By the late 1980s, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former Austrian bodybuilder-turned-actor (and currently the governor of California), had become the 80s' most popular action star. Despite several missteps (e.g., the Conan sequel, Conan the Conqueror, Red Sonja, and Raw Deal), Schwarzenegger picked roles that worked to his strengths as an onscreen performer, not his limitations, none better, qualitatively than his first collaboration with James Cameron, The Terminator, and his second (after Commando a year earlier) with John McTiernan (The Thomas Crown Affair, Die Hard with a Vengeance, The Last Action Hero, The Hunt for Red October, Die Hard), Predator.
Predator, a genre mash-up that combined science fiction with horror and action, centers on Schwarzenegger's character, listed only as "Dutch" in the credits. The U.S. military, calls in Dutch and his squad, Blain (former Navy Seal turned actor [and later politician] Jesse Ventura), Mac (Bill Duke), Billy (Sonny Landham), the squad's Native-American tracker, Poncho (Richard Chaves), and Hawkins (Shane Black), for what seems to be a basic search and rescue in an unnamed Central American country. The presence of Dutch's longtime friend and current CIA operative Dillon (Carl Weathers), however, suggests that there's more to the S&R mission. He's right, of course.
After setting down, Dutch and his squad attack a guerilla compound, leaving only one survivor, Anna (Elpidia Carrillo). They emerge from the fight temporarily unscathed. Their superior firepower wins the fight, but like the Colonial Marines in James Cameron's Aliens a year earlier, they soon discover an enemy armed with superior weaponry and the ability to disappear into the foliage due to camouflage technology, an element critics at the time saw (and still see) as a metaphor for our involvement in the Vietnam War. They don't know it yet, but they've met the Predator (Kevin Peter Hall) of the title, an alien hunter and he's here to hunt "the most dangerous game," combat-trained soldiers.
Borrowing key elements from the slasher genre, the Predator tracking and killing the squad one-by-one, but not before the squad tries to bait him into a trap. It's the second of three major set pieces, coming minutes (in reel time) after the attack on the guerilla compound, but after Dutch and the remaining members of the squad discover they're being hunted by an alien, not guerillas. Focusing, like the third-act climax, on process, on the men building various traps and setting a perimeter, it's a prime example of McTiernan's control of spatial geography (something current directors have unlearned, assuming they ever knew it all).
The first attempt to kill the Predator fails, as expected, ultimately leaving Dutch to face the Predator alone. Again focusing on process, this time on Dutch alone, McTiernan efficiently sets up the face-to-face confrontation between Dutch and the Predator, who, presumably in a sign of respect for his quarry, partially disarms and removes his mask (the first time we see Stan Winston's singular creation). No quick or jerky camera moves here. McTiernan doesn't want us to miss a single action beat and we don't, making for an ultimately engrossing (and fitting) ending to Predator.
If Predator has any faults, it's in the usual action-film shortcoming: ill- or poorly defined characters. We learn next to nothing about the characters. There's backstory between Dutch an Dillon that suggests a deeper conflict (Dutch refused to go on an assassination-oriented mission), and, typical for the 1980s, a distrust of the CIA and its shadowy motives, but nothing more. By (stereotypical) appearance and behavior, Billy is Native American, and as the only Native-American in the squad, he's the tracker. The squad includes one comic-book geek, Hawkins, who attempts to assert his masculinity through sexist jokes, a token Latino, Poncho, who's primarily background fodder, and, in the friendship between Blain and Mac, the hint of genuine connection and emotion.
With its dystopian vision of a future 1997, where Columbian and Jamaican gangs (nope, no racism there), under-powered and under-manned police force caught in the crossfire, inept government bureaucrats, and a shadowy government agency interested only in alien technology, not saving or protecting lives, Predator 2, Stephen Hopkins' (Lost in Space, The Ghost and the Darkness, Blown Away, Judgment Night, A Nightmare on Elm Street V: The Dream Child) addition to the franchise, is bleaker, meaner, and uglier, and thus less than entertaining, than the jungle-set predecessor directed by John McTiernan. It's also more gratuitous, more nihilistic, more amoral, and more ultra-violent than its predecessor.
Schwarzenegger wisely decided not to return for a sequel. He had little interest in the Los Angeles (as an urban jungle) setting, not to mention James Cameron wanted him to return for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Instead, moviegoers in 1990 got Danny Glover, serviceable as the lead, Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover), an LAPD officer. Another Predator (again played by Kevin Peter Hall), attracted by war-torn LA, has come to hunt, both gangbangers and police officers (or, as we re-learn later, anyone who's armed). After slaughtering random Columbian gangbangers, the Predator leaves a trail of blood and broken, flayed bodies behind. Harrigan and two other LAPD detectives, Danny Archuleta (Rubén Blades), the first of two sacrificial sidekicks, and Leona Cantrell (Maria Conchita Alonso), begin to suspect the presence of another player.
They're right, of course. The government sends a crack squad led by Peter Keyes (Gary Busey), to hunt and capture the Predator. Taking another page from Aliens, the government wants to acquire and exploit alien technology. That leaves Harrigan, Archuleta, Cantrell, and the newest addition to the LAPD, Jerry Lambert (Bill Paxton, in cocky a-hole mode), struggling to overcome jurisdictional hurdles while investigating the murders of the Columbians and, later, Jamaicans. This leads, inevitably to multiple shoot-outs, all of them bloody and gory, with the Predator as the wild card, and, as expected, a one-on-one battle between Harrigan and the Predator across the rooftops and inside the buildings of Los Angeles.
Predator 2 suffers greatly due to the absence of McTiernan (or someone of his caliber) at the helm. Whether he would have tried to ameliorate the screenplay's (again written by the Thomas Brothers) rampant racism, is an open question, but the Hawksian emphasis on camaraderie present in the original appears here only sporadically. It's not helped by Predator 2's tokenism, a do-little-Latino detective and a do-nothing Latina (two minorities-in-one) detective. She disappears at the one-hour and 10-minute mark, never to be seen or heard from again (she's not missed). But, as some have argued, at least Predator 2 has an African-American lead. That ameliorates the racism and tokenism, right? True, but only partially.
But we're here to praise (what we can praise, that is), not to bury Predator 2. With the exception of the subway scene that occurs at the mid-way mark, ill served by Hopkins insistence on using strobe lights, and an extended scene set in a refrigerated slaughterhouse that pits the Predator against military types, the remaining action scenes are far from memorable. Even the slaughterhouse scene gets points off for borrowing too heavily (if not outright stolen) from Aliens and C.H.U.D. (1984), but at least Predator 2 gave us one scene that deserves revisiting. Well that and the Alien skull we see in the last scene that suggests that Predators have actively hunted Aliens in the past.
So what do you think? What are your favorite scenes from the original and, assuming you have any, from Predator 2?