Predator shooting scene

Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox/Silver Pictures

Ain’t Got Time to Bleed:
Predator at 30 Years Old

| published July 12, 2017 |

By R. Alan Clanton,
Thursday Review editor

In case you haven’t been to the theaters lately, alien lifeforms are slightly out of fashion in science fiction, at least for now—with the notable exception of this summer’s Alien: Covenant, a quasi-prequel to the first 1979 and a
sort-of-maybe sequel to Prometheus, both directed by Ridley Scott. And though it doesn‘t quite count, since one of the series’ primary missions is “to seek out strange and new lifeforms,” last summer’s Star Trek Beyond introduced us to a new and ruthless adversary to the Federation.

And then there was last fall’s Arrival (starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker) a moody, meditative, taut, technically proficient film—if not uneven and at times oblique—which tells the story of aliens who plop down 12 big spaceships around Earth, with unknown intentions. Despite its noble intentions and good faith efforts, the film failed to ignite positive reviews from audiences.

Still, those alien-based movies have been the notable exceptions. Out there in the real-world of Houston, Cape Canaveral and Cal Tech, the fast-tracks and fast lanes to Mars and the Asteroid Belt are being rapidly constructed, and that means—predictably and perhaps for the better—that filmmakers see good reason to
cash-in on our growing interest in the Red Planet and what it will be like to travel to the next logical stopovers past our own moon. This involves a lot of what we might loosely call “the human factor.”

Interstellar (2014) and Passengers (2016) each have attempted to hit the subject directly, proposing that although travel to planets, nearby stars and neighboring solar systems may already be very much with our technical reach and rocketing skills—soon to become even routine—such voyages still require overcoming the challenges of placing human beings into space for mega journeys lasting months, years, perhaps decades. Thus we spend less time at the box office worried about scary aliens and wacky creatures, and more time thinking about what will happen after we have been placed in some form of encapsulated sleep or vital-sign-suspension for years as we sail off to Mars, Jupiter, Neptune or the next star, and the emotional and moral consequences of such journeys.

Even Alien: Covenant reluctantly dealt with the issue right up front, with a contingent of colonists on their way to a distant semi-utopian Earth-like world being awakened early (yes, the plot is familiar), thus disrupting their agenda and their long range plans. Instead, using many of the same themes and concepts and freight gags of the well-trodden Alien pantheon, they must fight for their lives as a sinister alien form attacks them. Covenant has met with mixed reviews, and even more mixed results at the box office, suffering somewhat as 2017’s so-called SORRS (Summer of Reboots/Rehashes/Sequels) drowns out its impact and its place in an Alien catalogue first begun in 1979 and now stretching into at least seven films and multiple writers, directors, and stars.

Alien could be said to be the first of the genre: an ensemble of humans trapped in a tight space or limited environment, mercilessly pursued by an amoral alien creature with a formidable appetite for killing.

But in 1987, 30 years ago this month, a newer—and some have argued more formidable—challenger emerged to scare the daylights out of us pitifully under-weaponized humans. And unlike the first Alien, which took place aboard a cargo transport ship so deep in space that it would have taken them more than a year to get home, this 1987 movie places the freights right on terra firma, not far south of the border.

Written by Jim Thomas and John Thomas, and directed by John McTiernan, Predator (released in June 1987) tells the tale of an alien who (apparently) crash lands on Earth in contemporary Central America, deep in a lush, nearly impenetrable jungle landscape. There, it works with ruthless efficiency to hunt and kill human beings at the same pace and with the same leisurely efficiency that a human hunter might track and kill big game.

Whereas Alien’s original cast was an ensemble built—effectively so—around what could be fairly described as anti-big star (Sigourney Weaver got top billing, rightfully so, later becoming a bigger star as a direct result), with largely then-unknown actors and actresses filling out the rest of the team—Yaphet Koto, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Tom Skerritt—Predator, by contrast, was built largely upon the undeniable and bankable star power of one person.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, flush off of the successes of The Terminator and Commando and in the early stage of his acceleration to the top of box office power, was the first and only person approached by producers Joel Silver and Lawrence Gordon to take on the lead role in Predator, then still under development. In addition to Schwarzenegger, Predator starred Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura (yes, that Jesse Ventura), Richard Chaves, Sonny Landham, and Elpidia Carrillo, among others. The casting was less subtle than that of Alien; Predator’s ensemble is meant to convey massive amounts of alpha male testosterone and body-slamming power; Ventura, a former Navy SEAL, was at the time a top star within pro wrestling, Weathers best known for his role as boxer Apollo Creed in the first and second Rocky movies, Landham a body-builder Native American with credentials in upscale hardcore porn, and Duke a 6’ 4” actor-director then best known for his portayal of high-raking cops and for his directing of episodes of Miami Vice and Hill Street Blues.

