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 and finds restraint in that. 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.”
The film 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 and arm-wrestling on air. You get the sense that true friendship in their world is a matter of mutual muscle. 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 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, or work out. Predator also has the famous “Get to the chopper!” line. Personally, I love 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 like a chummy film at first, there are few points where these guys get to take it easy. John McTiernan cares more for the rigorous pace than the people. 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. 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" (in real life, Black seems to think these jokes were the only thing worth adapting for his The Predator -- not so much a Predator sequel as a Hawkins sequel). 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. You'll remember them all.
The film ends with shots of each man underlined by their name, like Predator was a 70s sitcom. But something must be working: I didn’t have to look up a single name for this review.
Despite knowing their names, I can’t say I mind that they die: Predator gives you friends but no allegiances. Mac is the only character that tugs at me a little, due more to Duke’s haunting performance than the plot. His dark face seems to light up his eyes. The sweat stands out on his obsessively shaven cheeks and when he loses his cool, his teeth go absolutely wild. When he showed up in last year's Mandy, his eyes were still burning. He still seemed to be running from the Predator.
By contrast, Blain's death is an imitation elegy. When the trumpets start playing over Mac's memorial service to his bro, it's hard not to chuckle. Blain is every tough guy that's ever died in a film for our pleasure. Predator is no different. But it makes us examine the difference.
Masculinity always plays a central role in this kind of movie. The characters in Alien were victimized by it; the men in The Thing (1982) clung to it for dear life, even as it failed them. Predator stands apart when you realize that manliness is both the winning and the cautionary element, and not just in the sense that it comes out of Schwarzenegger’s every pore (it’s hard to tell which movies he likes and which are just a workout for him, or if those can even be separated). I’ve heard people say that Predator is an argument against masculinity since it defaces a bunch of tough guys (“You’re bleeding," someone says; “Ain’t got time to bleed," Blain replies, in a way that doesn't for a moment make you proud of him). It sends them careening towards the normal climax of an action movie and blows it out half-way through -- it asks what's left after those other films. Then it makes them pee their pants and die; the natural conclusion is that their manly defiance cost them their lives.
But here's the thing with Predator that makes it more than that argument. By facing this particular enemy, the men are killed by a familiar element as opposed to a challenging one. Being bested by the Predator means they are bested not by their own masculinity but by the cosmic masculinity. They learn, not that there’s more to life than pumping, but that they didn’t pump enough.
That closed system is what makes Predator about movies, even as it exemplifies them -- it's significant that Dutch wins not by being more rational but by being a better predator. It's a sentiment that another film would have interpreted as being a better man; Predator equates them to show us how far that will take us. The men live out familiar tropes without an argument against them. They don't know anything else (even the villain doesn't know anything else). The one girl in the film (Elpidia Carrillo) is scared of what will happen, though significantly, she's seen it all before. That's where we are too.
There’s perfection in the way each of them dies; you understand what drives each man to his individual end. That’s the genius of Jim and John Thomas’ script. Mac isn’t a stupid horror movie character when he charges in blindly to face the monster: 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're a verb declension of the types of movie heroes.
They cling to their arm-wrestling and tobacco, their “get even” mentality and their guns. Here’s something missing from the script. 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. In Predator, violence is something that comes looking for us, but also something we might as well have put in the universe ourselves; we pump it up and take it out on safari and we do it so often that it’s hard to notice the price sometimes. If movies are any indication, cultural advancement may just mean a progression in the means of death. Movies know this too and translate it into one of their universal truths: a love of monsters. 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 about being a better human, but your popcorn’s gone by the end. You probably didn’t notice you were eating.
Image is a screenshot from the film.