There was a period back in the 1980s when Arnold Schwarzenegger ruled Hollywood. He was the ultimate action hero, and it didn’t matter in the slightest that he was a one-dimensional actor who favoured snappy one-liners over Oscar-worthy dialogue. Whether he was the action hero in Commando or the villain in The Terminator, “Ah-nuld” was a force of star-power to be reckoned with, and movie-goers flocked to see any of his action films. 1987’s Predator is simply the perfect ’80s movie, offering an amalgamation of the three most popular mainstream genres of that decade: action-adventure, horror, and science fiction – and it’s a Schwarzenegger flick to boot. All of these components are mixed up to form this heady brew of violent action, macho posturing and ridiculously quotable dialogue, which is all set at a breakneck pace.
At its most basic narrative level, Predator is your usual men-on-a-mission movie (think The Wild Geese or The Dirty Dozen) with added flourishes of horror and sci-fi. At the beginning of the film, Dutch Schaefer (Schwarzenegger) and his battle-hardened squad of elite commandos begrudgingly accept a mission set by the CIA to rescue a group of political hostages from guerrillas in the remote jungles of Central America. The assignment seems simple enough, but shortly after rappelling into enemy territory, Dutch and his team get the feeling that something isn’t quite right. Not only have they been set up by the CIA who in reality wants them to recover military intelligence, but there’s also something lurking in the jungle…a creature from another planet watching their every move. As the men head to the extraction point, they are slowly targeted one by one…
The rest of the movie sustains a skilfully realised dance between the increasingly desperate commandos (who are stripped of their physical and military superiority, and must resort to any trick in order to stay alive) and the titular Predator (who mixes futuristic technology with a taste for sadistic rituals). The fact that the Predator never gives a reason for its presence on Earth makes its hunting far more ruthless. Moreover, this creature has no voice and it can’t be reasoned with – it’s a hunter; pure and simple. And it slaughters the commandos for no reason other than it wants to. Unsurprisingly, the movie eventually boils down to a mano-a-mano standoff between Schwarzenegger and the Predator, with the stakes more equal when Dutch discovers an invisibility method. At this point Predator announces its affinity for all things primeval, as Dutch has to reach deep inside himself and become a primordial warrior stripped of all guns and armour. The battles between Dutch and the Predator are highly exciting, and have been bestowed with an element of danger rarely felt when Arnie is typically dodging bullets – he’s far more vulnerable when pitted against this strong otherworldly entity. Predator is a rare film in which a viewer gets the sense that something might just defeat Ah-nuld.
A huge part of what makes Predator such a top-shelf action flick is that it never stops charging ahead. There’s a refreshingly uncomplicated plotline in place which is never dragged down by sprawling back-stories, rambling chunks of exposition or gratuitous distractions. Dutch and his commandos have a hell of a lot of personality, and the screenplay (credited to Jim & John Thomas) doles them out without ever stopping to catch a breath. The lulls in the action are always filled with something: mistrust, pig-sticking, pussy jokes, the nagging sense that something’s not quite right, intense character interaction… The pacing never has the chance to drag. On top of this, Predator is one of the most quotable films in history (not far behind Arnie’s Commando) – “If it bleeds, we can kill it“; “Get to the choppaaaah!“; “I ain’t got time to bleed“; “You’re one ugly motherfucker“…the list could keep going, but you get the idea.
This was director John McTiernan’s second film, and his work here is brilliant. McTiernan has become famous for generating tension and suspense using confined locations, and for Predator he certainly uses the steamy jungle to great effect. His direction is claustrophobic and assured; confidently staging amazing action while also concentrating on tension and atmosphere. The jungle itself plays a crucial part in the proceedings, and it’s wonderfully photographed by Donald McAlpine. Then there’s the Predator itself. Despite being little more than a man in a suit that bleeds highlighter ink, it’s a marvellous creation engineered by effects maestro Stan Winston (with some input from James Cameron). Played by Kevin Peter Hall (who stands an imposing 7’2″), the Predator is an unnerving combination of insect, reptile and professional wrestler. The creature effects are immaculate, with the invisibility camouflage optical effect still impressing to this day. Naturally, not all of the special effects stand up to this day. But happily, even the phoney-looking effects are still serviceable.
Predator features countless large and in-charge actors. Arnold Schwarzenegger leads the pack. He may not be Hollywood’s greatest actor, but at the peak of his career he certainly knew how to entertain an audience. Interestingly, the film features another actor who went on to serve as Governor – Jesse Ventura. The most dynamic action sequences are saved for these two very large men, whose oversized physiques are in full display here.
Two of the most macho African American performers of the 1980s also feature in Predator – Bill Duke and Carl Weathers. Both men submit highly authoritative performances. Sonny Landham was hired for the film under one condition: that he had a bodyguard with him at all times – not to protect Sonny but to protect everyone around the actor (he was prone to starting bar fights). That trivia fact reveals pretty much everything you need to know about the badass Landham. Rounding out the cast is the endearing Elpidia Carrillo as Anna, in addition to Richard Chaves and Shane Black as members of Dutch’s unit. This was the film debut of Black, who became famous for his screenwriting. Indeed, Black penned Lethal Weapon, and spent his free time on the Predator set writing his screenplay for The Last Boy Scout.
With its thrilling, high-octane mix of Rambo and Aliens, Predator certainly delivers on its promise of non-stop, energetic action – and it does not disappoint in the macho department. It’s cheesy as hell, of course, and slightly dated, but it’s also entertaining and cool as hell, with tonnes of quotable lines and an utterly unforgettable villain.Predator is an action movie with something for everyone, and a jewel in Arnie’s career.