Predator (1987) Predator (1987) *****

     Sometimes you just know. Posterity is a fickle thing, and its tastes are often unfathomable. Brilliant stuff is frequently overlooked upon its debut, only to be rediscovered and canonized later. Huge hits, meanwhile, may be almost completely forgotten after only a few years, leaving barely a trace of the hoopla that once attended their every appearance. But every once in a while, it’s immediately obvious that you’re looking at something destined to stand the test of time, not merely to be fondly remembered for decades, but to be entered into the roster of The Classics. That was how I felt one afternoon in 1987, seeing Predator for the first time. No doubt about it— people were going to be talking about this movie for the next best thing to ever. And indeed its reputation has only strengthened over the ensuing years, despite sequels ranging from adequate to abysmal, despite a series of tie-in comics that codified the least interesting imaginable interpretation of the original film’s wisely undiscussed back-story, and despite the inevitable plague of quickie copies. Even after all that, and after who knows how many repeat viewings, Predator never fails to thrill anew.

     A curious-looking spacecraft takes up an orbit somewhere over the Earth’s southern hemisphere, and drops something off. The smaller object falls through the atmosphere, leaving the expected fiery friction trail. Maybe someone even makes a wish on it down below as it descends. The significance of this enigmatic intro will become clear soon enough, but for now, director John McTiernan is playing his cards very close to the vest. There’s no opening crawl, no explanatory voiceover, no context of any kind, unless you count the very similar opening seconds of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Are we in the past? The present? The future? If it’s the latter, is the ship one of ours, or does it come from somewhere else? What was its cargo, and where did it make landfall? We’ll just have to wait and see.

     Then, without warning or explanation, Predator leaves space behind, and begins setting up what eventually blossoms into the finest Exploding Bamboo/Weightlifters with Machine Guns action movie in the history of the subgenre. A team of ex-Special Forces mercenaries fly out to some sweaty tropical nowhere to meet with Major General Phillips (R. G. Armstrong, from Warlock: The Armageddon and The Car), who apparently used to command their leader, Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger), when he was in the service. Phillips describes the assignment as a rescue mission. Eighteen hours earlier, a helicopter carrying a cabinet minister from a Latin American nation friendly to the United States strayed across the border with the neighboring strife-riven Third-World hellhole due to a navigation error, and was shot down. No one knows exactly which faction did it, or what they might hope to gain by holding a foreign politician and his entourage hostage, but the mere fact that Phillips has been ordered to handle the rescue under the table, with outside contractors like Dutch and his men, suggests that there’s more to this situation than meets the eye. And that goes double for the presence of a CIA man in the general’s camp, bearing instructions to accompany the mercenaries and take charge of the operation once the perpetrators have been found. Dutch doesn’t like hearing the latter news, but the blow is softened somewhat by the identity of his CIA chaperone. Dillon (Carl Weathers, of Friday Foster and Bucktown) is another old colleague of his, and at the very least, Dutch knows that he and his men don’t need to worry for a second about their unwanted guest slowing them down or otherwise fucking up the mission for them.

     Stealth and speed are the essence of this kind of operation, so Dutch uses as small a team as possible. Not counting him or Dillon, the unit includes just five men— but what men! Even the “little” guys, Poncho (Richard Chaves, from Dark House and Night Eyes II) and Hawkins (Shane Black, of RoboCop 3 and Night of the Creeps, better known these days as a writer/director), are tall and rangy, with the wolfish build of a professional baseball player. And if those guys are wolves, then Blain (Jesse Ventura, from Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe and The Running Man), Mac (Bill Duke, of Battledogs and Red Dragon), and Billy (Sonny Landham, from Blood Bath and 2090) are a bull, a bear, and a jaguar respectively. They’re packing a stupefying amount of firepower, too: M16s and MP5s, an M60 machine gun, 40mm grenade launchers, and even a fanciful hand-held version of the M134 Minigun— a rifle-caliber electric Gatling gun designed for mounting on helicopters. (Naturally the enormous Blain is the one who gets to hump that monster around.) Throw in what looks like about 150 man-years of specialized training and combat experience, and I definitely wouldn’t want to be the one standing between these guys and their objective.

     Just the same, the mercs haven’t been on the ground very long before signs start appearing that they’re up against more than even they had bargained for. The wreck of the cabinet minister’s chopper, when they find it, bears few of the expected bullet holes; the damage is more consistent with a missile hit, probably something like the heat-seeking version of the Russian Strela. That isn’t something that a bunch of disgruntled banana-pickers are likely to find just lying around, so suddenly it’s much easier to understand why the CIA wants a pair of their own eyes on the scene alongside Dutch. Billy spots something else, too: to judge from the boot prints in the soft and damp jungle soil, Dutch and his team weren’t the only ones to come through here after the minister’s captors. He counts six pairs of American-issue boots, their tracks somewhat fresher than the others. Dillon claims to know nothing of any previous US intervention here, but his denials are less than convincing. Soon thereafter, half of the men with American boots turn up in person— strung up by their ankles from a massive tree limb, without a square inch of skin left on their bodies. Worse still, the dogtags left at the scene reveal that Dutch and Dillon both knew one of the victims. And as for the remaining three… well, that’s mighty peculiar. There’s no sign of them in the spot where their companions met such a gruesome end, but Billy would otherwise swear that they never left it. There are no more American-issue boot tracks leading away, nor is there any indication of more bodies dragged off into the jungle. Also, Billy is more troubled than he likes to admit by the evidence of the GIs’ last stand. The tracks and the dispersal pattern of the spent cartridges from their rifles suggest that the soldiers were firing wildly in all directions, with none of the discipline that their training should have instilled. These men died terrified, fighting an enemy that vanished into the jungle like so many phantoms afterwards.

