I absolutely believe that John McTiernan is, despite his patchy roster of work that includes duds like Last Action Hero and masturbatory rehashes like Basic, an important action movie director, in for no other reason than for creating the hallmark film Die Hard starring the incomparable Bruce Willis. Because I was prone to prioritizing my own preferences for movies while at the same time needing to accommodate certain films (finding a diverse range of action movies whose titles’ first letters form the letters of the alphabet is easier said than done), I decided to forgo including Die Hard, one, because everyone already knows how awesome and important it is, and two, because Predator was not only the impetus for McTiernan’s career but some of the best acting work that star Arnold Schwarzenegger has ever done.
The movie’s plot is your basic we-thought-it-up-in-ten-minutes storyline: a U.S. Special Ops force is recruited by the CIA to rescue some important government officials whose guerilla kidnappers are holding them somewhere deep in the Nicaraguan jungle. The team, lead by Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer (Schwarzenegger), soon realizes that their CIA liaison and Dutch’s old military buddy Dillon (Carl Weathers) has lead the team into the jungle under false pretenses – they were really sent to put the kibosh on illegal Russian military activity – but before long they realize that Central American rebels and Soviet criminals are the least of their worries…and so the colorful band of badasses must survive a jungle battle against an alien assassin. Before he made Predator, Schwarzenegger had always been in movies where he played very monolithic roles that required him to be staunch and stoic, like in the Conan movies, or quite literally robotic, as in The Terminator – his role as Dutch was the first time he had ever really been given a real person to play and, even though he doesn’t have the chops of a school-trained actor, it was the first time he was able to let his natural charisma and showmanship be seen.
The script by Jim Thomas and John Thomas, even with its deceptively articulate details, is almost dolefully bare, but then again most great action movies are designed as such, where the entire plot is a MacGuffin for thrilling and intense action sequences. It’s an array of interesting types – Jesse Ventura’s über-macho Blain, Sonny Landham’s placid thug Sonny, and Bill Duke’s pensive and calculating Mac inhabit their own little microcosms within the film – fighting like hell against an enemy they can’t see or hear with mini-guns and grenade launchers and massive bowie knives. With just those few interesting elements and a great cast to carry it off, it could have been a good movie with just those things going for it, but it just so happens that there is far more the appreciate in this movie than just cool characters having awesome fights with pincer-mouthed alien with dreadlocks. If it isn’t the lush jungle scenery that feels perfectly thick and suffocating then it’s the brilliantly omnipresent and slightly quirky score by Alan Silvestri or the eerie albeit gorgeous creature design by Stan Winston (he was nominated for an Oscar for his work). As I watched the film back again it didn’t quite have the same impact as it did when I was younger – my older, more knowledgeable self is distracted by obsequious details, such as how the supposed trained military professionals are firing their guns from their hips – but I still can recognize the magic that still makes it a candle to which so many other action/sci-fi films are held. Its standoffish and bloody and droll and only ever plays by its own rules – but then again, none of that would really matter if the Predator of Predator weren’t so totally awesome.