From its very opening shot, it is clear that Predator is not the typical Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. A spaceship of unknown origin appears from the depth of space and launches a shuttle that enters Earth's atmosphere. Cue title.
We're a long way from Commando and garbage day.
You know the rest. An elite team of soldiers, led by Schwarzenegger (playing a character only referred to as "Dutch" but whose name in the movie is apparently ALAN), land in the Costa Rican jungle to rescue a group of hostages. After taking out an entire army of guerrillas, they realize they've been double-crossed by their CIA contact, Dillon (Carl Weathers) -- but that's the least of their concerns. Something is hunting them on their journey back to the helicopter home. Something invisible. Something deadly. Something not of this world.
But not in Predator. In Predator, we keep hoping each guy will survive, even when we know he can't. Part of what makes the movie so great and goddamn memorable is the murderers' row of tough guys in the cast. Besides Schwarzenegger -- who we'll get to in a minute -- there's Action Jackson himself, Carl Weathers. There's Jesse "The Body" Ventura, who was then still affiliated with the WWF and who makes a fantastic debut here (he would reunite with Schwarzenegger for both The Running Man and Batman and Robin). There's Bill Duke from Commando. Sonny Landham from Action Jackson and 48 Hrs. Even Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black, probably the most influential voice in action movies until the arrival of Michael Bay, is on hand in a supporting role. It's a great collection of badasses, and while none of the performances are at all nuanced, there are a bunch of broad strokes that lay out who each man is clearly and economically. Sometimes, it's embarrassingly outdated (like the movie's treatment of Billy, the magical Native American tracker). Usually, it works. Shane Black reads and tells jokes about the size of his girlfriend's vagina. He's the geeky one. Jesse Ventura's Blaine is toughest of the tough guys, spitting tobacco everywhere and packing a mini helicopter gun. For some reason, Bill Duke's Mac is wearing a suit when they first get off the helicopter. I love that detail. I love it even more when he's the guy who completely loses his shit once things hit the fan.
I've written before about how Schwarzenegger is so often cast as "The Other" on film (he's a robot in the Terminator series, he's a movie character come to life in Last Action Hero, he's an undercover cop in Raw Deal and Kindergarten Cop, he's leading double or triple lives in Total Recall and True Lies), perhaps as a way of explaining his superhuman physique or making audiences more comfortable with his accent. The masterstroke of Predator, then, is that it invents for him an opponent who is even MORE "other" than he is. It strips him of the advantage he has in every other movie, reducing him from superhuman to just plain human. For one of the only times in his career, Schwarzenegger spends most of a movie on the defensive, and he proves to be surprisingly good at projecting vulnerability. His showdown with the Predator (who, like the shark in Jaws, isn't revealed until nearly an hour in) goes on too long to be sure -- it's at least the last third of the movie -- but keeps finding new twists and reveals to keep it interesting. Aside from Terminator 2's T-1000, it's the most evenly matched and physically tested Arnold has ever been on film.
Between this and Die Hard, director John McTiernan is responsible for two the best action movies of the 1980s (and, in the case of Die Hard, the actual best). He practically wrote the book on no-nonsense action directing -- he doesn't have an obvious visual style, but he gets the job done better than almost anyone shooting action today. His best films have a sense of place, and his action sequences are well paced and expertly choreographed so that we always know where we are. It's too bad his career was shitcanned over the next 15 years by a series of increasingly frustrating and disappointing movies before flaming out altogether when he got wrapped up in a federal investigation and was sentenced to prison. The director of Predator and Die Hard deserves better.
25 years after its release (HOLY SHIT), Predator is still a classic of the action genre. Not every effect holds up (in particular the "alien camouflage" bit), but it has dated surprisingly well. It delivers on everything that makes an action movie great, while offering enough invention and novelty to stand apart from everything else. And while it isn't necessarily one of his best performances -- he just doesn't have enough to do for it to qualify as such -- it's still one of Schwarzenegger's best movies. I'd put it in the top 5, anyway.
