[9 August 2004]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
He’s a living comic book. Just look at him: he’s a man mountain.
—John McTiernan, “The Unseen Arnold”
I got to go back 15 years and relive everything, except this time to enjoy it, and not worry about having to die.
—Former Navy SEAL Jesse Ventura, “If It Bleeds, We Can Kill It”
This is one of the quietest macho action movies. Quite seriously.
—Supervising sound editor Dave Stone, text commentary, Predator
The premise of Predator couldn’t be simpler. Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) leads his super-duper rescue commando team deep into a South American jungle, on a mission to recover a missing cabinet member. Instead, they become victims, hunted by the awesome Predator (played by the late, 7’6” actor Kevin Peter Hall in a 200 lb. suit and Stan Winston’s freaky-deaky makeup). In the end, Arnold and the monster face off.
Written by brothers Jim and John Thomas (who claim influences by Greek myths and Apocalypse Now) and directed by newbie John McTiernan (he had only made Nomads, in 1986, and Die Hard came a year later), Predator is surprisingly fine. Taut and relentless, it pares down, stage by stage. Beginning as if it might be a war movie (the team is sent on a dangerous mission), transforms first into horror (skinned bodies and splatted heads), then into science fiction (the discover of the alien, with electric gimmicks and awesome weapons), and finally, becomes an existential conflict between man and not-man.
Now released to a two-disc Special Edition, to coincide with the opening of the video-game-based Alien vs. Predator, the 1987 Predator goes about its business expeditiously, introducing its band of brothers with admirable efficiency. The DVD includes smart commentary by McTiernan, whose laconic delivery only seems to enhance his wit, insight, and political bent. The first disc also includes a text commentary by film historian Erich Lichtenfield (who reports his interviews with crew members and makes bland annotations on the film’s metaphors or production, such as “McTiernan’s movies are usually not so ‘deep,’ but what sets them apart is that they are sincere”), and a documentary, “Inside Look,” on making Alien vs. Predator.
The second disc has a raft of extras, including outtakes and a deleted scene (“Dutch fleeing the Predator”); Predator special effects; the documentary, partly on set, partly 15 years later, called “If It Bleeds, We Can Kill It”; 2001’s “Inside Predator” (seven chapters with titles like “On Location”; “The Life Inside,” a tribute to the late Kevin Peter Hall, the 7’2” actor who played the Predator; and “The Unseen Arnold,” where everyone reports on his greatness), as well as several brief Easter Eggs.
While the movie was neither a great box office nor critical success on its release (McTiernan notes that it didn’t “win its first weekend or anything”), it has since become respected, for its economy and craft—Winston’s work is terrific (and holds up over time), as is Alan Silvestri’s unforgettable score (“It’s very good, it’s very effective for this stuff,” offers McTiernan); the excellent sound design (Dave Stone and Richard L. Anderson talk about weapons as orchestral elements: “The mini-gun like the bass section, like the tubas, and the MP5s would be like the trumpets”); and Don McAlpine’s superb cinematography (McTiernan says he had a “much looser style” than many U.S. cinematographers at the time, his framing at once mobile and precise).
The first shot of Dutch has him lighting his stogie, face hidden by baseball cap and sunglasses as he leans back into the shadows of a chopper. Overseeing the mission is Dillon (Carl Weathers), an old buddy now working for the CIA. Their sweaty, arm-wrestling greeting says all you need to know about their competitive distrust and mutual respect. When Dillon asks why he’s not taken recent big-deal missions, Dutch reminds him of his moral hard line: “We’re a rescue team, not assassins.” This team—several Vietnam war comrades—is introduced equally neatly: Hawkins (Shane Black, hired because McTiernan wanted a writer along with, and providing a wise-ass, pussy-joke making, short-lived performance), Blain (Jesse Ventura), Billy (Sonny Landham, whom the insurance company insisted come with a bodyguard, to “protect everyone else from Sonny”), Mac (the phenomenal Bill Duke), and the translator, Poncho (Richard Chaves).
Initially, it seems they might even need a translator. Within minutes, the team comes across the team sent in before them, all dead. And then they find a “rebel” camp, where they take out everyone (Russian “military advisers” and “South American” workers) except Anna (Elpidia Carrillo), whom Dillon decides to bring along for her valuable “information”; though she speaks English, she pretends not to for two-thirds of the film, making her seem doubly “foreign,” as girl and local guerilla. (McTiernan observes, “Movies are really music, they’re not photographed plays… So I guess that’s why I often have people speaking in a foreign language, so the audience just hears how they say something instead of what they say.”)
