Sunday, 18 September 2011

Predators (1987 & 1990)

There’s something out there waiting for us, and it aint no man.

Now let me get this straight, this is not about Predators (2010); I haven’t seen it and I’ve no burning desire to either. Predator 1 & 2 were made fairly close together, and so seem fair game to be given the double bill treatment. Made in the mid-late 80s (1990 may as well be the 80s let’s be honest) the films are from a time of macho action, explosions and swearing, when swearing was cool and not clichéd.

Bur before we begin, here’s some great music by Alan Silvestri to read by:

Predator and Back to the Future, not at all disparate!

Predator is set in the Central American jungle and the story (set out in the first 6 minutes of the film - I like that, no messing around) revolves around a squad of soldiers called upon to rescue a diplomat who has been caught by some rebels. Dutch (Schwarzenegger) is the commander of the squad who are “thrown into the meat grinder”, they successfully infiltrate the rebel camp, but discover that the diplomat story was a set up. Soon that doesn’t matter at all as they discover that something is stalking them and picking them off one at a time.

Predator 2 takes place in L.A. during a very hot summer when gang warfare is rife. Hard nosed cop Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) gets caught in the hunting ground of the Predator while trying to bust opposing drug trafficking gangs. He is told to back off by a special division of Feds led by Peter Keys (Gary Busey) who are investigating the alien. However, when Mike’s partner is killed by the creature, he takes it personally and is determined to get the killer.

Although the setup of both movies is broadly similar (group of characters, most get killed along the way, and an alpha male lead role who spends the last 20 alone trying to destroy the Predator), there is quite a gulf of quality between them. Director John McTiernan (soon to really make his name with Die Hard), seems to have knack for directing action. But despite that obviously being the focus of the film, it doesn’t stop him from doing interesting things with the camera. There are some very nicely framed shots, and some great crane movements. I can’t think that Stephen Hopkins creates any moments in Predator 2 that are really worth mentioning.

One of the most important things to get right in films like these are the characters. What you need to do is create a group of characters who just click together on screen, and who you feel that you’ve known all of your life (like Aliens). What you don’t want is a bunch of characters that no-one cares about (Sucker Punch). As Bruce Lee said: “Emotional content... It’s like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory.” Predator manages to get the characters spot on, and in record time too! Within 10 minutes, I think, we are in the jungle, the plot is crystal clear, not contrived, and we feel like we know half the team already! They have history, they have humour, camaraderie, they have been thought out. The same isn’t so true of the second film. It’s not that we have no connection with them, Mike, Keys and Jerry Lambert (Bill Paxton) are all interesting characters, they just aren’t as well developed as those in Predator.

Both films were written by the same guys, Jim and John Thomas, so it’s not like the writers weren’t as good for Predator 2. I think that because it is set in L.A. the characters suffer a bit; with everything else going on in the city, perhaps less time was given over to character development. In Predator there is only a cast of 9! Coupled with that is a straightforward plot and a jungle setting (no annoying extra people to worry about - other cops, drug dealers, commanding officers, Feds etc), so the film is able to focus on the characters a lot more. That, and I don’t think that Stephen Hopkins is as good a director in 1990 than McTiernan was in 1987, means that Predator 2 doesn't have the impact that the first film does. To his credit, Stephen Hopkins did go on the direct the first series of 24. The strange thing was that after only 5 minutes of watching Predator 2, I was convinced that it was a Paul Verhoeven film! It just had a Robocop/Total Recall feeling to it.

Needless to say, the cast is great in both films. Arnie is a great lead character and perfect for this film; but good as he is in the first film, he would not have been suitable for the second. I think Danny Glover is just right for the L.A.-based cop, he already had a lot of Lethal Weapon experience, and so is a natural choice. As an actor Danny is also more natural; however good Arnie is at leading these kinds of movies (and he is generally great I think; yes, even in Conan he is perfect for that role), he still has a wooden quality to his acting. Carl Weathers and the rest of the Predator cast are all great; Carl and Arnie giving us the most unnecessary testosterone-fueled scene ever filmed I think:

In fact Predator could be the most homo-erotic mainstream film since Top Gun! All the “Boy scout shit” with their shirts off is essentially the “Playing with the boys” volleyball scene no?

I digress! Gary Busey turns in a smart performance as Keys, the smarmy Fed looking down his nose at Harrigan; and Bill Paxton is as likeable (and killable) as usual, though given how great he is in Aliens, he’s perhaps a little underused here.

Of course the star of the show, the Predator, is amazing. A really novel idea, brought to life by the large- than-life Kevin Peter Hall (7’ 4’’), and by Stan Winston’s special effects. The Predator has such an iconic mask, a wonderful array of technology (that can be operated with very long claws), and a fantastic face (though completely impractical fangs and a mouth that looks like a vagina!), but you know, that’s cool.

I think that Predator is a brilliant film, full of great action, characters we get to know well, a fantastic foe, a great music score, and it is eminently quotable: “If it bleeds, we can kill it.” (I didn’t say it was particularly great prose!). Predator 2 is also enjoyable and has its moments, it just lacks the character depth of the first film and its larger scope I think somehow lessens its impact. As for Predators, well maybe I’ll see it sometime, but I’m not in a hurry.