It’s easy enough to feel like the Predator during an opening shootout, when we as the audience have no real idea who the hell anyone is or what’s going on. Except we know at once that we’re trapped in an action film, and a fairly gratuitous one at that. No problemo there. Gratuity and I are old friends. But Predator 2 is unique in that it lets us know, almost from the first, that it knows we know how gratuitous all this is.
I think this extra level of aesthetic intelligence contributed to Predator 2‘s near-universal condemnation. Genre fans failed to appreciate the time, effort and thought that went into this production (at least at the time…most have woken up since, and the rest of you should keep reading – this one’s for you guys), while non-fans…well…we all know there’s no reasoning with them, don’t we? Yes.
Rumor has it our returning screenwriters, John and Jim Thomas, wrote this sucker as another Ah-nuld vehicle under the mistaking impression that his presence added anything essential to the first film. And hell, maybe it did – I’ve read reviews that panned this film for its lack of Ah-nuld alone…but I digress. Fact is, Ah-nuld rejected the very idea of a Predator 2, especially hating the idea of setting it in a city. As if the Mexican jungle (standing in for Nicaragua) added anything essential to the first film…logic Robert Rodriquez seems to have followed for his Predators.
But I digress again. Ah-nuld went on to make Running Man, Red Heat and Twins instead, leaving an Action Hero-shaped hole in this production, which gave 20th Century Fox shivers. It would take two years and one successful comic book miniseries (since novelized as the excellent Concrete Jungle) to wring a greenlight for Predator 2 out of the suits.
With no preamble, the film drops us into what the Helpful Title Card calls “Los Angeles, 1997.” (Ha!) Future LA (as viewed from the high, distant past of 1990) is a shitstorm of heat, dust, and gang wars. Why, here’s one right now: a street-level shootout between Colombian narcotrafficantes and your good friends and mine at the LAPD.
This serves the same function as Ah-nuld’s team’s destruction of the (Sandinistan? More than likely) camp fifteen minutes into their adventure: it effectively introduces us to this world and its characters by hitting us in the face with bloodshed and explosions. But fuck Ah-nuld’s initial misgivings: I say, setting things in an urban dystopia allows for greater economy of exposition. No need for some boring speech by some stereotypical General. Here, we know where we are the same way we know Jesus loves us: the media tells us so.
More on that later. For now, let’s meet Lt. Michael R. Harrigan (Danny Glover, between Lethal Weapons 2 and 3), whom a text-reader program will later describe as having a “violence-prone, obsessive-compulsive personality, with a history of excessive force throughout his eighteen years as a Los Angeles police officer.” That is, he’s a Warrior Cop who Doesn’t Play by the Rules. Typical L.A. bacon. Typical Hollywood bacon as well. Five minutes after arriving on-site, Harrigan single-handedly concludes the shootout, ensuring the rescue of two wounded officers and the deaths of four random, Spanish-speaking (i.e., evil) gang members. And I’m wondering, What? Has the LAPD of this universe never heard of rooftop SWAT snipers?
Apparently not, for the rest of the gang escaped into their arms cache/five-story walk-up during Mike’s heroic rescue/brutal bad-guy massacre. Orders from “Chief Heinemann” (Robert Davi) prescribe against Mike’s following them inside. But screw that, right? What Washington? What orders? Mike leads his team in…and discovers someone (or something) has already done their work for them, cleaning up one mess by making an even bigger (and bloodier) one.
“What the hell is this?” Harrigan asks his fellow cops as they explore (along with the camera) a room full of dismembered drug dealers. Mike’s partner Danny (Rubin Blades) will later surmise that, “Whoever did this waited until the last minute, and then took out five men armed with machine guns by hand…and then got by us. Maybe we should give ‘im a job, put ‘im on the payroll.”
Unfortunately, the LAPD has enough “official” trouble already. It seems Chief Heinemann is himself getting trod upon by Special Agent Peter Keyes, DEA (Gary Busey, between Acts of Piracy and My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys). Mike’s to “extend” his “full cooperation” to Agent Keyes’ little look into the local drug scene. This amounts to asking “how high?” whenever Keyes says “Jump”.
