sure need him!

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  8. Tommy Salami:

    I had not heard of the "Springheeled Jack" connection. Thanks for drawing my attention to that.

    As for the one-on-one battle at the end, I always felt that it was a bit of cheap shot on the Predator's part to act the sore loser and try to nuke Arnie when he knows he lost the fight. Heh.

    I love Bill Duke in this film and in many others (most notably THE LIMEY and PAYBACK) and really love a film he directed called DEEP COVER which I hope to cover at some point in the future.

    It really is a shame about McTiernan's legal woes. Things do not look good for him.

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  9. I would agree that this shaping up to be one of the best genre films of the '80s, big-budget or otherwise. Now, I really need to watch this again. And, I don't recall if it's mentioned in your article, but the film score geek in me must put in a plug for Alan Silvestri's enormously effective score to the film. I've got the main title music and images of Bill Duke, Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, and Ahnold running through my head now.

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  10. Ned Merrill:

    Ah, thanks for mentioning Alan Silvestri's atmospheric score. It is great and really adds to the overall atmosphere of the film. There are certain moments where it is used so effectively to build up tension. Good call!

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  11. FYI: Knowing that there are fans here of Bill Duke, he's today's Grindhouse Guru at Trailers From Hell, and he's covering the Shaft trailer. Check it out.

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  12. Awesome. Thanks for the heads up.

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