Monday, June 6, 2016

Film Appreciation - The Demon Who Makes Trophies of Man

Cody Hamman hunts up some Film Apprecation for 1987's Predator.

If it weren't for the opening scene, director John McTiernan's 1987 classic Predator could have been one of the greatest sneak attack genre switch movies in cinema history, something along the lines of From Dusk Till Dawn, where a crime thriller becomes a vampire movie halfway in.

Predator begins as a "men on a mission" film, as a mercenary rescue team is hired to pull off a job in the Central American jungle that's supposed to be quick and easy, a one day gig. A helicopter carrying a cabinet minister has been lost while flying over the jungle, the cabinet minister is believed to be in the clutches of guerillas. The rescue team is to parachute into the jungle, locate the guerilla, extract the cabinet minister, and get out of there. The cast assembled to play the badass members of this rescue team is nothing short of incredible. You have Arnold Schwarzenegger as team leader Dutch; professional wrestler Jesse Ventura as Blain, who chews tobacco, considers himself a sexual Tyrannosaurus, and hauls around a mini-gun he calls Ol' Painless; Bill Duke as Blain's pal Mac, who has a habit of shaving when he's nervous; Sonny Landham as tracker Billy; Richard Chaves as demolitions expert Poncho; and Shane Black as radioman Hawkins, who has a predilection for jokes about the female anatomy.

Black is a screenwriter and now a director as well, and 1987 saw the release of three films he was involved with. His first produced screenplay was Lethal Weapon, which was released in March of '87. Predator came out in June, and was followed by the August release of The Monster Squad, which he co-wrote with that film's director, Fred Dekker. McTiernan cast Black in Predator so he would be on set in Mexico to do revisions on the screenplay, which has started out as a spec script by siblings Jim and John Thomas. Black ended up not doing anything to the script, they shot what the Thomas brothers had written.

Dutch's team is hired at the suggestion of Dutch's old Vietnam War buddy Dillon, played by Carl Weathers, who now works for the CIA. After receiving a briefing from a military general played by the great character actor R.G. Armstrong, Dutch and his team head into the jungle... and Dillon tags along, even though it's been years since he was in the field and he's not so good at it anymore.

This team is truly one of the greatest bunch of badasses ever put on film. These guys ooze testosterone, these are the sort of fellows who greet each other by arm wrestling, but Dutch's team does have a code of honor. They get offered all kinds of jobs, like assassinations, but they only work rescues. They're calm and cool riding into their mission in choppers, listening to some Little Richard, chewing tobacco, and making inappropriate comments.

Soon after hitting the ground in the jungle, it starts to become obvious that something is very wrong here. They locate the downed helicopter, but it seems to be a surveillance chopper, not something that would be transporting a cabinet minister. There are guerilla tracks, but also tracks left by men wearing Army issue boots. Dillon denies that there were any U.S. military men around. They find signs of a firefight, spent bullet casings, evidence that men were shooting in all directions, but whatever they were shooting at left no tracks. There's a gruesome discovery - the skinned bodies of Green Berets, including a man Dutch knew (identified by his dog tag), hanging upside down from trees.

The guerilla camp is located and the rescue team moves in when they see that the guerillas are executing hostages. This kicks off a lengthy action sequence packed with automatic gunfire and explosions as the team slaughters the opposition - Schwarzenegger even gets to deliver a one-liner after throwing a huge knife into a bad guy, impaling him to a pole: "Stick around." With grenades being tossed, a truck used as a weapon, and Blain mowing people down with his mini-gun, the overkill in this sequence is spectacular.

All of this for a lie. Dillon duped Dutch and his men into taking this job. There was no cabinet minister, no Central American guerillas. The guys they just killed were Soviets plotting an invasion. Dillon is pleased, but the only thing our heroes really get out of this is freeing a local girl named Anna (Elpidia Carrillo) who was being held hostage.

The team treks off through the jungle in search of a good extraction point... And then another dangerous presence begins to make itself known.

Ever since the team arrived in the jungle, they have been under surveillance by someone who watches them from the trees, viewing them in infrared, recording and analyzing their voices. Team members, especially Billy, sense that there's something watching them, but they don't see anything. We only see through the voyeur's P.O.V., so we don't have any idea who or what it is. 33 minutes into the film, the watcher picks up a scorpion Mac crushed, and its clawed hand doesn't appear to belong to a human.

