Whenever anyone suggests a poll of the greatest action movie made in the 80’s, director John McTiernen must feel at least a little smug. You see, not only is he responsible for the virtually peerless Die Hard but barely one year or so beforehand he turned in Predator, one of the most accomplished action/sci-fi/slasher/war film ever made.
On paper it sounds like the hokey, b-list kind of film that Commando or The Running Man became. Not that I’m knocking either of those two films, but there is a real sense of sophistication in the filmmaking behind Predator that places it head, shoulders and ripped out spinal column above your usual Schwarzenegger potboiler, a sense that all involved are giving their all into not just turning in another Sci-fi splatter-fest and collecting a paycheck.
You want proof (even though this IS Predator we’re talking about)? Fine.
The cast are a selection of mostly giant, oily man-mountains led by a lead actor who’s iconic accent is sometimes…. problematic, and yet the performances are incredibly measured while still being larger than life. This is due to some smart casting as the filmmakers surrounded Arnie with legit actors in order to make him raise his game and thus the Austrian Oak gives a surprisingly sensitive and noble performance as Dutch, the leader of an elite recue team, tricked into partaking in an illegal operation in South America. Flanked by such charismatic character actors as Carl Weathers, Jessie Ventura and Bill Duke with an inexplicable shaving fetish and armed with a super-lean script loaded with devastating one liners the actors chew like tobacco, Arnie and his cast of prime beef, sketch memorable characters who all rise above the usual unbearable machismo stereotypes.
That’s because, after a barnstorming action scene of the team leveling a guerilla camp without breaking a sweat, the REAL threat kicks in and these ridiculously bulgey men and their crazy phallic guns become the underdogs and are now the victims in the most muscular slasher movie ever made.
Exactly how you turn a group of guys who shrug off flesh wounds with the immortal line “I ain’t got time to bleed!” and hand shake like Norse gods, into the action movie equivalent of cheerleaders cowering in a log cabin from a masked killer outside, is relatively simple. You create a worthy foe and this is another aspect of the movie that effortlessly breaks new ground.
The monster reveal in a movie is exceedingly important, show too much too early and you lose the potency of your creature design, show too little and you are essentially blue ballsing your audience and aside from the timing, how do you show your beastie? Predator avoids this whole business by having the whole film be one steady, long reveal of it’s dreadlocked space bastard via his various tricks and tech. First we see his handiwork, the skinned bodies of his victims and then we move onto the POV shots that blaze with heat vision. From there we see the intergalactic hunter using his light bending camouflage with the occasional few shots of him tending to his bright green wounds during some down time and finally we see him in his full glory, all armoured up and stalking the last survivor. But we ain’t done yet, as he removes his mask for a final battle as a mark of respect we finally get a glimpse of THAT crab-like visage. This drip feed of visual information gives the feel of a constantly evolving threat and pretty tells you everything you need to know about the Predator and his motivations (thankfully he’s not an asshole alien dentist on safari…) and it’s a masterpiece of wordless character building through script, performance and character design (God bless the late Stan Winston).
As the cast list rapidly shrinks at the clawed hands of the great non-white hunter and the final act pares back to a near wordless, back-to-nature showdown between Dutch and the towering killer another vital piece to the Predator puzzle becomes overwhelmingly apparent and that’s the flawless score by Alan Silvestri. As lean and muscular as the script, the driving themes draw out every single drop of tension there is to be had with every soaring string and blaring trumpet and it’s telling that all three official Predator movies have utilised it even when Silvestri wasn’t around. The Alien saga can’t boast that.
Fiercely quotable (“GET TO DAH CHOPPAH!!”), constantly subverting expectation and boasting a sizable brain under all the muscle mass, Predator is A-grade 80’s action and virtually timeless to boot.
To paraphrase Carl Weathers’ Dillion, some damn fool accused Predator of being the best. Well, that fool was me, because to further misquote Jessie Ventura’s Blaine: this film’s a God damn sexual tyranosaurus.