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Predator (1987)

by on 2011/01/07

My earliest memory of Predator is of winding up in in the wrong theatre by accident at Toronto’s Eaton Centre Cineplex.  That was my story, at any rate.  Were any ushers to question me, I’m sure I would have appeared convincingly outraged at missing whatever pabulum I’d actually paid for, say Harry and the Hendersons.

You see, after experiencing the wonders of Commando at a friend’s junior high party — yes, really — I learned a movie featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger was not one to be missed, whatever the fascistic age restriction.  Thus my experience sneaking into Lethal Weapon would not prove a total loss.

Directed by John McTiernan, who would later grace us with Die Hard and The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), Predator is a series of incomplete quests, dropped in turn, like mercenary soldiers by an alien hunter.  Or something.

Schwarzenegger plays Dutch Schaefer, the head of a team specializing in rescue missions.  They don’t do assassinations, a claim belied by their gear, yet supported by their dropping like dominoes.  Their mission may be the rescue of a cabinet minister from guerillas in Central America; maybe it’s recovering intel from a botched Soviet rendezvous; maybe it’s something else entirely, or all of the above.

The team includes a variety of steroidtypes — see what I did there? — a Nerdy Joker (Shane Black), a Spanish Interpreter (Richard Chaves), a Tough African-American (Bill Duke), a Spiritual Native (Sonny Landham), a Trigger-Happy Good Old Boy (Jesse Ventura), and a Goddamned Pencil Pusher Who’s Forgotten His Roots (Carl Weathers).  The Obligatory Girl is Elpidia Carrillo.

Finally, the titular Predator is Jean-Claude . . . oh no, wait, the suit would have covered up his pretty, pretty face.  The titular Predator is, in fact, Kevin Peter Hall, of TV’s Misfits of Science and (pay close attention now) the titular Harry of Harry and the Hendersons.

If it weren’t for the opening scene giving away The Big Twist, Predator would seem very like Rambo: First Blood Part II.  Given the scene’s presence, however, the proceedings feel more like the later Sphere.  I assumed the military was mobilizing teams to investigate a downed spacecraft, but the two events are actually separate, only converging at a later point.

The first half is filled by the earlier missions, punctuated by guys doing guy stuff, saying guy things . . . you know, just being guys.  If you can’t adapt during the landing zone flight, you probably never will.  Bravado, innuendo, profanity, and outright vulgarity are the ways of their world.

The dialogue, such as it is, is a mixed bag.  Some lines — “I ain’t got time to bleed” — work.  Others — “Stick around!” — don’t.  Some are just bewildering, like “I wouldn’t wish that on a broke dick dog.”  Ventura’s character appears to speak exclusively in one-liners, while Schwarzenegger (for whom such scripting is a stock in trade) fares unexpectedly better in straighter moments.

Speaking of straightness, or not, their machismo is so over-the-top, it becomes less “tough” than functionally homoerotic.  Hawkins’ repeated jokes about his girlfriend, and the lack of response from his audience, suggest an ironic combination of desperation and incomprehension.  The emphatic obsession with braggadocio, physical strength, one-upmanship, touching each other physically, and guns, guns, guns . . . well, you can imagine where I’m going.  Mac’s eulogy for his fallen comrade marks the end of it, the pinnacle where his upset peaks well past the “fellow soldier” point, leaving him broken ever after, until death does him apart.

Right around that juncture, Dutch is struck by a sudden insight.  He tells another survivor, “He didn’t kill you because you weren’t armed.  No sport.”  From then on, events are less a boys’ adventure tale, and more a Klingon interpretation of The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Or so the story wants us to believe.

I love this movie, don’t get me wrong, but it’s difficult to accept the honour of a large, agile hunter with initiative, stealth camouflage, a multifunction visor, lasers beams, auto-targeting missile cannons, mimicry, armour, and explosives.  Maybe to the Predators one-sidedness is sporting.

So, having made the discovery, why doesn’t Dutch drop his gun and walk away?  Adrenaline rush?  Stubborn id?  Revenge?  Is McTiernan making a statement on disarmament, an inability to leave well enough alone?  If nothing else, it’s a good excuse for this one-man Swiss Family Robinson to drop the hardware in favour of an Ewok style trap-laying.

The whole thing is so much ludicrous fun, I can’t bring myself to fully eviscerate the visual effects,  They were great in their day, and they’re passable now, but only just.  Sometimes I was distracted enough by their shortcomings that I reconsidered whether “special edition” tinkering would be a bad thing.  Less “Predator shoots first” than touching up a few scenes.  Arnie’s slide down the side of a hill is unconvincingly smooth, followed by a strangely grainy plummet off a cliff.  The laser-warmed gauntlets look odd, as do some of the focus-shifts, and explosions.

What about the audio?  Overall uneven, the music is often spectacular.  At several points throughout, I thought, “It sounds like Back to the Future, but even better!”  Hardly a surprise, given the same composer, Alan Silvestri, using a greater range of sounds and percussive elements.  On the other hand, I was put off just a bit by the occasional bugle refrain.  A score as unconventionally successful hardly needs the military cliche.

As with the music, the remaining sound was similarly uneven.  Cuts between location audio and studio looping were exceptionally obvious, with audible breaks marking a difference in both background noise and vocal performances.  Some effects were terrific, like the high-pitched whine of “Old Painless”, a minigun.  Others were less compelling, like the chirruping purr of the briefly captured Predator, less menacing than reminiscent of a mogwai or the Shmoo.

It’s a good indication of how spoiled we are for choice and quality that one can afford to criticize this movie, nitpicking after the novelty’s gone.  Though oversoaked with testosterone, it’s an action fan’s thinker, inasmuch as Entrapment was a thinking person’s action flick.  In the end, Predator knows what it is, what it wants to do, and succeeds on both fronts.  As the recurring theme “Long Tall Sally” suggests, it’s built for speed, with everything we need, and we’ll have some fun tonight.

* * * *

Rated R for gore, language, and violence

106 minutes

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