Monday, July 19, 2010

Reagan Vs. Predator

Action movies may not be totally formulaic but rest assured if something slightly novel comes along and pulls in cash moneymen are going to put everything they've got figuring out what element made them money. Conan The Barbarian rakes in cash? Well, maybe what the public wants is barbarian films. Enter The Beastmaster, Conquest, The Sword & The Sorcerer, Krull, Deathstalker, Iron Master, Sword Of The Valiant, The Warrior and the Sorceress and dozens more movies that take the elements and remix them until they're close enough to fleece the public but far enough to avoid a lawsuit. Maybe it's the film's director, John Millius? Let's get him to make more right-leaning action fare. Enter: Red Dawn and further down the line Farewell To The King. Maybe it's the film's star, Austrian body-builder Arnold Schwarzenegger? Enter Red Sonja, Commando, Raw Deal and the Conan Sequel. Maybe between Conan and First Blood, what the public wants is giant, well-built, inarticulate men destroying things. If they can't get Stallone or Schwarzenegger (who made semi-smart decisions by accepting the odd smart project like game changer The Terminator or directing their own shitty projects so at the very least they turn a greater profit than they otherwise would have) then Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Claude Van Damn will do. This goes on until some greater trendier film dethrones the ideas and sends money scattering. So what happens when a film comes along that has everything in common with most muscular 80s action films but the new thing it brings to the table is contempt for the whole genre? That's not how audiences saw Predator but a little reading between the lines shows that John McTiernan may well have been taking the piss out of the same fans he was guaranteed to bring in. After all he had Schwarzenegger, a cast full of muscular side players, a force more cunning and dastardly than communism, and ten thousand bullets. Why didn't everyone rush to rip it off?

by John Mctiernan
We begin like any 80s actioner would, with an Arnold Schwarzenegger character called Dutch meeting an old general in a sweltering South American country to be briefed on why his special team of badass commandos is needed for a particular mission. This time it's because some American soldiers have gone missing in a Columbian jungle. Dutch's old friend Dillon, an operative with only one boss, Old Glory, knows he can pull the job off without raising red flags about involvement. Dutch and his guys are officially a hired rescue team and despise unnecessary killing. The look Dillon gives the General suggests that both men are in on a secret that they'd rather not let Dutch in on if they want his help. But for the time being he and his team are willing to spring into action. Dutch works with a five-man team consisting of the nerdy Hawkins (played by screenwriter Shane Black who, rumour has it, was chosen because the producers of this film wanted him close enough to ask him constant questions about his Lethal Weapon script), buff Native American Billy (Sonny Landham, who needed a bodyguard on staff to make sure he didn't try to fight anyone on set and who would later railroad his chance at running for senate in Kentucky by calling all arabs terrorists and calling for their massive destruction), spooky and quiet Mac (Bill Duke, who went on to more directing than acting), down-home boy Blain (Jesse Ventura, the wrestler who was the first Predator cast member to successfully run for office, when he became governor of Minnesota in 1999) and affable Poncho (Richard Chaves, who never got anywhere near the limelight again).

They land and within the hour have found the downed helicopter of the men they're looking for. Dillon easily convinces the others that this is the work of the Columbian rebels they're after but the state of the bodies seems far too outlandish to be the work of ordinary soldiers. The bodies have been skinned, strung up by their feet and many have their skulls and spines missing. The seven men launch into revenge mode. A short while later they've found and decimated the camp where the Columbians have been operating and killed everyone but Anna, apparently the only woman at the sight. Dillon wants to keep her but Dutch doesn't like the idea of having someone looking to give their position away a few feet away from them at all times. Dutch also doesn't like that apparently the reason they were sent to Columbia in the first place wasn't to rescue anyone but to quell a potential insurgency. It seems the only reason there were hostages to look for (all dead by the time Dutch kicks the door down) was because Dillon sent them to the job first and their chopper was blown out of the sky before they could murder the Columbians themselves. Another few minutes after the shooting has stopped and their on the move looking for the rendezvous.
I guess now's a good a time as any to mention that something's been watching the team pretty much since they landed. This something can cloak itself perfectly, makes an ominous clicking sound, sees only heat signatures, analyzes and understands every sound they make and has humanoid hands with five fingers. Billy seems to sense that they're being followed but obviously doesn't know what it is. Seeing their usually unshakable tracker get wary puts everyone on edge. The thing following them chooses to start its introduction during one of Anna's several escape attempts. Hawkins, carrying the least gear, is sent to find her after she decks Poncho with a stick and runs into the brush. Hawkins finds and stops her but within seconds something has grabbed and cut him and absconded with the body. When they find Anna the only trace of Hawkins is his gun and a good deal of his blood smeared on the petrified rebel's face. When questioned all she can say is that "the jungle came alive and took him." Dutch orders everyone to search the area for his body but as a skillful tracking shot reveals, they won't find him unless they climb a fifty or more foot tree which is where something has hung his disemboweled body. While looking for him Blain runs afoul of the creature too and after blowing the shit out of the jungle Dutch and his team examine the wound and realize that it couldn't have been caused by any weapon they've ever encountered. That night something steals Blain's body and Dutch decides that's the final straw. He and his men set a series of traps, sit and wait to see what move this something makes. But if it keeps outsmarting him and his team, Dutch is going to need more than the gigantic automatic weapons he's got.

