People can be a little snooty about the 80s/90s high concept style of movies, where films were seemingly greenlit on the basis of a quick pitch, but sometimes it pays dividends. Like this movie, which is essentially “invisible alien killing machine hunts special forces commandos”.
What John McTiernan produces from this simple premise is one of the best Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and a hugely entertaining sci-fi action movie that still stands up to this day.
In a prologue we see a space ship crash to Earth and then the movie follows Arnie’s character Dutch who leads his elite squad on a mission in Central America to rescue a missing official. There they meet Dutch’s old buddy Dillon (Carl Weathers) who works for the CIA, who joins the team, cue the most gratuitous, homoerotic “gun show” moment in cinematic history.
Soon Arnie’s boys find a downed chopper and the remains of a special forces team, who have been skinned. Meanwhile, something watches them from the trees.
They hit a guerrilla camp which they eliminate in a blizzard of bullets and action hero one-liners (“I ain’t got time to bleed”), they snatch the sole survivor, Anna (Elpidia Carrillo) as a prisoner and Dutch twigs that Dillon has screwed him over (“So you cooked up a story and dropped the six of us in the meat grinder. What happened to you Dillon? You used to be somebody I could trust“)
The cloaked figure (as in Star Trek cloak, not Lord of the Rings cloak) stalks them through the jungle and takes out the group’s wisecracking geek Hawkins (Shane Black), sparing Anna. It’s not long before mini-gun toting Blain (former wrestler Jesse “the Body” Ventura), Blain’s best friend Mac (Bill Duke) glimpses the shimmering figure and opens fire, the crew pouring firepower into the trees, but only seeming to land a glancing hit, leading to the classic Arnie quote “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”
Anna tells a charming campfire story about a local legend of “the demon that makes trophies of men” and we see an alien figure cleaning the skulls of his victims. Even Arnie’s highly trained squad are freaked out, with badass Billy (Sonny Landham) getting a serious case of the willies.
Pancho: Bullshit! You ain’t afraid of no man.
Billy: There’s something out there waiting for us…and it ain’t no man. We’re all gonna die.
Mac and Dillon go off to take it down. Mac having got a little cracked following the death of his buddy. I gotta hand it to Bill Duke in this section of the movie, he’s not known for his acting chops but he nails Mac’s breakdown, and his ragged singing of “Long Tall Sally” is seriously creepy.
Needless to say it doesn’t go well.
Dutch rallies his boys and along with Anna they book it for their extraction, their extraterrestrial hunter hot on their heels. Billy decides to go one-on-one with the beastie, ditching his guns and drawing his machete.
Billy goes down off screen moments later, his death shown by a scream in the distance. I kinda get why this is done, because they’re saving the mano-a-predator face off until the end, and showing this fight would ruin that later showdown, but I still think it sucks. Of all of Dutch’s crew, Billy was the most badass and they build him up only for him to get this really crap death.
Poncho buys the farm shortly after and Anna goes for his piece, but by this point Dutch has twigged that the Predator only hunts those with weapons, because this is sporting.
This is another thing that always bugged me, is it really that sporting, I mean, sure Arnie’s boys have guns, but you’re about 8 foot tall, can go invisible, have a laser sighted cannon on your shoulder which is miles ahead of anything they’ve got. It’s like me giving a bunch of schoolkids muskets and hunting them with a sniper rifle. While being invisible.
Dutch tells Anna to “Get to da choppa!” and legs it. He winds up in the water, the Predator in hot pursuit. During all this he gets covered in mud that masks him from the Predator’s heat seeker, and the water also disrupts the cloaking device.
Dutch hunkers down and builds traps and creates weapons before Tarzan yelling into the night.
The Predator comes for him and they fight to the death. The Predator kicks his as pretty badly but Dutch’s brains win out and he wins the day. At which point the sporting Predator activates it’s nuclear bomb self destruct (sore loser) and Dutch legs it.
There are several reasons why this movie has dated better than a lot of 80s sci-fi fare but I think that comes down to two major factors- excellence of execution and campness.
Some of the movie is extremely well done, I mean, even though the shimmering Predator cloak effect looks a little creaky it still sort of works. In fact, the worse it looks the more realistic in a way. Yeah, I get that using the word “realistic” about a film which follows an alien hunter is kinda dopey, but the whole idea is that the Predator doesn’t really vanish but camouflages itself, and even the best camouflage fails under scrutiny.
The effect works and the creature design is phenomenal, at the time there’d been nothing like it and its still an iconic genre figure. Due to the time a lot of the effects have more weight than some later CGI stuff.
The campness factor comes due to the fact it’s an overblown Arnie vehicle and the gloriously cheesy dialogue throughout. Arnie busts out several quotable one liners (“Stick around!”, “You’re one ugly motherfucker!”, “If it bleeds, we can kill it”, “Get to da choppa!”) and his squad is oddest special forces teams since the A-Team.
There’s gruff Billy and the seriously creepy Mac, but there’s also the tobacco chewing Blain, played with OTT swagger by Jesse Ventura who proclaims himself to be a “goddamned sexual Tyrannosaurus”.
The whole film toes the line between the properly gripping and the ridiculous and just about manages to keep on the right side, and in a way the daft parts are what endears it to the audience, or to this 80s action movie lover anyway.
The sign of how good it is that it’s never been matched and is still, along with Aliens the benchmark for sci-fi action movies.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.