When a pair of choppers drops the men into the jungle (to the tune of “Long Tall Sally,” thus shifting the Apocalypse Now reference just enough), the action starts in earnest. On learning that the cabinet officer story is a ruse, Dutch holds Dillon responsible. “What happened to you Dillon? You used to be somebody I could trust,” he asks, urgently. “I woke up,” comes the tough guy answer. “You’re an asset, an expendable asset.” While Dutch ardently resists this notion (“My men are not expendable”), in fact, this is the mission’s and, in effect, the movie’s point: the Predator kills them all off, one by one, until only Dutch remains. That he faces down a nuclear explosion is wholly and crazily over the top (McTiernan says the final images are inspired by his own dream, running from such a blast).
Still, for all the focus on action and suspense, the film is most memorably about the men’s relations, creating subtle connections and characterizations. As McTiernan puts it, “All the way through this, I was stealing a Robert Altman technique, of if you can, get actors who can bring something to the table, and then turn ‘em loose. I keep my mouth shut about it, but I actually came from theater, so I like actors. Studio executives think that what they want is guys who love cars and guns… so I would sort of hide the fact that I knew anything about actors or liked them.”
Such affection is visible everywhere in Predator, as each of the guys is remarkable in his own way (and each suffers an impressively gruesome death, as well). From Ventura’s macho posing (“I ain’t got time to bleed”) and Duke’s work as Mac (“I see you,” he whispers to the monster, from inside a dark jungle fold) to Billy’s ritual oneness with the jungle (“Another one of hose goofy machetes,” says McTiernan as the character cuts his chest) and the Predator’s otherworldly certainty (McTiernan asserts Winston’s “Rasta” headdress was not intended to indicate a racial identity, but it’s hard to ignore just the same) to Anna’s astonished description (“The jungle came alive and took him!”), the film grants the performers little bits of haunting brilliance.
The reveal of the Predator is postponed, rendered in layers, first by its point of view (heat vision, which, McTiernan says, posed “this little tiny problem, which was, the ambient temperature in Mexico was in the 90s,” meaning “people were the same temperature as the background and they were perfectly camouflaged… the proposed solution was to put ice water on the jungle,” he laughs, but eventually, they used video special effects), then by what it leaves behind (skinned, dismembered, or disemboweled corpses, all very bloody), and at last as a form. This too occurs in phases: the incredible “concentric configuration of [transparent] wraps” over the jungle background, and then the embodied creature, acted by Hall.
The men’s first efforts to shoot at the Predator is in itself a stunning moment, as survivors Mac, Billy, Dutch, Poncho, and Dillon shoot at the jungle, using the dead Blain’s “Painless,” a humungous, all-annihilating gattling gun usually rigged to a helicopter. McTiernan’s thoughts on this lunacy are worth quoting at length:
When I first went to work on this project, I had the feeling that people had a sort of perverse fascination with pictures of guns firing, literally an almost pornographic desire. And I said to myself, “Okay, if you want pictures of guns firing, I’ll give you pictures of guns firing.” So I created this sequence where they take all of their guns and they blaze away continually for five minutes flat, and they flatten the jungle and they mow down everything. And what I was really doing was… to quietly ridicule the desire to see pictures of guns firing. Now, you have sort of a moral separate peace here. In order to do it, I set up a circumstance where there are no human beings in front of the guns. Where, in fact, the point of all the firing was, as the man says, as soon as they stop shooting, “We hit nothing.” The whole point was the impotence of all the guns. Which was just exactly the opposite of what I believed I was being hired to sell.
It’s easy to question the effects of such an excessive, titillating, raucous approach to movie violence. Indeed, McTiernan notes that this sort of image, which he repeats in other movies, including, notably, Last Action Hero and the Die Hards (a fourth has been announced), is rarely received as an “anti-violence” statement. Yet, he distinguishes between his own work in this case and the imitators who came after: “They sort of forget to take the people out of in front of the guns. So get a sequence where they blaze away for five minutes, killing people. And then, [they] completely act utterly innocent and puzzled when something like Columbine happens.”
Still, McTiernan’s inclinations toward moral and aesthetic complexities are clear, even if they aren’t always understood as such. And Predator is a particularly successful translation of such complexities, at once visceral (Mac’s head exploding, Dillon’s detached arm wildly firing his automatic weapon) and poetic (McAlpine’s camera implacably tracking through dense jungleness, the play of light and dark on leaves and bodies). Predictably, the ambiguity of the political effects is as much a function of generic expectations (no big-budget action film could be smart or subversive) as it is of conventional marketing. And yet, even with the rise of the governator, the complicated case made by Predator—against mainstream movie violence, CIA shenanigans and U.S. imperialism—perseveres.