Arnold Schwarzenegger is the luckiest of the least talented leading men in Hollywood. Or maybe he’s just the cleverest.
His break through role came in 1982’s Conan the Barbarian at which stage he had been doing the Hollywood circuit for 12 years making low budget B-movies or taking bit parts in TV movies and television shows. Conan was the obscenely muscled hero of two films (Barbarian & Destroyer) but the role didn’t require much more than stomping around wearing an improvised speedo and a leopard skin throw-over swinging a giant sword. He followed these films with his most iconic role, that of the Terminator, in 1984. Again, this was a role that didn’t require much of the man bar a mean stare and an ability to be monosyllabic on command.
Schwarzenegger was now a star… 14 years in the making. His next three films were enjoyable missteps, Red Sonya, Commando and Raw Deal, none of which bar Commando, where he basically played a ripped James Bond, did anything to cement his place in the firmament. His next film would have to be chosen very carefully or he could, quite possibly, have descended down the route of trashy, routine 80’s action stars like Chuck Norris. This is where either brains or providence took him by the hand and 30 years ago today led him to what I believe is his best role and his best film – Predator.
Predator is the domain of 10-year-old boys. Everything in that film is perfect for them- muscled action heroes, helicopters, big guns, big war scenes, blood and, of course, the Predator himself. With a very wide variety of fans that hold it dear, Predator speaks to them of youthful days, telling your Ma that you’re watching Cool Runnings in your neighbour’s house when it’s actually Predator on the box. Grown men get giddy at the thought of watching Predator and that kind of love for a film cannot be bought. Without gushing any further, I should say that Predator is not a perfect film and even its director, John McTiernan, admitted that he was purely trying to make a popcorn action film. It is as simple a film as you could imagine and just so became the action film to define a generation, one that spawned three sequels and two spin-off films.
With a director whose background was in theatre, film producer Joel Silver was eager to bring McTiernan onboard as he thought McTiernan was a new voice who was into “cars and explosions”. This is probably one of those great Hollywood misunderstandings that worked out for the best. Bill Duke, the actor who played Mac, described McTiernan as a real actor’s director and this is what sets Predator apart – its cast. McTiernan assembled an ensemble of bodybuilders, former Navy SEALS, Vietnam veterans, professional wrestlers and martial artists. It just happened that each of them were perfectly able to create a character that the audience rooted for. Not only did they look the part of commandos but the characterisations such as Hawkins bad jokes, the very real friendship between Blain and Mac or Billy’s extra sensory perception of the jungle and what’s out there waiting, made those characters human and allowed the viewer to care. I still hate it when Poncho gets killed, he was my favourite character. I loved his little quips (“You’re hit. You’re bleeding. – I ain’t got time to bleed. – Okay. You got time to duck?”). His slow unravelling as the film progressed was played perfectly by Richard Chaves; you can see Poncho grow nervous as the Predator picks them off one by one and his plea, as he lies badly wounded towards the end, of “I can make it. I can make it” felt truly real. These weren’t goons in uniform, they were people you didn’t want to see die.
Characters aside, the hardware assembled for this jungle action film is particularly impressive, especially Old Painless! Very few, when asked about their favourite parts of Predator will neglect to mention Blain’s Gatling gun. What a piece of weaponry, even more impressive when you realise that Gatling guns are usually mounted on the side of helicopters. Jesse Ventura, a 6 foot 5 inch 250lbs man mountain, carried it handheld. It wasn’t practical, you couldn’t really lug that through the jungle, but boy when she sang you took notice, especially during the rebel camp attack and when Blain takes out all before him with a weapon that can shoot 3,000 rounds a minute. Everything about Old Painless was perfect, from the novelty of the weapon itself to the physicality of the man who carried it. As a kid you were impressed by Blain, he was cool, he was big, he was a “goddamn sexual Tyrannosaurus” for heaven’s sake. He stood out and that makes Blain’s death even more troublesome. One of the first to die, this Predator thing (remember, we hadn’t seen the creature properly to that point) took down the biggest of the commandoes with ease.
The fire fight that followed, when Mac takes the Gatling gun from Blain’s body and lays waste to the jungle is cathartic, this shear unadulterated display of violence is one of the highlights of the movie, not because of the firepower on display, but because it was an emotional response to the loss of Blain. Mac taking a drink with Blain’s body and leaving the hipflask on Blain’s chest is a little more touching than action films have a right to be. Where Hawkins was the comic relief, Blain was the heart and losing him transformed the film from a simple shoot ‘em up in the jungle to something far more serious, a fight for survival. It was the taking of Blain’s body by the Predator, for the trophy of his skull and spinal column, that alerted the remaining commandoes to the fact that they were not simply being targeted by rebel militia but hunted by something far more serious.
