There’s a theory that as a civilization advances it inevitably becomes less violent. If an alien saw the movies we watch, it might beg to differ. Then again, it might be a Predator, a species advanced enough to travel the stars and can think of nothing better to do in them than traipse through action movies and kill, kill, kill. He provides the perfect opportunity to make a bad movie, and that’s sort of what John McTiernan did. He just made the best bad movie ever.
Predator could have drowned in a bloodbath – how is it still breathing? It’s standing on someone’s classic broad shoulders. Remember the fellas crooning in the town jailhouse, with names like Chance, Dude, Stumpy, Colorado? Like Rio Bravo, Predator is a movie that thrives on men subsisting on the company of men. It does it without being about male aggression: it’s more concerned with exclusivity and chumminess. It’s about hanging out, with people you call “bro.” Predator proves it in an early scene where Dutch and Dillon (there’s also Mac, Blain, Billy, Hawkins, Poncho) greet each other by slapping their veiny arms in a death grip and arm-wrestling on air. If one of them was too weak they couldn’t be friends; there’s a minimum bicep circumference required to get in the club. Dutch (Schwarzenegger, whose first name is never worth typing) is stronger, though he thinks it wasn’t always so easy. “CIA got you been pushing too many pencils?” he says to Dillon (Carl Weathers), in that special way that Schwarzenegger has that makes it sound like no one wrote it. This is not good acting, and it’s also not worth criticizing: it’s bad acting at home in a movie that needs it in order to work right. Predator also has the famous “Get to the chopper!” line. Personally, I prefer it when Dutch follows up a stabbing with “Stick around,” partly because the camera has to break its pace to sweep over that sweet tooth-gap as he says it. It may be cheese, but it’s as gourmet as cheese gets.
Despite seeming pretty chummy at first, there’s no point where these guys get to hang out. John McTiernan cares more for the rigorous pace than the people, and what of it? It’s what imbues Predator with that addicting energy: it’s quite possibly the easiest movie to catch on TV and finish from partway through, or right at the end. You’ll want to start it over and watch it again and fall asleep in the middle, just so you have an excuse to put it on tomorrow. The fact that these dudes get their characters built on the fly is astounding. Hawkins (Shane Black) keeps trying to concoct the perfect pussy joke (he seems to think that his part in Predator was the only thing worth adapting for his The Predator). Blain (Jesse Ventura) chews huge globs of tobacco ‘cause it makes him a “sexual tyrannosaurus.” Mac (Bill Duke) can’t stop shaving and re-shaving his sweaty face.
The film ends with shots of each man underlined by their name, like Predator was a 70s sitcom. But something must be working here: I didn’t have to look up a single name for this review.
You’d expect people dropped into this kind of movie to end it six feet down. Despite knowing their names, I can’t say I care: Mac is the only character that tugs at me a little. Duke’s performance is haunting. His dark face seems to light up his eyes. The sweat stands out on his obsessively shaven cheeks. When he loses his cool, his teeth go absolutely wild.
Masculinity always plays a central role in this kind of movie. The characters in Alien were victimized by it, and the men in The Thing (1982) clung to it for dear life, even as it failed them. Predator stands apart in that man-ness is the winning element, and not just in the sense that it comes out of Schwarzenegger’s every pore (it’s sometimes hard to tell which movies he likes and which are just a workout to him, or if those things are even separate). I’ve heard people say that Predator is an action film against masculinity, as it defaces a bunch of tough guys (“You’re bleeding” “Ain’t got time to bleed”) by making them pee their pants and die. But there’s a problem with that. By facing this particular enemy, the men are killed by a familiar element as opposed to a challenging one. Testosterone isn’t their downfall because being bested by the Predator means they are bested by cosmic masculinity. The learn, not that there’s more to life than pumping, but that they didn’t pump enough.
There’s perfection in the way each of them die; you understand what drives every man to let it happen that way. That’s the genius of Jim and John Thomas’ script. Mac isn’t a stupid horror movie character when he charges in: he’s a man broken by vengeance. Dillon wants to die, to prove he’s man enough to; Billy wants to face someone worth getting killed by. No one has to say any of this. This is just what Predator does to you, by bunkering down with these guys and watching them sweat. You learn what they’re made of.
They cling to their arm-wrestling and tobacco, their “get even” mentality and their guns. Here’s something sorely missing. Dutch comes to a realization near the end that the Predator never kills unarmed people (“No sport,” he says). So get rid of the guns! There should have been a scene where Dutch has the idea to ditch the guns and his quaking squad mates can’t handle it. They’d die by literally sticking to their guns. Then it would be even more perfect when the Predator sees that Dutch is unarmed and takes off his shoulder cannon and mask. He circles him, roaring something horrible, an ideology from across the stars which I’d bet my left bicep translates exactly to, “Come at me bro.”
Predator has a rare lesson to teach to its genre. We’re often violated by alien life, and often overcome it, but rarely do we seem no better than it. Violence is something we put in the universe, and we pump it up and take it out on safari and we do it so often that it’s hard to notice sometimes. Advancement may just mean a progression in the means of death. McTiernan doesn’t want to change us: he successfully gets across the slowest moments in Predator as though they’re poised for some terrific violence, and by the time Stan Winston’s diabolical prosthesis is snarling into the audience there isn’t a drop of blood below boiling. Alan Silvestri carves music out of this movie: even footsteps and the Predator’s sedate breathing seem part of the score. Predator is cable TV tribalism. No, it doesn’t teach you anything, but your popcorn’s all gone by the end. You probably didn’t even notice you were eating.
Image is a screenshot from the film.