But because Predator starred Arnold, we know in advance who we will see survive the carnage as the story unfolds. Predator’s plot is simple and straightforward.

Somewhere along the remote and virtually inaccessible border between two countries in Central America of the mid-1980s, Soviet and-or Cuban backed Marxist rebels have formed a small stronghold, thwarting the presumably-U.S. backed government of one country and wreaking instability. The guerillas have kidnapped several pro-U.S. officials, who are now believed held hostage. We learn early in the story that a team of Marine green berets and Army Special Forces personnel—sent in covertly weeks earlier to locate the hostages and, if possible, destroy the hidden rebel base—have themselves gone missing. Now the CIA has recruited a team of elite covert military operatives—virtual mercenaries—to go in and find out what has happened, locate the missing American soldiers, locate the rebel base, and rescue any hostages still alive.

Under cover of darkness, Major “Dutch” Schaefer (Schwarzenegger) and his team, accompanied by a CIA liaison named Dillon (Carl Weathers) who was himself once a colleague of Dutch’s—are inserted by helicopters into the dense jungle near the border, where they set off—heavily armed—on foot using the last known coordinates of the missing U.S. soldiers, and the approximate last sighting of rebel militants. The team proceeds through the long day through nearly impenetrable jungle growth and unforgiving terrain. Soon, they discover a downed helicopter, and, later, the bodies of several of the missing American soldiers. It is a grisly scene: dog tags still on their necks, their bodies hang upside-down, disemboweled, with their skin removed, pools of blood congealing under where they hang. The dog tags confirm the identity of the soldiers, at least one of whom Dutch says he knew personally at Fort Bragg. Near where the bodies hang, there is evidence of a violent but confused firefight; the soldiers had been firing in nearly all directions, but there is no sign that they hit anyone. More ominously, there is no evidence of any guerilla fighters.

Dutch and his team proceed into the jungle in search of clues as to what happened, and now with revenge and “payback” on their minds. As they attempt to follow the trail, it becomes clear to us that Dutch and his team are being tracked by something unseen to them. Nevertheless, they eventually locate the guerilla base, which—after witnessing a guerilla leader kill one of the hostages—Dutch’s team attacks with a brutal vengeance in a firefight worthy of anything with Arnold’s name attached. Indeed, using the formidable skills accumulated through their covert military ops, Dutch’s small team kills or seriously wounds nearly everyone in the camp, and destroys a Russian helicopter. The area secure, Dutch’s men quickly surmise that the mission was a ruse: though the camp is packed with weapons, it is clear that the weaponry was not intended to be used for rebel activity, and the presence of members of both Russian intelligence and CIA operatives (one of the dead is a CIA employee) in the same camp indicate something far more complex.

Too close to the border, Dutch’s handlers radio them that they must make their way out on foot. So, taking along a female prisoner—the only survivor from among the rebels—Dutch and his men set off into the jungle again, but not before we (movie viewers) are informed that they are again being tracked by something not likely of this Earth.

Thus the stage is set for a brutal game of attrition. Dutch’s men are killed, one by one, in grisly fashion—in some cases skinned only minutes after death (Hawkins, played by Shane Black), in the one case killed by some form of heat pulse weapon which leaves the massive wounds fully cauterized (as in the death of Blain, played by Jesse Ventura). In a dazzling and head-pounding firefight, initiated by Mac (played by Bill Duke), we finally glimpse a creature able to cloak his appearance almost completely, even at close range. Sustaining minor injuries from Mac’s use of a Gatling Gun, the creature flees on foot, leaving a few traces of phosphorescent yellow-green blood in the jungle.
Predator shooting scene
Dutch and his men now realize that they are no longer the hunters, but have become instead the hunted, their adversary not only more heavily armed and endowed with advanced weaponry, but with the frightening capacity to disappear amidst the lush jungle terrain. The Spanish-speaking prisoner Anna, played by Elpidia Carrillo, calls the creature a chameleon. The Native American among the team, Billy (played by Sonny Landham), employed for his tracking skills, intones that they are being pursued by something that “ain’t no man,” and adds ominously that “we’re all gonna die.”

