Thursday, July 19, 2012

Heavy Action: Predator / I Come in Peace

by Patrick Bromley
This week, our Heavy Action heroes take on some evil aliens. Welcome to Earf.

Predator (1987)

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.
Though Predator is more concept-based than character-based, it does spend its first half hour establishing its protagonists as the biggest, baddest, best guys in the world at their job. Some of that may be to supply some Commando-style action and up the body count early on, but it has the added benefit of raising the stakes. We understand what these guys are capable of. We understand how hard it is to kill them. More than that, though, is that we understand their relationships to one another. They have history together. We don't want to see them die. It's why Predator 2 just doesn't work as well as the original -- all it thinks it has to do is change the location. The stakes aren't raised (like in the jump from Alien to Aliens). The hero cops are just that -- ordinary cops with little to distinguish them. They're such unremarkable cannon fodder, in fact, that a pregnancy has to be invented just so we'll care enough that one of them lives.

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.
Plus, the actual Predator is kickass. Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally set to play the alien (there's a piece of trivia for you, Heavy Action fans), but was replaced when he wouldn't stop complaining about wearing the suit -- and, hopefully, when someone figured out he would be too small opposite Schwarzenegger. So he was replaced by Kevin Peter Hall, who was starring as Harry in Harry and the Hendersons at the same time that Predator played in theaters and who stood 7'2, a full foot taller than his co-star. The suit design by Stan Winston is iconic, and writers Jim and John Thomas wisely give the alien a bunch of interesting technology and abilities without making it totally invincible; there are enough chinks in the armor (so to speak) that Dutch is convincingly able to figure out how to take it down. There is intelligence to the screenplay, which seems so simple and thick-headed on the surface. Plus, it's provided us action fans with so many classic lines -- things like "I ain't got time to bleed" and "If it bleeds, we can kill it" and "Get to the choppa!" and "Dillon! You son of a bitch!" Granted, a lot of those are because of their delivery, but Predator remains the gift that keeps on giving all the same.

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.
Dolph Lundgren plays unorthodox Houston cop Jack Caine (an amazing '80s action movie name), whose partner is killed by a group of while collar drug dealers known as the White Boys. He's reassigned to FBI agent Arwood Smith (Dream On's Brian Benben, the most 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.
At one point, a second alien is even introduced. This one's a good alien, who is chasing the bad guy alien down to stop him (like an alien cop, or a bounty hunter from Critters). But all he really does is deliver news from the Planet Exposition, flat-out stating to Caine and Smith that what they're fighting is indeed an alien and that if he succeeds and flies back home loaded up with endorphins, an entire race of similar alien drug dealers will come and wipe out the entire planet's population. Then he starts glowing and explodes before he dies. Very little is made of his alien-ness. I Come in Peace drops this ball again and again.

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?
Director Craig R. Baxley at least he comes by the movie's inspirations honestly: he was both second unit director and stunt coordinator on the original Predator. It was actually the last time he would do either job before being picked by Joel Silver to move up to the big leagues with Action Jackson in 1988. I Come in Peace is the middle movie in his Trilogy of Awesomeness, which completed with Stone Cold in 1991, and probably the weakest of the three if only because it's the most confused about what it wants to be. For a movie that appears to be imitating Predator, the writers (Jonathan Tydor and Leonard Maas Jr., as well as an uncredited David Koepp, supposedly) forgot to borrow that film's focus and simplicity. As much as I like a movie about a three-way battle between cops, drug dealers and aliens on paper, I Come in Peace shortchanges two-thirds of that dynamic.

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.


  1. I like Predator. I read a cinefex article years ago that addressed the early shoots with Van Damme and as I recall the direction was scrapped because no one was happy with how the creature design worked during shooting. Van Damme was on stilts to provide the Predator with a reverse bending knee that would heighten the alienness of its anatomy. He also had to be suspended from wires to work on these stilts and it really slowed down the shooting schedule. Stan Winston studios were brought in for a redesign and decided simplicity was key.

    I think the film was trying to emulate Aliens with respect to creating a compelling cast of supporting characters but is much less successful. Aliens was cast with character actors who could flesh out underwritten characters with a nuanced performance while Predator is filled with tough guys of limited range. Really the film doesn't engage me until they're all gone and it is Mano e Predatoro.

    I like Predator 2 too. It's not as economic in its storytelling. It's a lot more dated because of an attempt to make it futuristic. But it has a better cast. I don't think the preganancy is about making the audience care more about the human characters but in showing that the Predator has some level of honour and sympathy in whom it hunts.

    1. The Van Damme stuff is mostly just interesting trivia. I'm glad they never went with the suit they originally designed, because the one they ended up with is so rad.

      I actually like the cast of Predator better than much of the cast of Aliens, but I think that just amounts to a numbers game -- there are fewer guys to get to know in Predator, so they can be drawn a little more clearly (and in CAPITAL LETTERS). The best people in Aliens still outshine Pancho and Billy and Hawkins, but many of them are just cannon fodder.

      I like a lot of stuff in Predator 2, and I like the idea of setting it in a city, but still feel like it doesn't quite figure out how to make it work. And I was mostly joking about the pregnancy thing, but I do believe there's something to it. I think it was an easy way of getting around killing the woman -- and, if the series has proven anything, it's that the filmmakers aren't comfortable with the Predator killing women. The Predator is a sexist hunter.

  2. His name's ALAN?!? I think you just ruined Predator for me.

  3. The project for I COME IN PEACE or rather DARK ANGEL goes back to 1984, so before PREDATOR... It wasn't actually made until a couple years later but it wasn't meant to rip off the other.