Thursday, July 22, 2010

If It Earns, We Can Sell It

Predator may not have been single-handedly responsible for killing off the 80s action film, but it rode the wave that finished it off. If you're looking for proof that mindless bodycount actioners fell out of favor after the film's release just look how much different the tone of Predator's sequel was from the original. Scriptwriters Jim & John Thompson had no plans for a sequel until they saw how successful their ancillary marketing ploys turned out. Once the graphic novels (and one assumes action figures, commemorative coins, promotional "Sexual Tyrannosaurus" chewing tobacco, and pith helmets with the phrase "Get To The Choppa!" embossed on them) took off they were convinced another movie could prove a worthwhile endeavor, in a strictly financial sense. A number of ideas were tossed around until a draft was approved that would have seen Dutch hunting a predator in Los Angeles and working with a liaison in the L.A.P.D. When Schwarzenegger got wind of the idea he turned it down thinking, not unreasonably, that the idea of the predator in a city was a bad idea. And if you think about the creature's MO it sure doesn't make much sense but the loss of Schwarzenegger wasn't all bad news: after all they didn't have to pay his salary again. But it also meant knocking his character to secondary status and getting someone willing to accept second billing to Danny Glover, who would finally land the part of the cop at the heart of the story. When you drop from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Gary Busey and make the script rise to the occasion, it isn't that you'll wind up with a worse film necessarily, but you'll wind up with one that can't function on action alone. You would just need to head in a dirtier direction, which is just what director Stephen Hopkins and the Thompsons did.

Predator 2
by Stephen Hopkins
A shootout blazes in downtown Los Angeles in the year 1997 (which contrary to what Hopkins thinks doesn't excuse detectives using customized Desert Eagles and .45s with laser sights, flashlights and scopes attached; but at least there are no robots or any of that shit). Lieutenant Mike Harrigan shows up just in time to turn the fight around in favor of the L.A.P.D. when he and his team, Leona Cantrell and Danny Archuleta, fit his car with bullet proof vests and then drive it into the men shooting it out with the cops. The men are Colombian and have been waging two separate wars, one with Jamaican drug dealers led by a shady figure called King Willie and one with the police. Harrigan, Cantrell and Archuleta drive the Colombians into a studio apartment building and start busting down doors. By the time they find the room they've hidden in everyone inside has been killed save for one terrified gunman who takes to the roof. Before Harrigan shoots him, the man points his gun at something just past the vertigo-prone cop, who shoots instinctively and kills the man. The thing the Colombian was aiming at not only watched the whole thing take place from the roofs of nearby buildings, but it also killed everyone of the gunmen in the apartment and even steals one of the bodies before it leaves. If you don't recognize it based on its thermal-vision, maybe its penchant for stringing up bodies will tip you off.

Harrigan eats shit from his superior for doing the whole maverick cop thing but what matters most to him is figuring out what could kill a room full of coked-up Colombians armed to the teeth. Harrigan, Archuleta, Cantrell and newest recruit Jerry Lambert are thus incredibly interested in the next big homicide call to the station. Seems some Jamaicans paid a visit to a Colombian snitch's penthouse but before they could do any real damage something showed up to level the playing field. When the four cops arrive only the Colombian's blonde girlfriend hasn't been strung up and skinned. Before they can do much investigating a special unit led by one Peter Keyes has stormed in and seized control, forcing Harrigan and his team to vacate. Not easily fucked off, Harrigan has Jerry follow Keyes around all night and asks Danny to hang around and wait for the special unit to leave the premises so the two of them can scrutinize the scene of the crime. Danny gets in first and just as he spots a spearhead stuck in a vent, he's pulled into the rafters and killed rather gruesomely. For Harrigan this is the last straw. He accosts Keyes, who he blames for Danny's death, nearly getting himself fired and puts Jerry and Leona strictly on figuring out what he's doing in town. Harrigan even goes so far as to talk to King Willie to see if he's got any idea what cut up a half-dozen of his enforcers. King Willie cryptically tells him that whatever's doing it has been doing it a long time and can't be stopped, but maybe he should have been a little chummier with Harrigan because everyone's favorite interstellar game hunter shows up after he leaves and leaves with the kingpin's head.
The next day yields a spooky visit to Danny's grave and some evidence linking both Keyes and Danny's murderer to a slaughterhouse across town. Harrigan opts to drive there but Jerry and Leona take the subway but the train never makes it there. Halfway across LA some punks try to mug a twitchy looking guy who happens to be one of a half dozen people on that particular subway car with a handgun. Leona and Jerry try intervene before a full-fledged shoot-out starts, but a higher-authority intervenes first when it cuts the lights to their car and then breaks in. In a matter of seconds everyone with a gun has been put down and only Jerry remains to draw the predator's attention while Leona herds the other passengers to safety. There are no bodies in the subway when Harrigan gets to the car but there's a trail that leads him across town to a slaughterhouse and Peter Keyes (and his special unit) who has a shocking revelation for the angry cop. Now that everyone's on the same page, what to do about the invisible murderer that doesn't seem to have any weaknesses except his need to collect human heads.