     Dutch and his team will have to leave that mystery unsolved for now, though, because the trail of the missing cabinet minister has just led them to some kind of guerilla base. It’s abnormally well fortified, and a fast scan through binoculars reveals that the rebels have a stockpile of equipment, supplies, and ammunition to match. Dutch is in the process of pondering that when the answer to the implied question wanders into view, and shoots one the hostages from the cabinet minister’s chopper in the head. It’s a Soviet special-ops military advisor (Sven-Ole Thorsen, from Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conqueror), and he’s even bigger and scarier than Blain. There’s one hostage still alive, though, which means that the mercs still have a job to do, Russians or no Russians. Might as well do it now, right? What follows is, as I’ve already said, the very last word in Exploding Bamboo and Weightlifters with Machine Guns, as Dutch and his boys proceed to blow the property-redistributing, land-tenure-reforming shit out the Soviet-backed guerillas. You will believe seven men can curb-stomp fifty.

     Even so, victory eludes Dutch in an important sense, for the guerillas execute the second hostage before the mercenaries get finished with them. Why, then, doesn’t Dillon seem to be bothered by that? Dillon isn’t bothered because there never was any cabinet minister, and because the CIA wouldn’t have given a fuck about such a person’s life even if he had existed. Those hostages were Dillon’s own men, sent to find the proof of Soviet intervention that now smolders in ruins all around him, and provided he has that, it’s mission accomplished so far as he’s concerned. Better yet, the one person left alive at the rebel base is a young peasant woman named Ana (Elpidia Carillo), whom Dillon figures he can easily drag back with him to McLean. Won’t his bosses be thrilled to have a chance to question her?

     Now it’s just a matter of slogging back through the jungle to the extraction point— except that turns out to be the real hard part of this mission. For one thing, you don’t raise as much hell as the mercenaries just did without attracting attention. Every guerilla unit that wasn’t at home to be wiped out in the raid will be combing the woods on full alert, forcing Phillips to withdraw the getaway choppers to the other side of the border. That in turn means a longer, more dangerous hike for Dutch and company. But more importantly, there’s still the unresolved matter of what befell the first rescue team— and of that thing that got dropped off from orbit by the spacecraft before the opening credits. The two mysteries are intimately related, as you’ve no doubt surmised. The swarming guerillas aren’t the only ones stalking the jungle, nor are they close to the most dangerous. The superstitious old abuelas from Ana’s village have a name for what killed and skinned the other soldiers, which apparently has a habit of coming out during nasty-hot summers like this one. Cazatrofeos de los Hombres, they call it— the Trophy-Hunter of Men. Cazatrofeos de los Hombres (Harry and the Hendersons’ Kevin Peter Hall, who played another alien with a very similar agenda in Without Warning) is the sporting type, as his local nickname implies, and after watching the mercenaries demolish that rebel base, there’s nothing it wants more than those guys’ heads on the wall of its rec room back on Alpha Draconis V or wherever. The alien makes even that Russian military advisor look like a pushover, too, and it has both a personal cloaking device and a plasma blaster to help it ruin everybody’s day.

     Arnold Schwarzenegger had been a star for some five years by 1987, but Predator marked the first time he was called upon to be an actor. It turned out he was pretty good at it, within certain parameters. Maybe not good enough to overcome the public persona he’d been building for himself since his days as a competitive bodybuilder, I grant you, but since the role of Dutch was fully in line with that persona, Predator suffered not a bit from Schwarzenegger’s limitations. His English diction had improved markedly since Conan the Barbarian, and he’d put the same discipline that made him a seven-time Mr. Olympia to work acquiring the skills demanded by his new profession— skills which he was wise enough to recognize he didn’t already have. He was still at it while making Predator, too. Word from the set has it that Schwarzenegger closely studied Carl Weathers in particular, correctly perceiving him as someone whose experience and technique could benefit an action hero looking to expand his range. I have no trouble believing those reports, either, since Schwarzenegger’s scenes with Weathers are the ones that best display his heightened thespian abilities. Of course, those scenes also gave him the most to work with. After all, Dutch and Dillon have a long and complicated history together, encompassing equal parts camaraderie, rivalry, affection, and mistrust. But the larger point is that Predator placed Schwarzenegger at the center of a web of character relationships exceeding anything he’d been called upon to play before. And on top of that, he had to contend with an unprecedented amount of dialogue and a whole new idiom of physical acting. Even in 1985, the year of Commando and Red Sonja, he’d have floundered helplessly in this role, but here he rises to the occasion.