It’s that changeup which serves Predator well as the film slips effortlessly between genres, from action to horror, to sci-fi to monster movie. It’s hard to pigeon hole Predator for this very fact and because of this it is also one of the few action films from the 80’s that has aged incredibly well. Looking back at some of Schwarzenegger’s other efforts from the decade – Commando, Raw Deal or Red Heat – each of those films feel ridiculously 80’s, trashy in fact and quite slapdash, from the hairstyles, the costumes, the music, the set design and the actual blocking or staging of the action. Predator still looks great – it’s set in the jungle so you don’t have to worry about technology getting in the way and adding a label to the film – a silver stereo is glimpsed only briefly when Blain slips in a tape to play the only piece of incidental music in the film (Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally). Even this becomes a mantra, as Mac moves off into the jungle to hunt the Predator he recites the lyrics back to himself as he makes ready his weapons.
Also, Schwarzenegger isn’t given much to do in terms of dialogue. If you were to select his best roles then you will invariably be left with the films where he didn’t say much – Terminator, Predator, Maggie to name a few. Schwarzenegger, due to his huge build, is a very awkward mover. Deft physical or body acting is not his bag so he always tried to emphasise meaning through his dialogue. His clunky accent hampered that and I think it’s fair to say that he isn’t great at delivering dialogue as a result, often coming off stilted and wooden. With Predator, his sheer bulk was his trump card. He’s a commando, not a ballerina. He’s giving orders, not soliloquies. For me, Dutch Schaeffer is his most comfortable role and it shows.
But what made Predator such a good role for Schwarzenegger? This is where lady luck takes a back seat and Schwarzenegger’s own intuition took over. To that point in his career he had been the lone hero, the maverick. By the mid 1980’s he was growing tired of it himself and wanted to make a Magnificent Seven type of action film. The original script for Predator concerned itself with a team of Predator’s hunting a lone commando. So, the story goes that Schwarzenegger, on reading the script, suggested switching it around to a team of commando’s being hunted by a lone Predator. This gave him his first role as a leader of men and as a real hero, Major Dutch Schaeffer.
Also don’t forget that Dutch and his men are not assassins or cold-blooded killers, they are a rescue team. They didn’t go looking for the Predator, it just so happened that they were in the same jungle at the same time and so straightaway Dutch and his team have our sympathises. Predator was also the first film to not only pit him against an equal but the first film to put him in peril. There is panic and uncertainty in Major Dutch Schaeffer. As his team of Commandoes gets picked off one by one we see a Schwarzenegger who is not in control, something we had never seen before. Saying that there was uncertainty in his situation was also ingenuity. As opposed to using just his brawn, his character was required to, once the commandos realised that escape was not an option, to tackle the Predator on his own ground – the trees. Bringing the fight to the Predator was a very important point, it showed that this wasn’t a bug hunt but a fight to the death.
The keen sense of tension is very important to the film as well. While there is blatant tension without, there is also considerable tension within the group too – namely Dillon. A former ally of Dutch’s, Dillon earns no-one’s trust in the tightknit group, especially when it’s revealed that the real reason for getting Dutch’s men in the jungle in the first place was a ruse. He lied to them. Dillon is the reason they are in this problem. He is the real villain of the film – the Predator is just doing what comes naturally, he’s a hunter. Dillon is sneaky and manipulative, showing no respect to any of the commandoes or the hostage woman, but he redeems himself ultimately. In trying to assist Mac, Dillon is killed in spectacular fashion, having limbs shorn from his body as the Predator blasts away with his laser canon. Dillon, the “pencil pusher” went out with his boots on, so to speak.
Of course, the Predator is the actual star of the film. Of all the sequel’s none featured Dutch Schaeffer or any survivor from the first film. The only constant is the Predator itself, the only character that ever stole Schwarzenegger’s thunder. There had never been a character like the Predator before, the heat seeker vision, the dreadlocks, the mandibles, the camouflage, the shoulder mounted cannon or the two-pronged forearm knife. Everything about the Predator is impressive, not to mention his height. Standing at 7 feet tall, he dwarves Schwarzenegger. One of the defining images of the film is the Predator, once he has Dutch alone, revealing his true self to him. Pulling the pipes connecting his face shield, he drops the visor to reveal his “ugly motherfucker” face. Arms spread wide showing just how big he is, he roars into the night and it is awesome. Canon discarded, the Predator is prepared to take Dutch on hand-to-hand, a true reflection of the respect that the alien creature is affording this human. Even as the Predator lies dying from the pounding of the fallen log he exclaims his surprise to Dutch. Albeit he just repeats Dutch’s line “What the hell are you?”, but he changes the inflection displaying an understanding of the language and a surprise that this human has beaten him. It’s a fantastic ending, especially considering that he sets off a mini nuclear explosion to try wipe him and Dutch off the face of the earth, all the while set to Billy’s maniacal laughter ringing through the trees.
Regardless what you think of the film or of Schwarzenegger, he never looked more comfortable in a role than he did as Major Dutch Schaeffer. In his military vest and commando pants, Schwarzenegger looked the epitome of 80’s action man cool, not to mention the endless meme’s, t-shirts and unintentional catchphrases that have lingered for 30 years like “Get to the choppa” or “If it bleeds, we can kill it”. Predator entertains as much today as it did back in 1987 and even considering some of the epic action movies that have come and gone in those 30 years, I often find myself returning to the jungle. It’s very hard to improve on a film as good as Predator.
Featured Image Credit