Some movie elevator pitches are so perfect they tell you everything you need to know in that one micro-burst of artistic summation. And perhaps the best example of this is from one of the finest artifacts of 1980s action cinema: Arnold Schwarzenegger leads a team of commandos into the Central American jungle to blast a small army of guerrillas and gets into a fight they can’t win with an extraterrestrial big game hunter that has chosen them as their prey. That is gold. That is an instant production deal. That is the Next Big Thing. That is…Predator.
This is a movie that at one point was knocked by critics for having a thin plot, which is a hilarious criticism to throw at an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie circa 1987 that is equal parts Rambo and Alien blended together, poured down the barrel of a grenade launcher and blasted all over the audience. What the hell did people think they were going to get out of a movie this transparently over the top and saturated with testosterone? Nuanced characters? No. Poignant dialogue? No. More than 10 minutes without there being some evidence of bloodshed? No. What they were going to get was the same thing that people keep going back for in their crusade to make this one of the most re-watched movies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. And that is a high-octane, no-nonsense sci-fi action-adventure that gives us Schwarzenegger just as he hits his peak, an instant entry into the Hollywood monsters Hall of Fame, ear-shattering fight scenes, fun jump-scares, special effects that age surprisingly well, and just enough cornball nonsense to prompt people to quote lines like “Get to da choppa,” and “I ain’t got time to bleed” without caring about how silly they sound.
The cast is as two-dimensional as it gets. Arnold is Dutch, the hero commander. There is Mac, the only medic in the world who also packs an M60. There is Blain, who one-ups Mac by carrying an honest-to-God electric gatling gun on his back. There is Poncho, the grenade launcher and explosives guy. There is Billy, the Native American tracker/walking stereotype who is in tune with the spirit world around him. There is Hawkins, the wisecracking communications guy played by Shane Black (clearly test-driving the kind of snappy patter he would specialize in as writer and director). And then there is Dillon, an old CIA friend of Dutch’s who tags along to push a secret agenda and complicate the mission. Along the way, a female guerrilla prisoner named Anna becomes a reluctant ally once the group realizes that somebody in the jungle is killing them all off and they need to work together if they want to survive.
One of the best moments of this movie is early on when Dutch and Dillon meet, and the two clasp hands in a titanic, alpha-male bro-shake that is some of the most loving fan service ever played to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biceps. Later movies never repeated the stunt because they all knew it couldn’t be topped. And while the scene is fun, and then more fun once you laugh at it, and then even more fun once you love it despite its ridiculousness, it’s also basically a mission statement for the kind of movie experience this thing aims to deliver. And that, Predator does in spades.
The early combat scene is like a great, big Busby Berkeley number if Berkeley was a member of SEAL Team Six. And even then, it’s just an establishing scene to let us know how badass our heroes are. That way, when they start getting vaporized by particle beams and dismembered by retractable wrist knives, and their skulls get hung as trophies by some giant who wears a cloaking device and jumps around like it is defying gravity, we know what we’re really dealing with. Watching Dutch’s team get dismantled by a largely unseen foe who sports some cool new ability every time it scores a kill somehow manages the impossible by getting the audience to root both for and against Arnold Schwarzenegger. By the time Arnie is busting knuckles with the Predator, it doesn’t matter who loses because the audience has already won.
As Predator plays out its predictable last-man-standing story arc, we’re clued in to the movie’s real elevator pitch: What if there was an alien so big and bad it could beat up Arnold Schwarzenegger? That’s where Predator really excels, so by the time we’re in the final act, and things quiet down to a fairly mismatched one-on-one game of manhunt, it really isn’t all that obvious who is going to win here. But before we get there, we get the moment of truth. It comes about halfway through the movie, after the Predator blasts Blain from afar, taking out the team’s heavy gunner before the guy can even fire a single minigun shot in defense. Blain’s buddy Mac comes to help his fallen friend just as the Predator leaves, but not before revealing itself enough for Mac to know what killed his friend. Mac opens fire first with his M60, and then with Blain’s minigun. The rest of the team arrives and unloads every weapon they have in an unforgettable barrage of gunfire and explosives. When the smoke clears, the team has laid an acre of jungle to waste and still only managed to nick their opponent. The scene is like some other movie’s entire ammunition budget all spent in a single, mind-boggling, blaze of glory. A little later, Anna spots some glowing green blood on a leaf and realizes that the supposedly invincible Predator has been wounded, prompting Dutch to pronounce what is probably the manliest line in motion picture history:“If it bleeds, we can kill it.” Yes we can, Arnie. Yes. We. Can.