Conan the Barbarian is a film about the birth of an ancient legend, but the film created its own modern legend: Arnold Schwarzenegger, the impossibly muscular, unbeatable, barely understandable, curiously noble badass. In turn, Commando is a film about a legend (super-soldier John Matrix) at the peak of his form. Coming right after Schwarzenegger’s breakout hit The Terminator, it’s no coincidence that the hallmarks of John Matrix’s life — big house, cool cars, comely flight attendant, regularly breaking the law — are also the hallmarks of a movie star’s existence. But now, on the final day of Arnoldfest ’11, we reach Predator. It’s a thrilling film, packed full of macho posturing and breathless action. But it is also, ultimately, a film about the deconstruction of a legend. Schwarzenegger plays Dutch, who initially seems like John Matrix with a slightly more realistic name. Before the film is even one-quarter finished, Dutch and his men have already defeated an entire encampment of guerillas. But then things start getting strange, and Dutch discovers that brute force won’t be enough to defeat an enemy he can barely even understand. (This is the third day of a festival honoring the end of Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial term. Click here for our thoughts on Conan the Barbarian, click here for our musings on Commando, and let us know your own thoughts on these action classics in the comments section.)
Keith Staskiewicz: So, Darren, here we are. Three days, three movies, and three instances in which Arnold dons camouflage. But here’s the catch, and here’s one of the reasons Predator is my favorite of the three: This is the only one in which the camo actually serves a purporse. All three of them are pumped up with more testosterone than a lumberjack vs. blacksmith bear-punching contest refereed by a cyborg Ernest Hemingway, but Predator is the only one that is actually also very smart and really well-plotted. Basically the first 20 minutes of the movie is a condensed, and much better, version of Commando, complete with gunfights, explosions, Arnoldisms like “Stick around,” as well as supplemental manliness, as if we needed it, from Jesse Ventura and Carl Weathers. And that’s all before the Predator even shows up.
Darren Franich: You’re right about the Commando link, and there’s a moment about halfway through the movie that sums up every reason why Predator is the far superior movie. Jesse Ventura has been walking around the jungle, carrying a gigantic chaingun, smoking an even-more-gigantic cigar, and generally looking like Mister You Don’t Wanna F— With. And then he’s suddenly dead — shot by the Predator’s shoulder cannon. Bill Duke sees Ventura go down, sees a pair of bright eyes in the jungle, and starts firing blindly. When he runs out of ammo, he picks up the chaingun and unleashes it. Then Arnold runs over and starts firing. Then the whole squad. For about a full minute, they’re just unloading ammo into a jungle. And they don’t hit a thing! I have no idea if this was intentional, but the scene feels almost like a direct critique of Commando, not to mention the Vietnam War. Like, “Sorry guys, but that whole plan to defeat the enemy by firing a million rounds of ammunition? Won’t help you out here.”
KS: I also feel like this is the first movie in which Schwarzenegger plays an actual human being rather than a (figurative or literal) killing machine. At the end, it’s not just brute force that saves the day: He has to outwit the alien.
DF: He’s the silent and smooth commando that Commando never was. And he needs it because everyone knows invisible alien hunters are a lot scarier than South American dictators. Except maybe Pinochet.
KS: Another aspect that really elevates this movie is the creature itself. We see him through a series of reveals: His thermal vision perspective, then his hand, then with his camo, then without, and finally he removes the mask to show that face only a Mama Predator could love. McTiernan seems to be taking a less-is-more, patience-is-a-virtue page straight out of Jaws. Plus, it’s nice that P-Diddy is never overexplained. His motives become clear without needing someone to yell: “Oh my God, I get it! He’s an alien hunter who travels to different planets in order to prey on local creatures and collect their skulls as trophies!” Also, props (indeed) to Stan Winston, who somehow makes a dude in a suit look absolutely, totally convincing as an 8-foot-tall creature from Planet Ugly instead of just a dude in a suit.
DF: The last half hour of the movie is practically wordless: It’s just Schwarzenegger and the Predator. And notably, Schwarzenegger doesn’t get any final one-liner. The last time you see him, he just looks exhausted, and confused, and even a little sad. Keith, you and I have become mini-experts in Schwarzeneggeria this week, and I think we were both struck by just how much acting the guy actually does in Predator. There are some great long shots that are just Schwarzenegger’s eyes moving, and the way his general expression slowly morphs over the course of the movie from jockish pride to vague suspicion to gloriously freaked-out paranoia is a real pleasure. I think it’s his best acting job, period.