     Nor is Arnold the only one who unexpectedly shines in Predator. Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, and Bill Duke all make indelible impressions, and although Elpidia Carillo, Richard Chaves, and Shane Black are less memorable, they all get their moments in the spotlight— even if it’s only to tell the world’s stupidest dirty jokes. Hell, Kevin Peter Hall shows off some acting chops on those rare occasions when the alien is visible, conveying tantalizing hints of the creature’s personality despite having no dialogue and being completely encased in foam latex and animatronics. There’s more at work here than uncommonly canny casting, too (which is not to say there isn’t plenty of that). Although John McTiernan justly has a reputation as an action director, his background was in the stage theater. That experience left him with an appreciation for the art and craft of acting, and an eagerness to work closely with his casts to develop the best possible performances. So it’s no wonder that all of these guys, so often cast more for their physiques than for their skills or talents, did some of their finest-ever work under McTiernan’s direction. It may be the exquisite orchestration of the violence in Predator that catches the eye, but it’s the humanity of these larger-than-life characters that makes it stick in the memory and reward repeat viewings.

     I really should talk some about that exquisitely orchestrated violence, though, right? Sure, I should. “Awesome” has been a sorely overused word since about 1981, but it’s also plainly the correct one where Predator’s action scenes are concerned. To me, the most remarkable example is neither the raid on the rebel compound, nor the final showdown between Dutch and the alien, extraordinary though they are. Rather, what blew me away was the scene in which the Predator claims its first two victims from among the mercenaries, leading the remainder to return fire with everything they have. Part of the scene’s impact stems from it being our first look at the mysterious creature. For the first time, we’re given a sense of its physical prowess, of the damage its weapons can wreak on the human body, and of the unearthly effectiveness of its camouflage. But even more, the surviving mercenaries’ reply is a concentrated application of destructive force exceeding just about anything ever seen in an action picture before. The amazing thing, though, is that at the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of guys shooting into a stand of trees until they run out of bullets! McTiernan is a goddamned wizard to pack so much suspense and exhilaration into something so simple and cheesy.

     Finally, a few words about Cazatrofeos de los Hombres itself. This is one of those rare sci-fi monsters that become more impressive the more you see of them. To begin with, it’s probably impossible today to convey how startling the effect for the creature’s cloaking device was in 1987, before the CGI revolution inured audiences to sights in defiance of current physics. In theory, the machine seems to work by bending light rays around the wearer’s body, so that the observer sees whatever the wearer is standing in front of. Those rays get distorted, however, so that the refracted image is marred by a sort of standing shimmer that grows more noticeable when the wearer moves. I remember one of the effects artists saying at the time that their guiding concept was to picture a chrome-skinned man standing in the middle of a room with mirrored walls, which is as fair an analogy as any. The point is, it looked like nothing anyone had ever seen, as if it were truly an alien technology. And then, once the Predator decloaks at last, we’re treated to one of Stan Winston’s most magnificent creations. The insectile mouth in the middle of a reptilian face, the dreadlock-like growths of something clearly other than hair covering the monster’s scalp, the huge, armored dome of forehead simultaneously bespeaking great intelligence and immense physical toughness— this design fully earned all the low-rent copying that it attracted over the ensuing 30 years. I grant you, the creature’s loincloth-and-fishnet-bodystocking ensemble is a questionable touch, but to my eye it underscores the curious combination of sophistication and savagery already inherent in traveling untold lightyears across the depths of space just to murder another sapient lifeform for sport. And best of all, the suit is astonishingly supple, affording Kevin Peter Hall such freedom of movement that very little suspension of disbelief is required to accept him as a living, breathing Whatsit from Whoknowswhere.

     This could have been a very different movie, however, for the Predator as we know it was actually Plan B. The original conception of Cazatrofeos del los Hombres called for a relatively small but extremely agile monster instead, to have been played by Jean Claude Van Damme. That version of the creature was less humanoid in its overall appearance, too— especially in its facial structure, which would have required a completely animatronic head perched atop Van Damme’s real noggin (concealed inside the creature’s excessively long and abnormally thick neck). It was far too ambitious a concept for a location shoot in the jungles of Mexico, and it became clear almost immediately that the suit built to the initial design was simply never going to work. A handful of still photos and a few seconds of test footage have been released, and can be found on the internet and in the bonus features appended to some of the DVD editions of Predator. The stills look good enough, but the test footage is just tragic. Leaving aside the Mk I Predator’s limited mobility, this is a picture in which the monster really does need to be more imposing than the people fighting it— and that’s a high bar to clear when three of those people are Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, and Sonny Landham.



     The hunt is on here at the B-Masters Cabal! This time, we're taking on an old obsession of mine, movies in which humans are hunted for sport. Click the banner below to see what my colleagues have brought to bay:




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