80s movie posters were... something else

dir: John McTiernan


Maybe I’m misremembering the reality here, but was Predator an action classic back in the day when it came out? I was still a teenager in the heady last days of the 80s when this would have shown up on tv, heavily censored, of course. I seem to remember that it was big amongst teenager boys, big like acne and premature ejaculation. I mean, we didn’t have broadband internet access or iPods to keep ourselves occupied with back then, and the closest we came to god was watching Arnie chew his way through scenery and co-workers in his wonderful moofies.

This was back when the 11th Commandment was still “Thou Shalt Watch Every Arnold Schwarzenegger Movie”, and it held for at least a little while longer. Sure, he’s the goddamn Governor of California now, but back then he could be relied on to keep teenage boys in thrall.

For reasons I can’t explain, because they’re inexplicable, of course, I felt compelled to pick up a DVD of Predator yesterday and watched it last night (10/4/2007). Twice, the second time with the director’s commentary on. I usually never listen to commentaries, because generally they either have nothing to say that I want to hear, or else-wise they ruin the experience of watching a film I love by telling me something I didn’t want to know but can’t forget. But since I watched it through, and was convinced of one particular fact so strongly I couldn’t sleep without confirmation, I wanted to watch it with the commentary on to confirm my supposition. And also, I listened to the commentary because I hoped the director would have the balls to say what a nightmare it was working with this bunch of jerks. Especially Arnie.

In vain, all is in vain.

Predator was a minor hit back in the day, at least according to Box Office Mojo, and spawned one direct and one indirect sequel. It was a pretty big deal for Arnie, who starred and pretty much owned the film, despite the roster of big men and big personalities on screen. It solidified his claim as a genuine cinematic presence, a big man with big muscles and a lot of charisma.

Of course, he was and probably still is a terrible actor. Terrible terrible terrible. The way he reads lines in this would make his own mother cringe in embarrassment. It confirms for me as well that Arnie was best suited to playing a cyborg half organic, half robot in the Terminator franchise, because he is really only believable as a robot. He sells nothing in anything else. He’s just Arnie. His enunciation improved over the years, but not the impression that he was just a big, goofy guy playing in some bloody pantomime.

That sounds like retroactive shitting on an icon for shitting’s sake. That’s not my intention. Arnie is a great man, great in presence, great in character. Any Arnie film up to and not including Jingle All the Way is enjoyable and, you know, great. This man owned the 80s and early 90s. He was, for a steroid headed inarticulate lunatic, a wonderful person to spend time with. Any time films like Conan the Barbarian, Red Heat, any of the Terminators, Commando, True Lies, Total Recall, appear on free to air tv or on cable, I am glued to my couch, obligated to watch until the very end. Hell, I’ll even sit through Kindergarten Cop. It may, in fact, not be a tumour, but I’m going to stick around to find out all the same.

Predator isn’t the pinnacle of his acting career or ability (I am reluctant to back up any claim as to what is his ‘best’ acting role: Is it Junior or Twins?), but it’d have to be close to the top. The crappy one-liners (‘Stick around’ after impaling a guy on a machete; ‘Knock, knock’ after kicking down a door and before shooting everyone in a room) are in evidence, and, after 20 years, they’re more cringeworthy than ever. But what he lacks in credibility he more than makes up for in conviction. He attacks the role of some kind of Special Forces commando with the same ferocity which he used to attack women in his heyday. Ah, steroids, they do wonders for the temperament.

He plays Dutch, a major leading a group of commandos brought to South America to rescue, I dunno, the President or something. A helicopter has gone down in a jungle area controlled by some generic rebel types. You know, carrying AK-47s , wearing green uniforms and Che Guevara t-shirts. The CIA (in the form of Carl Weathers) brings Dutch and his boys: Billy (Sonny Landham), Blaine (Jesse “The Body” Ventura), Poncho (Richard Chaves) Mac (Bill Duke) and Hawkins (Shane Black) in to rescue some important people who were in the helicopter.

But the CIA, in a complete turnaround from their usual activities in Hollywood films, are lying about something. Thankfully, this idiotic sub-plot is abandoned after the attack on the rebel compound which is so generically filmed that it looks like outtakes from the A-Team television series. Because, you see, the hunters will soon become the hunted.

An alien Predator (Kevin Peter Hall) stalks them through the jungle. Not because he has to, like for food or breeding purposes, but because he wants to. He (I’m assuming it’s a he, but since it’s an alien species, for
all we know it’s a girl or some kind of hermaphrodite) likes hunting down creatures and killing them, sometimes quite brutally.

He even likes skinning people and sometimes, when he feels up to it, and the mood is right, likes to rip people’s spines out to turn into trophies. What a treat he’d be on a first date.

Being an alien, he she or it has access to funky technology. His neat headgear gives him all sorts of alternative ways of looking at things, like heat vision or motion detection, and he has a laser sight to really pinpoint people before blasting them with his shoulder-mounted cannon. He also has a cloaking device which makes him look like a half-eaten jellyfish that reflects the surrounding jungle to make him hard to see.