The problem with talking objectively about Predator's effectiveness as anything other than an action piece is that I don't remember a time when I wasn't intimately familiar with its plot and the alien at the heart of the story doing all the killing. Predator was one of a handful of films I watched religiously as a child. My parents attempts to get me and my sisters to go to Quaker Meeting simply didn't hold the same kind of attraction as watching a bunch of burly men blasting shit in the jungle. Truth be told we weren't much for Quakerism, as much as we believe in personal non-violence. Other regular household viewings included Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Aliens. To date my dad has played more violent video games than me and I think my mom likes Predator more than I do. So you can see why it would be hard to judge whether it does any actual scaring. I think I was probably very frightened of the movie at some point because I can at least vaguely recalling having to close my eyes whenever the Predator made an onscreen killing. I can say that John McTiernan's decision to keep the monster's appearances restricted to its Heat-Seeking vision camera and only showing glimpses like the excellently spooky appearance of its hand, was a good one. My most recent viewing left me wishing that Jim & John Thompson's script was more than just set-piece after set-piece after the invasion of the camp but the attention span of your average audience in the 80s was just as underestimated then as now. McTiernan uses the jungle to his advantage; the few shots where we're treated to a menacing deep green colour are excellently photographed, as in Dutch's retreat from the alien towards a waterfall. In lieu of a better way to phrase it, the thing that McTiernan deserves credit for is making Predator look like it wasn't made in 1987. Nothing about his visual style suggests it's age and the film has only one or two quips that suggest its freshness date. Alan Silvestri's music, Douglas McAlpine's photography and the nondescript costumes have all helped Predator age extremely well.
To his credit McTiernan also did the very best he could with technology that hadn't quite arrived. The monster suit is good in all but a few scenes. Close-ups reveal that Kevin Peter Hall's fingers didn't quite fill out the gloves and occasionally it's all too unwieldy for him to appear as agile as he seems when he's invisible. One thing I was never able to appreciate as a kid was the added menace of when the creature finally takes its mask off. For the first few seconds when it throws its hands up, I understand why the predator spawned comic books, sequels and action figures. The sheer size coupled with its perfectly alien jaws suggests that for all its hunter's skill, it's still just a giant monster who wants to murder you. The few shots we get of the predator while it cloaks itself are either good or transparently poor special effects that look like exactly like early computer tracing programs. Other times he works minor miracles as when the predator stands on a log, hundreds of feet from the camera, and blasts away at trees with his shoulder-mounted pulse gun. That shot alone puts this above the kind of claptrap you'd ordinarily find two retired bodybuilders in.

In fact the presence of Schwarzenegger and similarly built co-stars Sonny Landham and Jesse Ventura hint at why Predator has survived its decade while The Running Man and Total Recall have become laughably out-of-date on top of being just plain awful. Predator is the first film to play on the expectations conjured by putting Schwarzenegger in a movie. The Terminator played to his strengths (mainly looking and talking like Arnold Schwarzenegger) but he hadn't yet the reputation he'd earn from starring unironically in Commando and giving all he had with no direction. So fans came in expecting the same kind of film and McTiernan certainly delivered one but he also signaled the end of these movies. Another widely circulated rumour is that Predator's inception was someone in Hollywood quipping that by the mid-80s the only thing Rambo hadn't fought was E.T. Indeed once you pit the strongest men in the world (I don't think Landham's resemblance to Stallone was accidental) against something that's not only bigger and more powerful but way fucking smarter, what room was there to go back to the endless ammo supply of the mid-80s action film (though Predator manages to have its cake and eat it too). Only latent-fascists like Paul Verhoeven were blind enough to try and get Arnold back busting skulls in quite the same way he did before Predator. By the mid-90s the mythos of both Stallone and Schwarzenegger had evaporated, the latter found himself in thinking-man's action films like True Lies and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, movies which played with his persona rather than simply relied on his muscles, and action movies in general started to resemble Speed. Outwardly Predator starts like any Rambo film: the muscular men with guns take a job, kill the bad guys, wait for the evac. That movie ends about twenty-five minutes into the movie and a new one starts where the heroes are killed in ascending order of charisma. What kind of action movie kills off the men of action? One with perhaps a little more to say on the subject?
No one could accuse Predator of being an issues film but as Aliens was ostensibly about Vietnam, Predator is ostensibly about Reagan's CIA and the comeuppance they never got. The destruction of the columbian camp is a short-hand version of any number of democratically elected leaders that the CIA overthrew and replaced in the 80s. The Central Intelligence Agency under Ronald Reagan tried and often succeeded in fixing elections and dismantling insurgencies in Libya, Surinam, Grenada, Fiji, South Africa, El Salvador, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Angola, Argentina, Nicaragua, Honduras and Chad among others and for most of it the American people were either in the dark or willfully shut off the light themselves. Dillon's tricking Dutch and his men could be seen as retroactive accounting for the actions of the CIA but then only Dillon would be killed by the predator, but in this case everyone who had a hand in the murder is guilty. With its dreadlocked hair, skirt and method of hunting and taking trophies, The Predator couldn't look anymore like the soul of foreign fighting forces come looking for revenge. The men, for all their muscles and miniguns, are no match for something that knows the terrain and thinks like a hunter. The whole film can be summed up by the scene where the remaining soldiers blast away blindly at the spot the predator has just fled from after killing Blain. They empty entire clips at the trees, clearing yards of jungle with bullets and explosives but hit nothing. The CIA spent bullet after bullet on foreign soil but had no idea what they were hunting, nor that bodycounts may have changed regimes but never broke the will of the people they were shooting at. Dutch is only able to defeat it when it realizes their similarities and stops looking at it as the other and starts thinking like it. Granted I'm sure the CIA-funded insurgencies thought the same thing but if the one thing Dutch learned was never underestimate an enemy and in his last moments the slightest compassion required not to crush its head with a rock, then I'd call him more humane than anyone we got running blackwater operations in the 80s. The bitterest irony is that Schwarzenegger would later run for (and holds to this day) the same office Reagan held before running for President, Governor of California.

