I think it goes without me saying that Predator is one of the best action films, ever. More importantly, this is my favorite Schwarzenegger movie. Smartly directed by John McTiernan, who would helm Die Hard the following year, this is an excellently plotted and cleverly devised concept utilizing a stellar cast to great effect. With an alien hunter designed by the masterful Stan Winston, and backed by some of the best visual effects of the time, Predator was an instant classic that truly solidified Schwarzenegger’s career as a blockbuster action star.
Recruited by the CIA to rescue hostages held by guerrilla fighters in a Central American country, Major Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his elite team encounter an enemy unimaginably more deadly than any on Earth – because the Predator is not of this Earth.
The film starts out wasting no time by keeping the exposition succinct, and allowing for this team to progress to their objective quickly while still relating these characters to us. No one’s explored in depth, but you get a clear, personality rich snapshot of each man. Blain’s a hard ass, Hawkins is kind of a joker, Billy’s the stoic warrior, and so on. The entire first act sets up who these guys are, and what they are capable of. We see this is an expertly efficient team able to wipe out a legion of about thirty Central American soldiers within a few minutes. They are tactically sound striking hard and fast using the element of surprise. When Dutch’s team is referred to as “the best” early on in the briefing scene, we see that is not at all an exaggerated statement. They prove they are the elite, but even then, you can see these guys are spooked by this jungle. “Makes Cambodia look like Kansas,” sets the tone for how unnerved they are by its terrain and ominous feeling. Encountering the previous team’s skinned corpses surely rattles them a bit, but they never lose their wits. In fact, it practically heightens them for the more lethal danger that is stalking them.
Schwarzenegger shines here as Dutch. In addition to everyone else, this is possibly his most quotable movie. Arnold’s got that charisma going here with energy and authority. I love that Dutch is a soldier with a code of ethics for his men. He states straight out that his men are not assassins, merely an elite rescue team, and we see that conviction arise when he learns of Dillion’s deception. Schwarzenegger shows Dutch to be an honorable and sharply intelligent soldier commanding his men with precision. He proves himself to be a cunning warrior gradually picking up on the Predator’s methods, and adapting to them in order to survive. He’s perceptive and level headed, which is undoubtedly the sign of a great soldier. I think this definitely one of Schwarzenegger’s finest performances demonstrating the ability to realize a very authentic, dimensional, and smart character. Not to mention, I don’t think he’s looked so awesome on-screen without delving into a cheesy or campy tone.
Bill Duke especially does a touchingly effective job. Early on, he is a hardened soldier, but after Blain is lost, you see the grief and turmoil wash over him. Carl Weathers is great here as well portraying a man who was once a trusted friend of Dutch’s that has been corrupted by the “everyone’s expendable” mentality of a pencil pushing desk jockey. He’s lost sight of the qualities of a soldier and the value of life. However, we see him turning the corner as he rushes into his final battle, and I really like seeing that small character arc. Overall, this is a rock solid cast flexing both their acting muscles and their real ones in pure 80’s action movie bad assery. They all exhibit distinct personality that are vibrant, memorable, and straight up killer.
What it is that we lose with CGI monsters as opposed to a real life performer is exquisitely evident here. Kevin Peter Hall inhabited that beautifully textured and crafted Stan Winston suit, and created a character to live and breathe through it. Compare it to the personality deprived CGI creatures from Cowboys & Aliens. They were, as I said in that review, “just creatures designed to fill up the plot, and serve as a physical enemy to combat.” They had no distinct characteristics that made them any better than the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars. The Predator has nuanced qualities that reflect an intelligence and cunning behavior. He’s a unique individual amongst a unique race. How he moves, reacts, and assesses a situation bring a subtle and intriguing depth created by Kevin Peter Hall’s amazing performance. It has all the traits of a talented performer crafting a character, and I am so tremendously glad that this franchise has never abandoned the performer in the suit approach.
As I’ve said in many previous reviews, the work of Stan Winston is legendary, and stands the test of time. He clearly revolutionized the creature effects industry with his artistic craftsmanship and captivating imagination. The Predator is an astonishing creation in all facets. The original creature the filmmakers put together for this film was ridiculous and was quickly jettisoned after only a few days of filming. Winston was called in, and with a little input about mandibles from James Cameron, this iconic, ferocious, and frightening creature was born. Beyond that, this is a very graphic and brutal film showing you skinned human bodies, spinal cords ripped from carcasses, and a disemboweled Jesse Ventura. Everything feels so grisly and textured for a greatly realistic feeling. This is some of the best gore effects I’ve ever seen.
And these visual effects essentially still hold up to this day. Certainly, the sequels have shown how digital effects can be used to improve and enhance them, but this is impressive work that hardly feels dated. This is mainly between the Predator’s cloaking technology where he appears as transparent ripples, and the laser sighting and discharges from his plasma cannon. There are some especially impressive shots featuring the cloak with more dynamic camera angles and motion where you get the real three dimensional quality of it. You see it’s not some animated effect, but a real optical composite of a real performer. These are all excellent visual effects.
This all blends perfectly with the gritty, sometimes smoky atmosphere of the film’s look. I think John McTiernan’s great eye for composition, interesting angles, and well constructed action shines through. In this jungle, we get the feel of the dangerous terrain and mysterious qualities of the dense foliage. The grit grounds this science fiction premise in a visceral reality where consequences are severely violent and lethal. Great camera movements and stylish, dramatic imagery highlight the artist merit of the cinematography, and it is all expertly edited together for a tight film which propels itself forward from the get go. .
Alan Silvestri put together one amazing score for Predator that has endured for the whole franchise. He incredibly blends a militaristic march and drive with a primal tribal, jungle beat. He builds a sense of ominous foreboding reflecting the reality that there is something out there stalking these men. For the majority of the climax, there is next to no dialogue of any sort. It is carried along by the action, the visuals, and the exhilarating score which enhances all of the tension, apprehension, and danger that is unfolding. It is perfect, superb work.
The action hits you at a regular clip, and the first main sequence is majorly explosive. It sets the bar high for the remaining runtime, and McTiernan is able to meet that challenge. It’s the mix of tension, the unknown, and the sheer scale of this rapid fire, big gun toting, grenade launching explosiveness that makes that possible. Yet, McTiernan knows how to build it up, and work the subtle strings of an audience’s anticipation. The danger escalates, and the peril becomes more immediate as the Predator moves in closer and closer to its prey. He starts out attacking from a distance, but gradually engages his ultimate trophy – Dutch – in close combat because the Predator views him as a highly worthy adversary
And that entire third act where it’s just down to Dutch and the Predator is a masterpiece. The strategy and makeshift tactics that Dutch puts together play out brilliantly. He uses the Predator’s own method of invisibility and striking from a distance to his advantage. However, it all elevates when the two finally meet face-to-face in a straight physical confrontation. Everyone knows that Arnold is a BIG guy, but next to this hulking seven foot tall alien beast, he looks small and nearly ineffectual. It’s only by his smarts and wits is he able to survive.
Predator is filled with chest pounding action and excitement wrapped in a smart concept and script. Backed up by an excellent action director, and a vibrant, colorful cast lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was a surefire formula for success. This is why I love Predator. It never lags anywhere as the pacing is tight and the rhythm is consistent throughout right from the start. It’s really a near brilliant structure which constantly keeps you invested and intrigued by what’s developing here. You also can’t not quote the living hell out of this movie. It’s sharp, witty, but never betraying the serious tone of danger and lethality it sets from the beginning. It’s an absolute success that holds up incredibly well over time. I entirely intend to give you reviews on both Predator 2 and Predators sooner than later. Until then, revisit this classic.