40 minutes in, we lose the first member of the team, and as they're murdered we get our first look at what we know as the Predator, and we see why the characters have been unable to see it - it blends into its surroundings with the use of a cloaking system. This is not Earthly tech.

The Predator proceeds to pick off the team members one-by-one, blasting some with a very powerful plasma cannon it has mounted on one shoulder and aims with a lazer sight (when that triangle of red light shows up on your body, you know you're in trouble), slashing others with blade gauntlets. The movie becomes something quite like a slasher movie once the Predator starts killing the characters, these characters just happen to have biceps that are the size of the typical slasher final girl, and they carry machine guns and assault weapons... Weapons they blindly empty into the jungle during one glorious moment when they think they're firing at an enemy. The invisible Predator is long gone.

Eventually there's only Dutch left to take on this creature, with no weapons left but what he's able to craft out of his surroundings.

When Predator started filming, there was a different design for the title creature. The alien being was basically a humanoid insect and would have looked completely ridiculous if they had gone with it. McTiernan knew they were in trouble as soon as he laid eyes on that thing. It would have been fitting for a campy 1950s creature feature, but not for this movie. They were able to shoot the cloaked Predator moments, since it just required the performer to wear a red suit that would be replaced with the invisibility shimmer... and the performer in that red outfit was Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Special effects legend Stan Winston came on board to save the project with a redesign of the Predator, and in doing so created an icon. 51 minutes in, we get our first glimpse of it without the cloak. A reptilian beat with hair similar to dreadlocks, metal armor on certain parts of its body, some kind of hi-tech device on one wrist. A metal mask over its face. Later that mask will come off and we'll see its hideous face, its mouth with mandibles. A visage that will prompt Dutch to call it "one ugly M.F." The design for this creature is amazing and unforgettable, and the performer who perfectly brought it to life was 7'2" actor Kevin Peter Hall, a man who could tower over the 6'2" Schwarzenegger.

Anna knows a little something about the Predator. It's a local legend, it hunts people and it has come to this jungle to hunt before. It's drawn by heat and conflict, it only kills prey that is armed. The locals call it "The Demon Who Makes Trophies of Man" because it always keeps a memento from the humans it kills. It especially likes to collect the skulls of its victims. We watch it remove and clean the skull of one of the team members.

While the build up to the reveal of the creature is quite well done, it's not shocking because the very first scene of the movie shows a spaceship pass by Earth and eject a pod that goes streaking through our atmosphere. Without that, the concept that there's an alien in this movie could come out of nowhere. The infrared spying shots could have been much more mysterious if we had no idea that there was an alien lurking around. The fact that the men on a mission action movie is going to shift into a sci-fi horror film at some point is tipped off by the spaceship scene, and without that the first shot of the Predator could have been a mind-blowing shock.

Predator works perfectly the way it is, it's done just fine over the last 29 years with that spaceship scene intact, but I think it could have been a tiny percentage better without that scene. Then again, I don't know how they would convey the information that the Predator is an alien if they didn't stick that shot in there, so maybe I'm wrong. Anne could have the information, but it's more effective that she sees it as a demon.

Regardless, Predator has been one of my favorite films ever since I saw it when it first hit VHS. To this day, it remains my favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger movie by far.

I was fascinated by this movie even before I knew how to properly spell its title, and little four-year-old me, already obsessed with established horror franchises, imagined this movie getting all sorts of sequels. I would draw one page concept art for sequels I wanted to see happen, and I'm fairly certain that I got up to at least Predator part 40, and might have even gotten as far as Predator part 70-something. Yeah, I wanted to see a whole lot more of this creature. There have been further Predator movies made, of varying quality, but still not nearly enough for my taste.

There is another one on the way, scheduled for release in 2018. Shane Black is returning to the series to direct an "inventive sequel" called The Predator, and he's actually working on the script this time, co-writing it with his collaborator on The Monster Squad, Fred Dekker. I can't wait to see what those two do with the concept.

While I wait to see The Predator, I will continue to take in viewings of Predator. With its awesome characters, suspense, intrigue, action, and one of the greatest monstrous antagonists in cinema history, it is an immensely entertaining film. Movies don't get much cooler than this one.

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