Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Movie Reviews: Predator (1987), Predator 2 (1990), & Predators (2010)

With the new Predator movie opening this past weekend, I’ve been on a kick revisiting the first two films in the series (no I do not consider AVP or AVP: Requiem part of the official continuum). The Predator films have always been just shy of prestige franchise status, often seen as a somewhat lesser sibling to the Alien films. I think this is largely due to the fact that they are perceived to be less cerebral or artsy, but that’s not fair given that they are not intended to be as intellectual as something put out by Ridley Scott or David Fincher. The Predator films are action cinema in its most pure form, with a dash of sci-fi/horror thrown in. They’re on a mission to thrill and entertain, and not much more. John McTiernan’s Predator in particular is easily one of the best action films ever made. Things only got off track when someone got the bright idea that the Alien and Predator films should be crossed to form the ultimate monster smackdown. This kind of thing can work on paper or with Reese’s candy bars pretty well, but in practice it’s a tricky business . . . and clearly ill-advised given the less than stellar results. Fortunately Robert Rodriguez has used his clout and love of the series to bring it back to a worthy place. My experience with the old and the new over the past week has been a fun trip down memory lane, and a welcome breath of fresh air.

First up the original Predator. I saw this on opening day in 1987 at the mall theater I often mention here on the blog. Again this theater was primarily known for showing the seriously B-grade stuff that was coming out back then, rarely securing a major release. Canon Films titles were prestigious at the venue if that tells you anything, making fare like Missing in Action appear to be the equivalent of Star Wars. Don’t get me wrong I loved the B-movies a great deal, but the mall’s location being within biking distance was the primary reason it was visited with such frequency. After all I liked the A-movies too! Anyhow the mall cinema was thusly a major childhood hangout for my circle of friends, and especially during the summer months. Every weekend we were there checking out whatever Cannon, New World, and a host of other “independent” studios had to offer.

In the case of Predator, it marked an interesting moment in time for me, my friends, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the WWF (World Wrestling Foundation) and the theater. In the case of Schwarzenegger, although he had done some successful films (e.g. Conan, The Terminator), he still hadn’t quite hit mainstream acceptance. My friends and I would quote Commando and The Terminator at the lunch table, but we were never sure if we’d ever see the big guy on screen again. In other words his future wasn’t as secure as a Harrison Ford. Predator marked the moment that a big summer studio release was sold totally on his star appeal. The trailer was promoting how the Predator had picked the wrong man to hunt, and the film was described as a brawl between a force of nature (Schwarzenegger) and an extra-terrestrial who was foolish enough to arouse his anger.

Interestingly Predator was also being cross-promoted on the WWF telecasts, due to the fact that it co-starred the larger-than-life Jesse “The Body” Ventura. He was plugging it as his big jump into action films, and being who he was he painted himself as the star of the show. In the mid-80’s the WWF was all the rage, and we were ready to buy completely into the hype. And when Jesse was showing clips with him running through the jungle carrying a gun bigger than my family car it caught our attention. I can’t say with absolute certainty, but I believe this was the start of the WWF doing this sort of dabbling into the movie world. Hulk Hogan had been in Rocky III, but wrestling hadn’t quite exploded at that point. In my mind Jesse Ventura paved the way for Roddy Piper in They Live, Hulk Hogan (unfortunately) in No Holds Barred and Suburban Commando, The Rock in many successful films, etc. So already Predator has some important credentials in the advertising/multimedia realm.

Beyond the marketing and business end, Predator was also special for other reasons. First off it just so happened that the film had its premiere on my birthday, so the entire gang gathered together to see it . . . and brought presents which is always good. Better still, after all the ridiculous hype had prepared us for the ultimate movie-going experience, lo and behold Predator opened at our beloved mall theater! I don’t know what sort of cosmic forces were at work, or what strings were pulled that allowed an A-list release like Predator to open in that theater, but it was magical. Golan and Globus or Roger Corman must have been having a slow week. Either way it was with much enthusiasm that we pedaled our way there and bought our tickets (the ticket sellers at the mall were never too concerned about enforcing the MPAA restrictions – this place wasn’t big on standards). What unfolded that afternoon was arguably the best action movie experience of all time.

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat – Predator is a perfect movie. Oh it’s not that the cinematography is always masterful, the effects seamless, the acting Oscar-worthy or the like. There are so-called “imperfections” of that sort. It is perfect in that it never takes a wrong step in carrying out its primary objective of delivering wall-to-wall action. We are immediately and efficiently introduced to a team of individuals, told their mission, and shown the execution of that mission at a breathless pace. Along the way we are treated to the added bonus of a seemingly unstoppable alien running loose. I’m sure Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson could have handled this situation quite well, but in the 80’s we got the equally impressive roster of Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke, and Sonny Landham . . . and Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black as the doomed Hawkins. Honestly with the exception of Shane Black, who is great at what he is there to do, any one of these guys makes a credible action hero. I would love to see their characters in their own adventures, but sadly thanks to the Predator that will never happen.

