I ain’t got time to bleed.
I really hope the anecdote is true that Jim and John Thomas wrote their script for Predator based on a joke positing how the only opponent left for Rocky Balboa to fight after Ivan Drago was an alien. It’s a cheesy thought and cheesier premise, so the fact that they and director John McTiernan could craft something as severely brutal as the finished film is a testament to their craft. They decide to move beyond pure action adventure motives, utilizing horror tropes for their unknown villain literally hiding in plain sight. What begins as a testosterone fueled rescue mission that remorselessly spirals into an explosive massacre takes a hard left turn into a chess game cat-and-mouse thriller you don’t expect from its otherwise jingoistic theatrics.
Despite the opening vignette of a spaceship flying over Earth’s atmosphere to drop something to its surface, the extra-terrestrial aspect of the film is still far in the future. First we must meet the players: namely Carl Weathers‘ Dillon and Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s Dutch. The former used to be an operative on the ground before rising through the military ranks while the latter loves the rush the vantage provides too much to ever give it up. Dillon has sent for Dutch to infiltrate a Central American guerilla camp in order to rescue his men that were captured. It’s important enough to him that he’s going to leave his perch and join their team despite knowing they like to work alone. It signals an ulterior motive that flayed bodies soon reveal.
This is where Predator surprises. While meeting the other characters in action (Jesse Ventura‘s toxic bully Blain, Bill Duke‘s stoic professional Mac, Sonny Landham‘s expert tracker Billy, Shane Black‘s goofball Hawkins, and Richard Chaves‘ Poncho), everything seems straightforward. Sure there are inconsistencies and a few moments of heat vision spying from afar that are devoid of context, but it’s more or less a highly skilled group of men searching for enemy combatants. The eventual firefight is extremely over-the-top, ruthlessly excessive, and intrinsically sexist thanks to finding the lone woman in the camp (Elpidia Carrillo‘s Anna) to feign chivalry by sparing her life for no other reason than setting her up to be a modified “final girl” cliché. The patience to not tip their hand too soon is commendable.
Because while these first thirty minutes or so are action packed and relentless to the point of comedy, they serve as deflection. Only when the perspective shifts from their pursuer’s eyes to ours upon it does the film’s ambition kick in. The extraction plot thread suddenly disappears with the quick glimpse of a figure invisibly refracting the light around it to seem invisible. The gung-ho fearlessness of these brawny men is challenged by an unknown entity that can only be described by Anna’s face of terror. It’s an hour plus from this moment of nothing but pure dread with fear taking over and death in the air. One by one they’re picked off, the villain gradually exposing its true form by necessity until a climactic man-to-beast jungle showdown.
But while nothing of substance happens during this final two thirds of runtime, we’re never bored thanks to the creature design and sci-fi special effects seemingly arriving out of nowhere. It’s a brilliant example of sensory economy, the suspense hinged upon our inability to guess what this thing is. And while that leads to frustration in most cases with Dutch becoming desperate to chop off its head, Bill Duke’s Mac conversely snaps psychologically in order to deliver a performance a film like this probably doesn’t deserve. He becomes haunted, unstable, and a projection of our truest selves in these circumstances. We need a Dutch to save the day with a level head, but the majority of us are Macs: terrified of the horrors to which we’ll inevitably succumb.
So with each kill we start to understand the “predator’s” (performed by Kevin Peter Hall and voiced by Peter Cullen) biology, technology, and motivation. We begin to realize this is nothing more than a desire on its part to hunt for sport. And while most of its prey hardly put up a fight, this crew is different. These men have drawn blood to excite it even more with the promise of competition. The fact that it can still pick a man as imposing as Schwarzenegger off his feet by the neck exposes how it’ll never engage in a fair fight on Earth, but that doesn’t mean it can’t lose just the same. Supply it enough victims to discover its weaknesses and you just might stand a chance.
Whether that’s enough to sustain your interest in the whole is completely up to you. I wouldn’t fault anyone for dismissing Predator as a simplistic horror thriller in the vein of so many others because on paper it’s exactly that. But if you break down its trajectory and its willingness to transform on the fly to keep its audience on its toes, you’ll see there’s a lot more here than meets the eye. I’d even call its construction smart despite its dialogue and characterizations being bottom-barrel. But there’s something wonderful about that too. The Thomas brothers throw these stereotypical heroes into the fire to show how defenseless they are beneath their inflated egos. No matter how many muscles or how angry the attitude, our vulnerability remains constant.