Part of Predator's lasting appeal to guy audiences is its understanding of the bond between men. Few movies ever acknowledge that male friendship will often mean more to men than the connection they form with women; it's pretty much the central thesis of Predator. Check out the one-man show Bill Duke puts on about how close two men get in combat situations after Blain is killed. Mac nearly unhinges completely after his friend dies and spends a good deal of his time on screen talking to the dead man and trying to tell him things he'd never have actually said to the man while he was alive. This would seem a little sillier if the man he were pining for weren't Jesse "The Body" Ventura who really can't handle this whole acting thing. He can't even handle physical acting; he's not quick enough to make it plausible that he'd catch himself before grabbing a tripwire, and indeed there's a visible pause where he tries to make us believe he's done so when we all know he simply hasn't. His few lines are mostly manly platitudes ("Son of a bitch is dug in like an Alabama tick," "This stuff'll turn you into a goddamned sexual Tyrannosaurus...just like me,") and he never sounds like anything less than a man reading lines. To see Duke, a competent actor, totally lose his shit over Ventura would be like watching Torin Thatcher or Margaret Whiting crying over the death of whoever played Sinbad opposite them in their respective Harryhausen films. Whether they mean to or not, the Thompsons and McTiernan basically paint these men as lovers. Their little exchanges are playful and exciting when not overlong like afterglow. "Remember Afghanistan?" asks Poncho, to which Dutch replies with a sly little smile: "Trying to forget it. Come on..." When Mac offers Blain his flask he says "Que pasa, amigo. Little taste a home." They share everything, there's sad music when they say goodbye to each other, they laugh about old times, their closer than the men in Boys In The Band. They're so close that they're actually more repelled and separate from the only woman in their company than they are from the alien stalking and killing them. Anna only gets treated like a human being when two men have already been killed and there's no other way to prevent more of them from dying. She has information they need to keep more men from dying, so they let her out of her bonds. No one in the company so much as looks at her sexually, she doesn't speak their language at first, and she doesn't play by their rules. She's more alien to them than the alien. When she tries to fight the creature, Schwarzenegger kicks the machine gun out of her hand with a mighty "NOOOO!!!" It's technically to save her but it looks more like he finds the idea of a woman fighting sacrilegious. Furthermore the finale where the creature reveals his true figure isn't strictly speaking in character. Hunters have no need to justify themselves to their prey, so his disrobing only serves to put him on more equal footing with Dutch, to show that he too is a muscular badass, a man. And at the very least Dutch can understand that. And if he can understand it, he can kill it.
So yeah, maybe I'm over-exaggerating its importance but I think there was more to Predator than cowboys and aliens. The only people who tried ripping it off were lowlifes like Bruno Mattei who'd rip off anything. I guess you could make a case for every sci-fi movie that pits armed men against a big monster or alien of some kind is ripping off Predator but crucially no big-budget action movies have had the balls to try the same trick twice. You would have to be making Robowars or Shocking Dark in order to think you were fooling anyone. Action films couldn't rest on their laurels anymore and soon there were no Albert Pyun movies for Schwarzenegger's followers to hide in. Can anyone name one action film that tried to play the same premise straight and enjoyed the same critical or box office success? Predator basically outlined why simply being big and carrying an equally big gun wasn't good enough. You needed cunning which most screenwriters and big name action stars couldn't pull off. Do you have any idea how hard it is to make it look like Sylvester Stallone is thinking? Schwarzenegger shed his roots and became a respected film star and soon started appearing in family friendly box-office fare. Carl Weathers, Sonny Landham and the others never found their way in another film like this because when their characters died so did any reason to keep putting them in films. They could be defeated; muscle-mass wasn't enough. Predator may have spawned successful sequels but they could never pull off the same trick twice. It may have not been the sole cause but Predator helped usher in a new era. Action films, for better or worse, were never the same.

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