He’s also very big and very tough. He picks off the members of the team in the classic fashion of any monster film where a bunch of people are trapped and some crazy creature is after them.

The soldier’s guns and military training stand for nothing in the face of his magical technology and kick-arse old school skills. Soon only one man will stand alone and battle the creature using his wits, mud and some dry twigs. His primal, barbarian nature will rise to the fore as he strives to end the jungle menace once and for all.

It is Arnie, after all. The result could never be in doubt, but it is interesting in the way that the solution to all their problems is in going the low-tech rather than high-tech route . They can’t compete with the creature technology-wise, because of his mad hacker skills, or should that be ‘skillz’, so Arnie must outsmart him.

Arnie outsmarting anything, even pieces of furniture, does sound implausible, I’m the first to admit. Still, it’s a hell of a lot of fun watching him a) be a big lunkhead, b) get slapped around, c) be covered in stinky mud, d) try to act in scenes where he is arguing with Carl Weathers and losing. When Carl Weathers is, in the director's opinion, the best actor in a flick, you know you’re not watching it for its Masterpiece Theatre thespianism.

It is a big, loud, fun goofy film. The effects and some of the performances do not stand the test of time at all, in fact much of it looks quite craptacular. But director John McTiernan, whose has only one other major highlight on his resume in the form of Die Hard, manages to make it an engaging and entertaining flick. He claims that the premise given to him by the studio was essentially to cross Rambo with Alien in the jungle, and Predator fits the bill to a tee. It’s not as good as Alien, but it does not bore for the 100 or so minutes that it sticks around for.

Watching the flick this time had me convinced that the whole flick was a Vietnam metaphor. I was absolutely convinced of this fact, so much so that I was disappointed when McTiernan never confirmed my ill-founded supposition in the audio commentary.

Think about it: nice, all American (or Austrian) boys go into the jungle and are chewed up and spat out by an alien force. The Predator is Charlie, the Vietcong who mercilessly done Our Boys wrong with their strange ways and ferocious tenacity. The aspect that had me convinced was the way in which the flick shifts gears with the usage of boy scout survival skills to detect and trap the Predator, as opposed to emphasising the primacy of guns.

This tripped a memory in my head of stories of times where the US Defense Department would trial new technologies, like a remote alarm system in the jungles of Nam, and the wily Communists would circumvent these state-of-the-art technologies by pissing on them. I mean that literally.

It turns out that what was really going on in McTiernan’s head is that he wanted to avoid the studio-mandated fetishisation of guns and gunplay. He has a scene where the remaining guys fire all their weapons into the jungle for five minutes trying to hit the Predator, who’s no longer there, with the purpose of showing how pointless it all is. McTiernan wanted to avoid the pornographic aspect of how guns are often represented, which is why the film has the low-tech finale.

So I guess I was barking up the wrong tree.

McTiernan manages to coax reasonable performances from almost anyone apart from Arnie, and manages to make the jungle seem like a claustrophobic and oppressive place, even though it’s open plan. The presence of this unseen hunter, who could literally be anywhere and could strike with impunity at any time, infuses the film with a sense of unease and has been ripped off countless times by a multitude of better and worse flicks since then.

Billy, as played by lunatic Sonny Landham, being a Cherokee native American, has special tracking abilities and the cliché-abundant ‘in touch with nature’ bullshit going for him. He has a great moment where he just stares and stares into the jungle, convinced that he can feel the presence of the Predator though he cannot see him. After freaking everyone out, he just casually shrugs his shoulders and mutters, “Well, must have been nothing” and walks off.

McTiernan on the commentary talks about how the studio couldn’t get insurance for the flick until a bodyguard was appointed to shadow Sonny Landham 24 hours a day. The bodyguard’s job wasn’t to protect Sonny: it was to prevent Sonny from attacking other people. Nothing apparently happened during the shooting of the film, but the guy definitely brings something kooky to the mix in this signature role.

The alien itself, designed by monster maestro Stan Winston, when it’s not all shimmery and silly, is pretty impressive for the time. The makers go the Jaws route by not revealing too much too soon, and only show the creature's truly horrible face right at the end. It may still look very strange, but it was a pretty impressive and different design back in the day, which still looks good today. The physically imposing presence of the creature makes him a believable foe against the Governator, who looks like a ragdoll bitch when they start tussling for real.

Why this film stars two meatheads, in the form of Arnie and former wrestler Jesse ‘The Body” Ventura, who would go on to become the governors of California and Minnesota respectively is a mystical convergence of cosmic proportions. It’s a strange coincidence, I’m sure you’ll agree.

But maybe, just maybe the stars aligned in just the right way and just the right time to come up with an enjoyable action flick that started and consolidated some people’s careers, who could never, at that stage,
have predicted where they were going to end up. Just like any of us back in 1987, I guess.

7 times I ain’t got time to bleed out of 10

“She says the jungle... it just came alive and took him.” - Predator