Since no Warrior Cop worth his inability to Play By The Rules would dare knuckle under for Gary Point Break Busey, Mike and his (seemingly handpicked) team of cops who Don’t Play By The Rules rush right into the scene of our next grisly murder…and right into Keyes. “The next time you cross me,” Mr. “DEA” warns Mike in trademark Busey Hiss, “you’re gonna come up missing.” Keyes is such a bad ass he’s got Adam Baldwin for a Smithers. The character’s name is Garber, but it could just as well be Marcus Hamilton, especially once Garber volunteers to “take care” of Mike. (Keyes declines.) Or when he delivers this film’s one Immortal Line, telling Mike that Keyes is, “The last person in the world you wanna fuck with.” Baldwin’s youthful-but-dangerous-seeming presence, and Busey’s haughty, I’m-Gary-Busey-Damnit demeanor, add an air of extra-judicial menace to Keyes’ entire operation. As Harrigan says, “These guys sure aren’t the DEA.” What are they really after?
Well, we the audience know Keyes is tracking the extraterrestrial trophy hunter who’s been stalking Mike (and his merry band) since the mercifully credits-free opening. In true Alien-rip-off fashion, the Predator makes mince meat of Danny, forcing Mike to become a Cop on a Mission. He even gets to say, “Now it’s personal,” in the emotive sneer of a cop who’s lost his long-time partner to an invisible alien.
That’s one of the things I like about these Fox monster movies: back in the 80s, they never hesitated to brutally murder their main character’s friends. These are the stories of people whose lives are irrevocably changed by their encounter with the Unknown. As opposed to today, when hero’s families are off-limits and the reward for surviving your alien adventures is Megan Fox.
Back in the day, people like Rubin Blades and Bill Paxton could still play cops in movies, and no one “gets” this film’s Token Girl: she’s Maria Conchita Alonso, damnit. Blades is meant to be the Danny Glover to Danny Glover’s Mel Gibson, leaving Maria to play someone’s Lorna Cole…the Thomas brothers only know who. And I wish the script had left more room for the three of them to be the Buddy Cop team they’re obviously meant to be. But the Thomas’ are no great shakes at characterization. As before, they assign every character an occasionally-annoying trait (or, in the case of Alonso’s character, a gender) and leave the action sequences to do the rest.
On the one hand, this is what’s known as “lazy storytelling.” On the other, it allows the actors a free reign often denied them in more story-centric films, which inevitably revolve around someone Learning Something about themselves and Growing as a Person. Belch. The makers of Predator 2 exploit the old dictum, “Show don’t tell,” to the hilt, allowing little bits of business go a long way. As when Harrigan lays his badge on Danny’s grave…just as Mac zipped his own flask up in Blane’s body bag (backed up by the same music). As when Danny reveals himself to be just as much a rule breaking cop as his friend (to his downfall). As when Leona instantly earns my trust by putting a serious hurt on Bill Paxton’s character, Jerry.
Even Jerry has moments – as when he attacks the film’s other Odious Comic Relief character, the seedy pseudo-journalist Tony Pope (easily the film’s most prescient character, played eerily well by pseudo-talk show host Morton Downey Jr.), earning just enough clout to make me care about his meaningless death. Even that’s noble enough to make Jerry endearing – more than a cocky, Hudson-analog. It certainly makes him a worthy trophy for our Predator.
And it’s the Predator(s) who really shine(s) throughout. Benefits of a longer schedule, and the sheer talent of creature effects creator Stan Winston and production designer Lawrence G. Paull. Through intricate artistic work, the two catapulted a simple Alien rip-off into the cultural cannon. Back in the jungle, we were left with vague notions about Galactic Great White Hunters, but these were the half-educated guesses of grunts under high stress. Here, the Predator clearly represents an advanced alien species with enough cool shit on their walls to hint at a long and illustrious history. Comic books, video games, and under-appreciated sci-fi authors have spent the last twenty years running with what Predator 2 threw down. For that, it deserves respect.
It’s not as if Trophy Hunters from Space is some kind of original concept…yet Winston and Paull managed to give the Predators their own aesthetic sense, at once Spartan and busy as all hell… all the more alien for being so recognizable. Seen one shoulder-mounted, laser-guided plasmacaster and, brother, you’ve probably seen ’em all. Or you’re dead. But all the computing power at George Lucus’ command can’t match the wonder of the Predator’s trophy room.
