Schwarzenegger kicks alien butt as he consolidates his position as king of the '80s action flick.
The 1980s have a lot to answer for, and little to commend them. Yet, in amongst the terrible fashion, worse music and unspeakable hairstyles (not to mention Miami Vice, which had all three in spades), were some stonking good action movies, many of the best of which starred Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had gone from a virtual unknown at the beginning of the decade, to being a world superstar after his turn as the monotonic cyborg in James Cameron's 1984 sci-fi masterpiece, The Terminator. After an excellent and extremely memorable turn in the incredibly fun and truly brilliant Commando, Schwarzenegger went on to star in Predator, firmly establishing himself as THE archetypal action hero (a reputation that would carry on well into the '90s, until coming to a crashing halt with the abysmal Junior).
But in 1987, Arnie was still at the height of his powers, an imposing hulk of a man who you just would not want to mess with, making him the perfect star for John McTiernan's sci-fi horror Predator. Indeed, so well-known was the muscular frame of Schwarzenegger that when introduced at the beginning of the film, we only see him initially from behind, but we are in absolutely no doubt as to whom the baseball-cap wearing figure strolling into frame is.
Apparently cursed to a lifetime of playing uninterestingly-monikered heroes (has ever any actor played so many characters called John?), writers Jim & John Thomas bestowed Arnie with the at least slightly more interesting name of Dutch, a major in a US Special Forces Commando unit ordered into the Central American rainforest to rescue a party of diplomats whose helicopter has crashed on the wrong side of the border. Accompanying Dutch and his commandos is former team member Dillon (Carl Weathers), now a CIA agent. From the beginning there is a suggestion of coolness between Dutch and Dillon, and though he acts warmly towards his old friend, you feel that Dutch doesn't quite trust him, a mistrust that, as it happens, turns out to be well-founded.
Tracking the path of guerrillas in an attempt to find the diplomats, whom they now believe to have been captured, the squad stumble upon a most unpleasant scene - hanging from the trees, their skins entirely removed, are the bodies of 3 Green Berets (that Dutch just happens to know). Unnerved, our band of heroes carries on through the jungle and come across a guerrilla base, and espy the execution of a prisoner. Anxious to rescue any possible further detainees, Dutch and his team proceed to enter the camp, not by stealth and cunning, but by blowing the hell out of it (perhaps they expect the prisoners to be flame-proof?). Still, it's a thoroughly enjoyable fire fight, and more importantly features Arnie's first cheesy pay-off line of the film (telling a guerrilla to "stick around" after pinning him to a post with a knife. Oh, the wit.), as well as introducing us to one of the most famous characters of the movie - Old Painless, Blain's M61 mini-gun, which makes short shrift of any enemies unfortunate enough to come across its path. (Incidentally, so powerful was the gun, normally attached to fighter jets, that even with the firing rate dramatically reduced and loaded with blanks, Jesse Ventura had to lean against something to prevent being thrown backwards by the massive recoil when he fired it.)
After a confrontation between Dillon and Dutch, in which the true purpose of the mission (to rescue CIA operatives working in the country illegally) is revealed, and the expendability of Dutch and his team driven home, the commandos set out with their prisoner, Anna (Elpidia Carillo), towards the evacuation point. Shortly after setting out, though, a deep sense of unease settles over the team, and even their normally imperturbable Native American tracking expert, Billy (Sonny Landham), begins to get worried.
It is at this point that the film changes from a formulaic action movie into a tense horror-thriller, and director John McTiernan never lets the pace ease up from then on in. Moving through the jungle, which seems both claustrophobic and extremely exposed, Dutch's commandos are slowly whittled down, Blain (Jesse Ventura) and Mac (Bill Duke) dying particularly gruesome deaths. The soldiers, though, like the audience, are still unaware of what is hunting them, but as the body count rises, we begin to see more and more of the Predator.
At the beginning of the movie, the Predator (played by 7' 2" Kevin Peter Hall - the original Predator was to have been Belgian short-arse Jean-Claude Van Damme, and then a monkey, and if you've ever seen Street Fighter you'll be in no doubt as to who would have been the more accomplished actor) is merely an observer, and we see through its eyes as it watches the men go about their business, leaving the audience with a wonderful sense of lurking menace. This suggestion of an unseen foe adds to the tension and the mystery, and McTiernan paces nicely the unveiling of more facts about the alien's appearance and intent, climaxing in the unmasking scene in which we discover just what a pug-ugly bastard it is (Stan Winston, the man behind the robot models on The Terminator, did a wonderful job of making the Predator look both disgusting and believable).
One problem with older films is that any visual effects in them can look pretty dated compared to those in contemporary cinema. Predator, though, doesn't fall victim to this, as it isn't really an effects movie, the only notable visual effects coming in making the Predator invisible, which was done with good ol' blue screen. Although it would undoubtedly look a little smoother with current CGI, the invisible hunter is supposed to look a little distorted, a strange pattern in the air that the humans can see if they look at the right place, and as such the effects still stand up today.
Though Schwarzenegger is the star, he has an excellent supporting cast, with particular note going to Jesse Ventura, who gets most of the best lines ("Bunch of slack-jawed faggots around here! This stuff will make you a god damned sexual Tyrannosaurus, just like me!" and "I ain't got time to bleed."), and Bill Duke, who, while looking as menacing as ever, is given the opportunity to show he is capable of portraying scared and sad as well.
With a science fiction edge, Predator is at heart a simple, but extremely effective, horror film - a small group of people, cut off from the outside world, are picked off one by one by an unseen foe, and tensions run high as the nerves of the remaining members of the group begin to shatter. Other horror staples are present, notably including the one member of the group who freaks out and goes after the monster on his own, with inevitable consequences. Add to this a fast pace and high tension, along with beautifully shot photography in the lush Mexican jungle, and the presence of Schwarzenegger (the alien hunter is pretty damn formidable, and Arnie is one of the few people you can believe capable of defeating it) and Predator becomes one of the best examples of its genre.
I give Predator 4 out of a possible 5 spine-ripping enjoyment units.
Jesse Ventura (Blain)
Carl Weathers (Dillon)
Bill Duke (Mac)