If nothing else Predator rose above the heads of its peers in that it had very few signs of its age. Sure its cast dates it (and I guess you could say Jesse Ventura's MTV shirt does too but ironic T-shirts have wound up in stranger places than the chest of a body-builder), as do some effect shots but mostly Predator has terrific pacing and production values that keep it from reveling in its machismo 80s energy. The problem with Predator 2 was that it wanted to beat its irrelevance while pandering to people who hadn't moved on. By setting the film seven years in the future Hopkins thought that gave him carte blanche to make wild assumptions in his design for the film, many of which date it horrendously. Predator 2 may have come out in 1990 but it couldn't reek more heavily of the 80s. From it's reductive view of foreign culture (coked-up Colombians, ganja-and-voodoo crazed Jamaicans) to its blinding fashion sense (the first tracking shot in the police station shows you drag queens, portly gang members and prostitutes all dressed to kill in fourteen shades of neon either far too big or far too small for them; the idea that people would just look more like back-up dancers in R&B music videos seven years in the future wasn't one of Hopkins best. He must have thought that people were never going to aspire to anything greater than voguing behind P.M. Dawn) to its unconditional adherence to cop movie cliches, not to mention its idolization of police officers. I don't think anything quite dates it like Hopkins and the Thompsons refusal to accept that the stature of the Los Angeles Police Department would ever fall beneath heroic. Predator 2 now has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the last films to paint the LAPD as a gang of ragtag troublemakers who get the job done by bending a few rules. And though it's fun to watch Danny Glover punch hack reporter Morton Downey Jr. in the face, after 1991 that shit stopped but quick, which makes Predator 2 an older film than Predator at heart.

Hopkins also outdid John McTiernan in his exploitation, but again, that's not really a good thing. If Predator exploited anyone it was action film fans, but it also delivered in a way that wasn't sleazy or backhanded; it was a proper action film. Sequels are always exploitative because they rely on goodwill generated by the first film in the series and at least for a little while a sequel didn't necessarily equal a cash-in. I like to think that Predator 2 was just about the time that people started to wake up if only because so much of Predator 2 was boosted from other popular series. Take for example Bill Paxton as Jerry Lambert. Even as a scumbag (which I suppose Paxton did really well) he's more interesting to watch than Danny Glover and I can't help but think that putting him in a supporting role was just producer Joel Silver's stacking the decks against box office failure. Paxton after all had put in appearances in both The Terminator and Aliens and Predator was the last of the great 80s sci-fi actioners. Why not throw him in for good measure if only to harken back to those more articulate and artistic series? And then there's the almost-climax with Peter Keyes. It doesn't take a scholar to see that the scene in the slaughter house is just the first skirmish in Aliens. Danny Glover and an underused Adam Baldwin sit in a trailer watching the video feeds of Gary Busey and a bunch of nameless guys getting hunted by the predator in a dark room. Even Danny Glover's dialogue is all but identical to Ripley's screaming at Gorman. That shit bothered me even if the setpiece is exciting enough to work twice. Predator already tread close enough to Aliens territory without Hopkins actively ripping it off. And if anyone can tell me why Harrigan's shift captain is named after the hero of Slaughterhouse 5, I'd be grateful.
One thing I'll give Hopkins, he certainly paints a darker picture than John McTiernan. With their irascible smiles and undying love for each other, the guys in Predator were all likable even if they did murder a bunch of people who probably didn't quite deserve it. Predator 2 has maybe five likable characters in it and only two of them live to see the end of the film. Hopkins goes way the hell out of his way to introduce character who dress and act so garishly that it'd be next to impossible to wish them well in a fight against the universe's most skilled hunter. Apparently he was also going to do things twice as violently but the studio ordered a bunch of dismemberments and decapitations cut. I'd certainly much rather see the much bloodier version because it might have given audiences something more to think about. The reason that for all its nastiness that it never goes any place new is that in all but that one area Predator 2 plays like an 80s cop film. We have a maverick out to avenge the death of his partner taking shit from an odious superior who proves said superior wrong and proves himself better than whatever new thing has everyone at the station captivated and who saves a city from a menace that has it by the balls. Except here the threat feels more real than terrorists with bio-weapons or whatever the fuck usually dogged Danny Glover characters in 80s cop films. Police procedurals, especially the ones that promise to be like nothing we've ever seen before, bore the shit out of me; I hate the Lethal Weapon films that ensured Danny Glover the lead in Predator 2 (I guess Shane Black was more than earning his keep on the set of Predator; not only was he that film's comic relief, his Lethal Weapon script ensured the sequel a marketable protagonist) and I hate just about everything Nick Nolte made in the 80s. They're all pretty much the same and have little to recommend them, which is I guess why Predator 2 is only slightly more interesting. I like Danny Glover but he's not much of an action hero and his shouting gets old fast. I'd rather have watched Rubén Blades, Bill Paxton and Maria Conchita Alonso fight the thing because at least they seem like real people rather than characters. I find it hard to believe that someone as hot-headed as Mike Harrigan could ever evade the predator for as long as he does, let alone do that much damage to the creature. But he gets as far as he does because that's what happens in cop movies. You can take bullet after bullet and beating after beating but you'll always wind up on top. I chalk it up to the excessive cocaine use of the 80s. I guess once you saw Don Simpson on a movie set the idea of a man being beaten up by the predator, then getting up and following it across town to get beat up again doesn't seem all that far-fetched. In fact Joel Silver may have seen it once or twice while on cocaine.