Beyond all my wonkish enjoyment of special effects techniques, there’s a refreshing existentialism in these Fox monster productions, summed up by the first (and, really, only) English phrase this Predator learns: “Shit happens.” That sums up both Alien and Predator better than a thousand nattering naboobs of negativity (like me). No wonder Winston thought the two belonged together. Both stories take place in dimensions where horrible things happen to good people for no reason…just like this one. It’s rarer than you think, especially in trash sci-fi pictures.
This time, shit happens in a definitely-real location, at a time already and definitely-past (now a past-future, if you can dig that). This undoubtedly puts off people suited to meeting their monsters in the far future or the darkest jungles. But by choosing a bullet-ridden, heat-hazed LA filled with conflicting forces and selfish agendas, Predator 2 creates the illusion that its universe has a life outside the confines of this silly story.
And it is pretty silly in spots. Unintentionally, even, on occasion (as with certain aspects of Paxton’s performance). Gratuitously violent in others. Vulgar, loud, ugly…everything you could ask for and more. Stephen Hopkins would go on to shock us all by directing 1996’s ill-fated Lost In Space remake, but rest assured: he’s much better at injecting meaning into onscreen violence. And, more importantly, he’s not shy about the results of violence, something rarely portrayed with this much sticky detail in big budget action movies.
That detail ensured Predator 2 would be as one of the first films to net an NC-17 from those staunch moralists at the MPAA. Massive cutting resulting in the current R. I gotta wonder what the film looked like before Jack Valenti’s morality mob gave their notes. What’s missing…more sex? I’d expect more violence after the orgy of macho that was the last film. But whereas John McTiernan seemed to bring a light touch to his action extravaganza, Hopkins occasionally allows his film to plant its tongue in its cheek, and fuck anybody who doesn’t like it. As when the Predator’s ambushed by a ten-year-old boy with a squirt gun shaped like an uzi. As when an entire subway car’s worth of Bernhard Goetz clones meet the ultimate mugger. As when the Climactic Battle forces the Predator to perform some personal First Aid…in an old lady’s bathroom. With tropical fish on the walls. How could I not love a sci-fi/cop drama film with scenes this surreal?
Glover’s the better action movie protagonist anyway. He’s always been able to act rings around Ah-nuld and his character’s certainly smarter than Maj. “Stick Around.” Mike even defuses a fusion bomb by slicing it in half, and who the hell knew that would work? Who knew Glover could become the Martin Riggs he’s so obviously meant to be? I’d chose him over Mel Gibson or Ah-nuld any day. His presence manages to convey a degree of humanity absent the performances of his contemporaries. I never once got the notion that Mike Harrigan suffers from the Nixonian, Dirty Harry sociopathology that infects most action movie protagonists. Little character moments – like Mike’s speech to Jerry early in the film, or Mike’s fear of heights – which remains constant throughout, is not miraculously overcome by film’s end, and (in a nod modern movies would never get away with) is never even directly mentioned – make all the difference. They’re the nuances of professional performance.
The same goes double for Kevin Peter Hall’s second and last turn as the Predator, which brings a professional mime’s sense of grace of poise to the sci-fi monster antagonist. This adds an extra dimension of other-worldliness to our extraterrestrial, allowing attenuated viewers to read more into Hall’s titled head or bunched-up shoulders than an ocean of prose could possibly convey.
Being sci-fi monsters, the Predators avoid most of the usual Noble Savage tropes that piss me off so much. They don’t possess special powers that make them one with nature, or give them any essential insight into the human condition. They don’t give a toss about humanity in any real sense. To them, we’re wild animals who give good sport and occasionally perform an amusing trick. Like killing one of them in (what’s more or less) a fair fight. But would we recognize their definition of a “fair fight”? Assuming they lowered themselves to explained it to us?
Questions like this keep me coming back to these loud, slap-happy, gratuitous films. That they can inspire such questions is a sign of their true value, their lasting appeal, and my eternal gratitude. Filmmakers of past present and future, take heed: Thin-de le’hasuan ‘aloun’myin-del bpi-de gka-de hasou-de paya. And yes, now that you mentioned it, I would love some candy.