KS: I can get on board with that. Plus, McTiernan is an underrated action master, from Die Hard to this to The Hunt for Red October. He’s had his share of stinkers, sure, but he brings something more to the table than your Renny Harlins or your Jan de Bonts. I hope he ends up doing something once he gets out of the big house. Predator’s essentially a great idea executed well, which is actually something you don’t see that often. It was a strong enough movie to prompt a sequel (which proved that you can’t replace Arnold with Danny Glover), but more interestingly, it was strong enough to put the Predator up there right alongside of the alien in Alien as equals. Of course, then we needed to see them fight in Alien v. Predator.
DF: You mean vs.…
KS: Right. Alien v. Predator was actually a landmark Supreme Court case that gave extraterrestrials the right to vote. But seriously, I don’t know what it was about movie icons from the ’80s that makes us get all gladiatorial: Freddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator, Robocop vs. Terminator, E.T. vs. Gandhi.
DF: By comparison, is anyone demanding Jason Bourne vs. Jack Sparrow? Or Avatar vs. Transformers? Once DreamWorks runs out of sequels, will we start seeing Kung Fu Panda vs. Shrek? Not to get on a soapbox here, but it’s honestly offensive just how completely every Predator-related film since the original missed the point. Predator 2 was a lame cop film starring Danny Glover. Both Alien vs. Predator movies followed the Jaws 3 mistake of showing the creature all the time, when even a 12-year-old could tell you that the coolest thing about Predator is how little you see him. Same goes for Predators, the concept for which was basically: “You thought one Predator was cool? Here’s a million! And Adrien Brody!” The number one problem is that none of these movies had the sense to be just a little bit ridiculous: Does anything in the Predator sequel/spinoff/reboot quartet equal the moment when Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers greet each other with a high-five that turns into an arm wrestle?
KS: Predator’s also interesting because it straddles a lot of genres. It’s a straight-up action movie at the start — even that is more interesting than it needs to be with Weathers’ double-cross — and then it essentially becomes a horror film in which the victims aren’t sorority girls or horny teenagers but enormous, hulking super-soldiers. Then it becomes a kick-ass, sci-fi jungle version of Home Alone, with Arnold setting all those traps. And it’s all patched together with good special effects and quotable dialogue like, “If it bleeds, we can kill it,” or “I ain’t got time to bleed.”
DF: This really is the manliest bunch of dudes ever assembled in a single movie. Besides Schwarzenegger, you’ve got Ventura, ex-Navy man and ex-wrestler. Sonny Landham, who plays the Native American Billy, was an ex-porn actor who later ran for Governor of Kentucky. The great character actor Bill Duke, who also appeared as a baddie in Commando, plays the Bill-Paxton-in-Aliens role. (Just to provide a normal-girly-man control group, you’ve also randomly got screenwriter Shane Black starring as The Dude With Glasses Who Dies First.) And best of all is Carl Weathers. Can I just say how much respect I’ve gained for Carl Weathers in the last couple months? Between seeing him in Rocky IV and now this movie, I think it’s pretty impressive how effectively he played off of the two biggest action movie stars of his era. When you think about it, Weathers had a pretty sneaky charisma: He was muscular enough to be an action star in his own right, but his best roles are sort of subtle parodies of testosterone run amok. That was true in the Rocky franchise, it’s true here, and it was true when he played the role of his life: Carl Weathers on Arrested Development. But seriously, can I just say how ridiculous it is that this movie spawned not one, but two U.S. governors?
KS: Ah, yes. Gov. Schwarzenegger of California and Gov. Predator of Vermont.
Next Week: Winona Ryder returns to the screen as a cheating wife in The Dilemma. Next Friday, we’ll flash back to Reality Bites, the slice-of-Gen-X-life comedy in which Winona Ryder plays a videographer (which used to be a thing) who is hard at work on a documentary about her generation. Turn up the Lisa Loeb and set your VCRs! (Those also used to be things.)