In all fairness Predator 2 does manage a decent amount of suspense and even with a lame script it's pretty hard to fuck up a movie who's villain is as cool as the predator (for lessons on how to do that just ask Paul W.S. Anderson). Hopkins treats the creature with respect and doesn't diminish its inherently terrifying nature until the third act. In fact he and Stan Winston even dreamt up some new stuff for the beast to wield including a retractible spear and a sort of frisbee that saws you in half. They also do enough to alter his appearance to give him a personality separate from that of the first movie's alien. The real problem is that Predator 2 is too much of a cop movie to let it be a horror movie once Harrigan and the creature have nothing separating them. Because cop movie rules state that the protagonist can't be killed, watching Danny Glover chase and wound the predator for the last twenty minutes becomes less interesting. What good is all the creature's expertise if he can be dethroned by a cop? Dutch had trained all his life to be useful in the climax of Predator and even he needed to rethink just about everything he knew about jungle combat. Harrigan's solution consists of pulling a modified version of Dutch's M16 with a grenade launcher out of his truck and going in guns blazing. Nevermind that a cop's salary couldn't cover half the shit in Harrigan's trunk, the conclusion simply lacks weight. And there are enough continuity errors to make diehards angry. Gone is the abundant and creepy clicking sound, gone is the creature's red vision without its mask, gone its limited understanding of the thing it's hunting. What kind of genius hunter decides to hunt people in the one place it knows it can't blend in? The scene where Harrigan takes off the predator's mask is good because it didn't try to recreate its famous precedent, but it also seems to think that the creature will have heard the phrase "You are one ugly motherfucker" somewhere else in the galaxy. Either Hopkins forgot that the last movie ended with a giant nuclear explosion or everyone involved simply didn't care and thought it'd be funny to hear the predator swear, which he does more than once.
As nothing more than a bit of tension and a lot of violence it works fine but even still Predator 2 just isn't as fun as Predator. But for all the clearly calculated decisions, for all their 'improving' the title character, for all the mixing of elements, for all the additional violence, Predator 2 is still no more than forgettable. But (there's always a 'but') I still can't help but kinda like it. I watched the movie a dozen and a half times as a kid so even while spotting problems is easier than spotting out-of-date fashion choices I can't really succumb to the resentment I should be feeling. Nostalgia just changes things, plain and simple. If it weren't for Robert Rodriguez I feel like I'd have no choice but to stand by the only thing like a second dignified entry in the Predator series but now at least I can be a little harder on Predator 2.

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