It’s not just the actors who pull this thing off however. At the helm was soon-to-be legend John Mctiernan, who would go on to redefine the action genre with films like Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October. For my money his finest moment will always be Predator. The man knows how to stage action sequences, and every single moment of Predator is a rush (even when they’re just discussing plans). Also you have Stan “Jurassic Park” Winston creating the Predator creature and effects. Classic in every sense. The creature is ugly, threatening, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, not to mention the fact that he is also invisible and can see in different spectrums of light. Alan Silvestri brings it all home with a score that is ceaselessly rousing, even when it is trying to be a little creepy. I should also mention the great work by the Predator himself, Kevin Peter Hall. In this and numerous other films Hall brought the title creature to life, and convincingly went toe-to-toe with Arnold. From my perspective this was far more satisfying than his matchup against John Lithgow in Harry and the Hendersons.

Okay so everybody loves Predator (admit it, you know you do), and it made a truckload of money. Even though Arnold survives at the end of the movie, the Predator’s death by nuclear explosion communicated a sort of finality to me. It was an exclamation point on the end of a one-of-a-kind thrill ride. I guess the truckload of money had the effect of diminishing the desire to let it remain a standalone feature, so a sequel was put into the works. According to others I know who are knowledgeable on such things, Schwarzenegger was approached to reprise his role as Dutch but it didn’t work out. Likely he was more interested in Total Recall around that time versus doing a sequel. So be it, but I don’t think anyone could have anticipated what would happen next. I clearly remember being in my high school newspaper class, which involved much sitting around and talking with friends, and learning of Predator 2. A friend of mine who was way more into movies than even I was actually had a subscription to Daily Variety, because truly as a high school student it’s important to keep up with the business end of Hollywood. If you’ve ever seen that publication you’ll know there are numerous announcements of various projects being started, and in this case it was an ad announcing the beginning of production on Predator 2. Naturally I was stunned and thrilled . . . that was until about a second later when I saw the stars were Danny Glover and Gary Busey!

Here’s the deal, I like both Glover and Busey as actors. They were even great together in Lethal Weapon. Honestly though after Schwarzenegger, not to mention the pitch perfect cast of the original, the Glover/Busey combo was a cold bucket of water to the face. Seriously think about it. You’re the guys making Predator 2 sitting around a room. Schwarzenegger has taken a pass so you’re trying to find a suitable replacement. The first names that pop into your head are Glover and Busey?!? I can only imagine while they were pondering the casting dilemma Lethal Weapon was playing in the background, causing them to pick up on the duo subliminally. For whatever reason they glossed right over Mel Gibson, and more importantly Tom Atkins. Talk about a missed opportunity, I could totally buy Atkins as a worthy successor to Schwarzenegger, particularly in the lead role of Harrigan!

After that initial Variety revelation, it was a good long while before Predator 2 made it into theaters. I was actually in my freshman year of college, and had forgotten completely about it. Next thing I know I learn while I’m home for Thanksgiving break that Predator 2 has just opened. Despite my hesitation over casting, and the fact that none of my other friends were back in town (with a few days to kill) from their respective schools, I wasted no time in heading over to the theater to check it out. This time it was playing at the fancy new theater in town, fully equipped with a THX-certified sound system (woo-hoo!). While I missed the dank smell and sticky floors of the mall cinema, I must admit that I was happy to take in the new advances in audio-visual technology courtesy of George Lucas.

I knew a little bit about Predator 2 from a commercial and the review I read before seeing it, so I was aware that the action had been transplanted to the city. For me this was an exciting development, and an indicator that the filmmakers were not simply doing a retread. The fact is upon that first viewing I became a confirmed Predator 2 fan. Glover and Busey were more than successful as a maverick cop and seedy government agent respectively, and a great supporting cast was in place with Maria Conchita Alonso, Bill Paxton, Ruben Blades, Robert Davi, and Kent McCord. I’ll admit the first cast was better, but the lineup for the second proves an effort was made to form a top notch crew. They also brought back Stan Winston and Alan Silvestri, so it felt like a Predator movie. Most importantly director Stephen Hopkins, while no John McTiernan, kept the action in constant motion. The first shootout in the streets of L.A. is one of the best opening scenes ever, and there are a lot of inventive Predator gadget shenanigans taking place throughout (e.g. the Predator Frisbee, netgun, retractable spear, etc.).

