Up until Predator came out in June of 1987, former-champion-bodybuilder-turned-Hollywood-star Arnold Schwarzenegger had carved out a niche playing stoic, indestructible supermen that also had a way with a nasty one-liner before kicking someone’s ass. James Cameron milked this persona for sheer terror in The Terminator (1984), while Mark L. Lester turned him into a Teutonic cartoon a year later in Commando (1985). In either case, one could watch Schwarzenegger mow down scores of bad guys in various ways and never once feel any genuine suspense or sense of danger. Back in my teenage years, I remember turning on HBO one evening and watching the climax of his 1986 crime thriller Raw Deal on cable; I found myself laughing helplessly at how ridiculously easy it seemed for Schwarzenegger to gun down one villainous henchman after another.
With Predator, however, it turned out that you had to go all the way to outer space to find an antagonist that could offer a real challenge to Ah-nuld. By its climax, the former Mr. Universe/Mr. Olympia, all alone in the jungles of Guatemala, has been forced to rely strictly on wits and resourcefulness to outwit a villain just as relentless and remorseless as Schwarzenegger was in his earlier roles. Predator, in a sense, could be considered a big-budget bid to present a relatively more human side to the wisecracking macho action icon that was “Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
But Predator’s challenge to genre expectations isn’t merely conceptual. Consider its two-part structure, to start. Though its opening credits hint at the paranormal elements that will eventually burst forth, much of the first half of the film focuses on an operation to rescue hostages in Guatemala—an operation that leads to a big-scale action setpiece that, for all its immediate thrills and explosive firepower, never fully escapes the underlying queasy feel that what we’re witnessing is essentially a jingoistic exhibition of imperialist American might. This feeling is compounded when Dutch discovers that Dillon (Carl Weathers), the former military buddy turned C.I.A. operative who recruited him and his team, has misled him as to the nature of their mission: instead of rescuing a presidential cabinet minister, they were merely pawns in the C.I.A.’s plans to destroy this munitions-heavy rebel encampment. “You’re an asset,” Dillon says to Dutch when confronted, “an expendable asset.” In other words, he and the rest are just soldiers after all, to be manipulated accordingly by political forces greater than themselves. So was John Rambo, the iconic Vietnam vet played by Sylvester Stallone in First Blood (1982) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)—and in that second film, Rambo, rather like Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix in Commando, also became a cartoon killing machine, far from the tormented soul of the original. This kind of undiluted machismo turned out to be a running thread among many high-profile Hollywood action pictures during the decade, with Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme among the exemplars of this trend.
The testosterone level is especially high during the early, purposefully more conventional stages of Predator. As Dutch’s team flies into Guatemala, we are introduced to his team members, and quite the macho bunch they are. Not only do we witness Jesse Ventura’s deep-voiced Blaine declaring himself to be a “goddamn sexual Tyrannosaurus” and calling the others “slack-jawed faggots” when they all refuse his offer of chewing tobacco; we also see a nerdy-looking Shane Black—yes, the Lethal Weapon scribe—making a crude, lame joke about his ostensible girlfriend’s vagina (one he will repeat later on in the film, after the weapons-camp takedown, to actual laughter rather than the dead silence that greeted him the first time around). And of course, during the raid on the Guatemalan weapons camp, Schwarzenegger—courtesy of Jim & John Thomas’s screenplay—gets to unleash his usual cold-joke one-liners: “stick around,” he says to a baddie after throwing a knife in him; “knock knock,” he says to two others after knocking down a door before blowing them away. Director John McTiernan himself gets into the spirit a bit, with a few quick moments of Sam Peckinpah-like slow motion to emphasize some of the carnage. This all-male camaraderie is a variation of the kind of all-out fetishism of machismo and hardware that James Cameron freely swam in throughout the first half of Aliens (1986)—and like Cameron’s film, the rampant meathead machismo eventually gets a major smackdown from an otherworldly source.
Dillon’s “expendable assets” line attains an extra layer of irony in light of what eventually happens to him and much of the rest of Dutch’s team; it turns out that, even beyond the machinations of the U.S. industrial-military complex, there is a force that’s even more ruthless and inhuman—because hey, it isn’t human! On a literal level, the Predator (played, in a manner of speaking, by Kevin Peter Hall, though Stan Winston’s creature designs deserve even higher billing) appears to merely be doing some head-hunting, collecting the skulls of his human victims to, one assumes, bring back to his home planet. Metaphorically, though, one could conceivably view the Predator’s sport as a case of near-divine retribution. This unknown and, to most of the team members, unseen force will eventually bring these soldiers to their knees and knock the testosterone fog out of them. As for Schwarzenegger’s Dutch, he will eventually be forced to try to desperately stay alive without the aid of guns and ammo as he battles this alien being in—as one would only expect in a Hollywood action blockbuster—a fight to the finish.
Allow me to take a moment to simply bliss out on this brilliance of this extended final showdown. Naturally, being that this is a battle between members of two different species, dialogue is kept to a minimum, giving not only Schwarzenegger a chance to emphasize his considerable physical skills as an actor, but also McTiernan and cinematographer Donald McAlpine a chance to shine in a sustained blast of pure-cinema genius. The scale is appropriately epic—helped immensely by Alan Silvestri’s muscular orchestral score—and McAlpine makes full use of the nocturnal jungle surroundings to wring intense close-ups and grand wide shots to help screw up the tension and suspense. McTiernan—who would later hit it even bigger in Hollywood with Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990)—orchestrates it all in a masterful climactic sequence that remains, to this day, one of the classics of its type.
Even amidst the multitudinous thrills of this grand finale, however, there remain traces of that subversion churning underneath. By now, of course, Schwarzenegger has long ago abandoned those cold-joke one-liners; there is no time for wisecracks when Ah-nuld is genuinely fearing for his life. But Predator saves its most notable genre twists for its final 10 minutes. For one thing, the screenplay robs us of the expected victorious killing of the villain at the hands of the hero; in fact, Dutch holds up on stoning the Predator to death when he sees it writhing in pain. Is this previously ruthless soldier about to surrender to his inner human impulses? But the Predator turns out to be bloody but unbowed; instead of perishing at the hands of this human, he will go out in a blaze of self-destructive glory, reducing his opponent to running for his life as its final living act.
In its final (pre-closing credits crawl) shot, instead of a sense of restorative triumph à la Commando and Raw Deal, we are left with the image of this macho icon in a weary, exhausted state. That is only to be expected after such an intense and bruising fight for survival, but it’s positively subversive in the Hollywood-blockbuster tradition in which it resides: Schwarzenegger’s “victory,” for once, feeling more like a loss.