Retro Review Double Feature: Predator 1 & 2.
The first Predator movie was an action horror classic. The second was critical roadkill. Is it still true, and how did it happen?
Bad sequels to classic movies are nothing new. We even collected a list of ten films so egregious they effectively mothballed the franchise…and Predator 2 was on that list. For the majority of my lifetime, it was pretty much dogma: Predator is one of the best 80’s action films ever made; Predator 2 is a goddamn travesty that desecrated the original. It’s been a while since I actually sat down and watched the two in their entirety. So I did just that, and for the first time watched them back-to-back. The results surprised me.
It may be a cinematic case of “regression to the mean” but I found Predator to be not quite as amazing as I remembered and Predator 2 to be far less awful. Certain elements of the 80’s action genre haven’t aged well or become hackneyed, while the unrelenting grit of the second film feels more in line with recent action films. With the latest Predator film on the horizon, let’s explore the then and now of the first two Predator films.
In a war torn jungle, an elite team of mercenaries are sent in to eliminate hostiles and recover missing personnel. As they execute their orders, they discover that somebody is trying to execute them: a mysterious creature with advanced weaponry is hunting humans. Having discovered its handiwork on their missing comrades, Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his platoon must evade and destroy the hostile alien threat before it can claim their heads as trophies.
A Perfect Storm.
Predator arrived as an inflection point for action films, combining many of the people who would go on to define the genre for a decade. This was the first big directorial outing for John McTiernan, who would go on to make Die Hard and Die Hard 3, The Hunt for Red October and Last Action Hero. It’s written by Josh and Jim Thomas, who wrote both Predator films and the Kurt Russell hit Executive Decision. And of course, it starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was making the switch from niche cult phenom to leading action star.
The film takes all of the popular genres of the 80’s, distills them and combines them. It is a slasher film, mixed with an impossibly macho action film, seasoned with some comedic elements and a hefty does of science fiction. Many of Arnie’s biggest hits of the coming decade –The Running Man, Total Recall, Terminator 2 – would follow in the mold pioneered by Predator.
The linchpin of Predators confabulation of genres is its stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Predator creature itself. After the success of Commando, Arnie was set to dominate action movies for a decade with a signature style: cocksure bravado, rippling muscles, over-the-top body counts, and personal charisma. His screen persona alternated between steely resolve and corny one-liners that winked at the audience. He was so much larger than life that all of his characters seemed to know they were the hero in a movie…and acted accordingly. His dead-pan groaners after having implausibly wiped out hundreds of combatants basically said to viewers “See? We both knew I had this all along!” and people loved it.
Against this caricature of everything manly and heroic you had an iconic monster, created by the legendary Stan Winston (Aliens, The Terminator, Jurassic Park, The Thing). It was imposing and implacable, regal but brutal, and above all a disciplined killing machine. It was made to be superior to Arnie’s hero, Dutch, in pretty much every way. Despite the camp of the film, it was a serious threat precisely because it could outmatch this caricature of all things manly and heroic. When Arnie winds up and punches the creature and it basically laughs it off, both Dutch and the audience know that shit is about to get real for team humanity.
Then and Now.
Predator is definitely an artifact of its time, for good and ill. For as many bodies get riddled with bullets, the violence is almost cartoonish. The big burly army men and their peacocking machismo makes you roll your eyes 30 years later. The pieces don’t quite blend as the film feels like a sequel to Commando that somebody just dropped Jason Vorhees in at the final half. The dialogue is some of the finest b-movie bluster ever written. The monster and the final confrontation between man and alien is still iconic, but the rest is a delightful guilty pleasure of pure vintage 80’s action flick. It’s not hard to see why it has such cult appeal.
Predator 2 (1990)
The race of alien hunters known as Predators arrives in LA to chase big game: humans. A gruff and tough cop, Lt. Harrigan (Danny Glover), investigates a series of odd kills that leads him to discover the creatures stalking LA from the shadows. Along with FBI agents looking to capture the Predator for study, Harrigan battles the creatures that have decided his head would make the perfect prize.
Predator 2 had to readjust quickly after Arnie dropped out as the star. Danny Glover, well known for his Lethal Weapon action films, became the lead. Directing duty fell to Stephen Hopkins, who primarily was known for slasher films such as Nightmare on Elm Street 5 and Dangerous Game. The Thomas brothers returned for writing duty, but you could see the missing dialogue elements that Shane Black brought to the first film’s script. All in all, the campy elements had been stripped away, leaving a dedicated science fiction horror film in place of the roided up action of the first.
Dual Blade Runner.
Another twist is that while the first film happens in the near past, Predator 2 happens in the near future. The whole tone of this soon-to-be LA is of degradation and exhaustion. The cast is drenched in sweat the whole film and the locations are run-down structures and seedy neighborhoods. Classic dystopian fare.
Then and Now.
In 1990, the bleak and blood soaked image presented in Predator 2 was fairly repellent, especially for fans of the first film. The film is unrelentingly dark, even from a color palette perspective. Danny Glover gives a strong performance, especially as he was rarely the tough guy in his action films. Unfortunately, his style is grim where Arnie’s was full of swagger. The sequel ended up being a completely different animal, tonally, from the first and disappointed many.
Re-watching it now, I like that Hopkins embraced a new angle on the material and was completely consistent in his presentation. Glover is a much more realistic protagonist and the setting is much more vividly evoked. It may not be as fun as the first movie, but it is tense and gory and much scarier. Perhaps had it not carried the burden of being a Predator movie, it would have been celebrated as something different and unique in the late 80’s/early 90’s action movie scene. As it was, it couldn’t get out of the glowing red cross-hairs of comparison to its older sibling.