Although it has much to brag about, Predator 2 isn’t quite perfect. The presence of Morton Downey Jr. is tiresome, and there’s just a little too much time spent on the police procedural part of the film. I don’t need to see an extended scene of Danny Glover running an electrochemical analysis on a spearhead. Maybe the writers felt the audience wouldn’t buy it if Glover and company didn’t go through the investigative hoops of tracking down the Predator, but frankly we all knew it was a Predator and watching the group deduce this via detective work was less than thrilling. Maybe Law & Order fans dig this stuff though, who knows. Luckily these issues are relatively minor when the film is taken as a whole. Unfortunately fandom didn’t respond kindly to Predator 2, and it died quickly at the box office. It seems like it’s won a grudging respect over the years, possibly due to the worse reaction to the AVP movies, but my experience is that fans are divided. They either don’t like Glover, the moving of the action to the city, the issues I’ve mentioned, or any combination of the above. Enter Robert Rodriguez.

When I heard Rodriguez picked up the ball with Predator, teaming with director Nimrod Antal, I felt some hope for the revival of the series. Rodriguez is a bit of a mixed bag for me. I liked El Mariachi (the low budget one) and Planet Terror, and generally respect his love of inventive cinema. On the other hand there’s a whole lot of Spy Kids/Sharkboy & Lavagirl out there for my taste. Hearing some of his comments about the original Predator made me give him the benefit of any doubt though. When I found out he was calling it Predators (an obvious tribute to the Alien/Aliens naming convention), and returning the action to its jungle roots, hope turned to anticipation. This was a heads up that he was serious about getting back to basics and making a solid action film. And sure enough, as I found out in viewing it earlier this week, that’s exactly what he has done.

For the sake of full disclosure I did have one major reservation going into Predators – the casting. When I found out the two leads were Adrien Brody and Topher Grace I had a flashback to the Glover/Busey moment. It’s like Rodriguez had fallen victim to the same impairment the Predator 2 team had, except this time while pondering the cast King Kong and That 70’s Show were playing in the background. Again how do you go from Schwarzenegger to Adrien Brody, or crazier still Topher Grace?!? Fortunately once I saw Brody in action in the previews I knew he was going to pull it off . . . and Grace is appropriate in his role as well. I’ve seen him referred to as the Hawkins of the film, but that’s not totally accurate. Hawkins was a capable, if rather unlucky fellow. Grace plays clueless comic relief for the majority of the film. In any case you also have some other great folks in there, including Rodriguez regular/awesome character actor Danny Trejo. The cast does a solid job on the whole even if they can’t hold up to the original ensemble.

The best news of all is that the action in this one is spectacular. Great booby traps, new Predator technology, new Predators, and even a new planet. More refreshing is that this is accomplished with a bare minimum of CGI, and what’s on display isn’t distractingly fake looking. Director Antal also stays true to the classics by keeping the pace at a constant from the word go when Brody plummets onto the planet, which is also a standout opening sequence. The biggest complaint I’ve seen is that Predators too closely mirrors the original, adding little new to the mix. That observation is fairly accurate, but in my mind this is not a bad thing. As I said in the beginning Predator isn’t meant to be a cerebral exercise. It’s about a battle between an alien and a group of unlucky people. That’s the formula. Stick to The Most Dangerous Game scenario, do it well, and you’ve got a winning entry in the Predator series. The only time things go astray is when too much story is introduced (e.g. the police procedural portions of Predator 2). At the end of the day you just want to see Schwarzenegger, Glover, and Brody slugging it out with the titular foe. To that end Predators succeeds big time, and hopefully will manage to revive the franchise after the damage done by AVP.

While pondering the Predator series this week an interesting reverse parallel occurred to me. Alien was followed by Aliens and Alien 3. Aliens is a beloved classic, and Alien 3 was poorly received upon initial release, later garnering a certain level of respect from a contingent within the fan community. Predator was followed by Predator 2 and Predators. Predators is likely a soon to be beloved classic, and Predator 2 was poorly received upon initial release, later garnering a certain level of respect from a contingent within the fan community. What’s the lesson here? Numbered films are doomed to failure, while just pluralizing the name of the original guarantees box office gold? It’s similar to weird phenomena that occasionally spring up in genre cinema, like odd-numbered Star Treks are of poor quality. Perhaps I’m the odd one out, but I’ve always liked Star Trek 5 over Star Trek 4. And to bring the analogy back home I hate Alien 4. Not sure what the lesson of this observation is, but please makers of Predator 4 don’t call it Resurrection or The Voyage Home (which might even be appropriate all things considered).

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