I Come in Peace (1990)
The Predator imitator I Come in Peace is a pretty good action movie. It's a decent buddy cop movie. As a Predator rip-off, though, it's lousy.
unlikely action hero since John Pankow in To Live and Die in L.A.), an annoying company man and rule follower; not surprisingly, the two don't get along all that well. The pair begin investigating a bizarre series of murders in which the victims are pumped full of heroin but aren't dying of a drug overdose, or another series of murders in which drug runners are being killed off by some kind of razor-sharp flying CD weapon. It all leads to an alien (played by German bodybuilder Mathias Hues) who came to Earth (in peace, apparently) to extract endorphins from human brains because they're taken like drugs on his home planet. Yes, I Come in Peace is about an alien drug dealer.
So, on its face, the movie employs the same basic setup as Predator: take a well-known action star and pit him against an enemy from another planet. Seems easy enough, considering how popular and successful it was when Schwarzenegger did it. The big problem with I Come in Peace is that all of the alien stuff is almost like an afterthought -- aside from the flying CD weapon and the whole endorphins-as-drugs thing, there's not much to distinguish the alien villain from a regular action movie bad guy. The alien doesn't even look all that different from humans, except for some contacts and a mullet that's OUT OF THIS WORLD. With just a few smallish changes, I Come in Peace could have been just a regular buddy cop movie about two guys busting up drug rings and corruption in their own departments. I'm not sure it would have been any worse for it.
Like Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren was not American born (he's Swedish), and was cast as the "other" in some of his early roles (like Russian boxer Ivan Drago in Rocky IV and He-Man in the live action Masters of the Universe). The Predator dynamic could have been repeated here, then, but isn't, because I Come in Peace goes out of its way to "Americanize" Jack Caine -- beginning with his name (at least "Dutch" implied a kind of foreignness). He's all t-shirts and stubble and cowboy boots and leather jackets and a hidden "cultural" side where he drinks wine and collects fine art. Yes, he's one of those movie cops who seems all tough on the outside, but whose apartment reflects a sensitive, artistic side. That's action movie heroes for you -- if they're not slobs who eat dinner by stabbing pieces of cold pizza with big ass knives (like in Cobra), they have fine art on the walls and listen to jazz or classical music (see Jason Statham's character in the remake of The Mechanic for a great example of this). And what's the point of this dimension to Caine's character? There isn't one. It provides a single scene in which Benben is surprised to learn about that side of him, and maybe goes a little way towards explaining his relationship with coroner Betsy Brantley, the former Mrs. Steven Soderbergh. Nothing else. It's just another page from the action movie playbook. A movie that introduces an alien villain should be bucking convention, not slavishly embracing it.
I've always liked Lundgren better as a person than as an action star (Google this man if you want to know just how fascinating he is), because he always feels stiff on screen. Though he's an athlete and accomplished martial artist, his sheer size always makes his action scenes feel slightly awkward. This is actually one of his better roles, because he's at his loosest in I Come in Peace, and his rapport with Benben is pretty entertaining even though it consists of a lot of disagreeable bickering. Again, though, why saddle Lundgren with a partner? Isn't the whole point to pit the action hero one-on-one against an alien killer? Does this movie want to rip off Predator or not?
As a fan of I Come in Peace since it's VHS debut, I've always been frustrated at how difficult it's been to come by these last 20 years. The movie was never released on DVD, and, aside from a few showings on MGM HD has been almost impossible to come by until MGM's manufacture-on-demand service finally made it available last year under its original title, Dark Angel. That title makes absolutely no sense. I Come in Peace isn't all that much better, of course, but at least it more accurately sounds like the B-movie exploitation stuff that it is. And it gives Lundgren the movie's most famous line:
Got a movie you'd like to see included in a future installment of Heavy Action? Let us know in the comments below.