Predator: Goin’ Crazy, Down in Val Verde

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On location in steamy Mexico, the terrain is so uneven that cast and crew have long forgotten the last day they stood up straight while filming. Today is the day the fearsome alien creature that has been stalking and picking off Arnold Schwarzenegger’s band of alpha-male hard-asses makes its debut. Only when the suit is broken out of its box, it looks like  a ridiculous giant red lobster. For director John McTiernan, it’s a disaster. Jesse Ventura probably hasn’t time to swallow his tobacco in disgust, let alone bleed.  McTiernan makes the difficult decision with his producers to shut down production for eight months while a redesign is hastily ordered. It’s one of the best decisions he will ever make. “One ugly mutherfucker” later, and an action / sci-fi classic is born; Predator is The Wild Bunch meets Alien.

“I always wanted to do a film like The Wild Bunch or The Magnificent Seven, where a team of guys work together, rather than relying on yourself, ” said Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a smart move to tailor the movie in this fashion: he plays an almost John Wayne-esque role here, with able support from a memorable team. The script didn’t start this way though; Hunter, as it was, was originally pitched as Rocky meets Alien. As filmed, Predator takes Arnold’s “rescue team, not assassins” across the border into fictional South American country Val Verde (not named in Jim and John Thomas’ script, but used spec like by many Hollywood writers, the creation of Steven E de Souza) to rescue military advisors to the Government forces. However, the chopper contained CIA operatives brought down by the local guerillas they were looking for. A previous special forces rescue team has disappeared, actually skinned by the Predator as Dutch and the team later gruesomely discover. It’s up to Arnold’s Alan (yes, Alan) “Dutch” Schaefer’s team, along with his shady manipulative CIA friend Dillon (Carl Weathers), to get the job done. But all too soon, things start goin’ crazy down in Val Verde, with the jungle coming alive (“That’s a bullshit psyche job!”) and the men falling one by one to an off-world hunter who uses an invisibility shield and the trees to hunt worthy opponents.

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McTiernan saw in the script “elements you rarely find together:a classic hero story and a horror story, like the Norse myths, where heroes fight against supernatural beings. It also reminded me of the old war movies and comic books with men who were larger than life. it is in essence a battle of the titans.” It was an updating of those old stories, told with an earthy humour and modern sensibility to flesh out the larger than life team.

Carl Weathers (Dillon) was a pro-footballer turned actor, famous as Rocky’s opponent Apollo Creed. The ridiculousness of the machismo on display was winked at early on as Dutch greets his old comrade with a competitive hand clasp / arm wrestle:”What’s the matter? The CIA got you pushing too many pencils? Dutch grins.

The formidable Bill Duke as Mac had played  a heavy opposite Arnold in Commando, and had previous experience directing TV shows such as Hill Street Blues. His early antipathy towards Dillon and easy going affinity with Blaine are essayed in minimal shrugs, eye gestures and tipping of the head or hip flask. Fittingly, when the shit goes down and Blaine’s body is dragged off by the Predator to be scraped out (urgh!) Mac chases after, unleashing the awesome power of Blaine’s Ol’ Painless, joined in impotent chorus by the others as they lay waste to the jungle ahead, eventually clicking on empty.

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Vietnam vet and ex-Navy SEAL Jesse “The Body” Ventura, also a former wrestler, is Mac’s best buddy, the only other man who can let rip with a mini-gun and not look ridiculous. I’m glad I’ve never seen him act in anything else to sully the many memorable lines he gets here.

Richard Chaves (Poncho) was also a Vietnam vet – the writers believed had the film been made earlier, it could have been set in Vietnam during the war. Man mountain Sonny Landham is Billy, the Native American tracker of the team, a loose cannon who had to be escorted under insurance company orders by a bodyguard to prevent the volatile 6 ft 8 in giant from assaulting anyone.

The strangest casting was the latest go-to screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) as  radio man Hawkins, hired in case rewrites were needed (they weren’t). Although he did contribute two terrible filthy jokes. Lacking the physical presence of the others, his defining look was a pair of oversized glasses – should have gone to Specsavers… Elpidia Carillo rounds out the beleaguered cast as Anna, the captive guerilla, who Arnie tells to “Get to da choppa!”

The team get fully introduced in the coolest helicopter black-ops insertion until Zero Dark Thirty came along. As Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally blasts out of the ghetto blaster, each man gets a little character sketch as Blain offers around his disgusting chewing tobacco to no takers: “Bunch of slack-jawed faggots around here! This stuff will make you a goddam sexual Tyrannosaurus. just like me (grins)”

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There’s a brilliant economy of statement to the dialogue and set up, complete with memorable lines for every character, that elevate Predator  and other eighties fare like Aliens into the pantheon of classics. It seems to be a skill that has been lost by modern action film-makers, too impatient for spectacle and the next set-up. Here we get time to know the gang; after Blain is taken, Mac toasts his memory  in a heart felt soliloquy to the stars above the jungle. The sort of tribute G.I Joe: Retaliation fumbles from Roadblock to Duke with a thud of plank heavy ineptitude.

Billy is the only one to get killed off screen. As the depleted squad make a run for it to the pick up point he refuses to leave, tossing aside his modern firearms and flak vest, standing exposed like his ancestors upon the river spanning log; huge knife unleashed, he ritually cuts his chest to draw their foe, a mad glint in his eye, hinting at a spiritual connection.

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Up until the final act, all we’ve seen of the predator is its camouflaged outline and the odd close-up of a hand cauterising a wound. As stated earlier, the original design by Richard Edlund (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Poltergeist) was completely wrong; gangly, tiger striped, with a bug like head, it was originally going to be worn by Jean -Claude Van Damme, hired for his fluid martial arts grace. He quit after two days of tests, refusing to be relegated to, as he saw it, a special effect.

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Make-up and creature effects genius Stan Winston came to the rescue, although not before Rick Baker was considered. Arnold probably used his clout to get him the job, after their great team up on  The Terminator. As Winston and that film’s director Jim Cameron were sitting together on a flight to Japan, Cameron remarked how he always wanted to see a monster “with mandibles”. Winston, who was drafting Predator designs, immediately added them to the face of his rasta-looking, muscular warrior.

This look, worn by Kevin Peter Hall, the 7′ 2″ creature performer from T.V’s Harry And The Hendersons, was a more physically imposing foe to face off against Arnold in the pared down, Tarzan  like finale, where Dutch, perhaps inspired by Billy, sets traps and and uses his own mud pack camouflage to lure the Predator in for a bone crunching hand to hand fight, before the incredible self destruct countdown and the Predator’s Billy-mimicking mocking last laugh.

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Predator got sniffy reviews on release, but audiences knew a good thing when they saw it. I remember the cinema being packed (with some unlikely viewers too!) when I saw it on first release. The simple set up was original and stood out from the crowd. Sadly, Arnold didn’t return for the city set sequel in 1990, and we got Danny “I’m too old for this shit” Glover as the miscast lead detective in a sweltering L.A, dealing with  a younger, cockier Predator, attracted by the OTT armed to hilt violent street gangs. But that’s another story… “Oh my!”

Originally posted 2013-04-14 23:47:15. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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