True enough within the normal narrative of such horror-sci-fi adventures, but in this case—and I am not spoiling anything for those who have never seen this violent classic—Arnold does survive, as does Anna.

Tracking the heavily armed humans—apparently for sport—our alien antagonist turns out to have formidable skills and exceptional weapons. Among other things, he wears what amounts to an armored cyborg suit—wearable weapons which include plasma and pulse type guns, retractable knives and blades, and a helmet of some sort which would be the envy of Navy F-35B pilots, with the ability to see in a variety of lighting circumstances, including infra-red, heat-signature, and more. But his suit is also capable of bending light, rendering him mostly (but not totally) invisible. Then, adding to his terrifying skillset, he is huge—a humanoid creature standing more than seven feet tall.

In fact, when the filmmakers cast the 6’ 2” Schwarzenegger in the lead role, they quickly established for themselves a moviemaking challenge: how to find an actor capable of holding his own against Arnold, the former award-winning bodybuilder already known for his lead roles in Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator. The first actor chosen to play the Predator was body builder, martial artisan and kickboxer Jean-Claude Van Damme, but Van Damme—who stands roughly 5’ 9”—was deemed insufficiently imposing to overpower Schwarzenegger in the scenes involving close hand-to-hand combat. Additionally, when shooting first began, Van Damme had difficulty with the Stan Winston-designed Predator suit and helmet, as well as the complex and heavy layers of plastic and rubber prosthetics which made up the alien’s physique. Eventually, after shooting several scenes, Director McTiernan decided to dump Van Damme and search for someone more physically imposing.

Their solution was Pittsburg native Kevin Peter Hall—basketball player for George Washington University, and later star of Without Warning (a middle-low budget 1980 horror starring Jack Palance and Martin Landau), Harry and the Hendersons (a 1987 comedic Bigfoot yarn), and Monster in the Closet (1986). At some 7’ 3”, Hall had a one foot height advantage over Schwarzenegger. Hall also had fewer problems with the prosthetics, the make-up, and the heavy suit and helmet.

While the first half of Predator is straight cat-versus-mice, with Dutch’s team members being picked off one at a time in gruesome fashion. This follows the path already blazed by other movies, most famously Alien, but in the case of Predator with far more firepower and ear-splitting ordnance. Billy’s premonition is correct; they’re all gonna die…almost. Left the lone survivor after falling from into a jungle ravine and river, Dutch swims to safety along the bank of a muddy lagoon, bruised, bloodied, covered in mud. There, still being pursued by the ruthless and invisible creature, Dutch learns that he too can make himself more-or-less invisible: the thick layer of river mud conceals his body-heat signature, and in spite of the creature walking to within a few steps of Arnold, our Predator cannot see his prey.

This pivots the film into its second act, in which Dutch—determined to survive by outwitting the creature—sets about constructing an elaborate but decidedly non-high-tech set of weapons and booby-traps: bows and arrows, spike-traps, punji stick devices, pendulums, you name it. It is now Arnold versus alien Predator, one on one, humanoid versus humanoid. Dutch sets his various traps, slathers himself in cool mud, then screams a primal wail in the night to attract the attention of his alien adversary. An epic battle ensues, complete with heavy firepower, big explosions, and hand-to-hand combat. Using his wiles and perseverance, Dutch prevails in the end, and the badly injured alien reveals a small computer strapped to his arm—whereupon he sets in motion some form of countdown, which turns out to be a powerful explosive device (think of one of those Army MOAB devices if it could be miniaturized to the size of a iPad.)

Dutch survives the massive explosion, barely. He and Anna are choppered out as the dust from a huge mushroom cloud envelopes the jungle.

Critics at the time didn’t much like the film. It was widely panned for its predictability, its heavy-handed formulaic structure, its over-the-top explosions and steady geyser of testosterone, even its oblique racism (some disliked the movie pigeonholing Native American Landham—who is part Cherokee, part Seminole—in the role of the team’s key tracker; does it really require someone of American Indian descent to decipher boot sizes and footprints?) Many critics used the term “derivative” to describe the movie’s thin plot and thinner motivations, as well as its frequent use of cliché’s (why does a CIA operative bother wearing a necktie in a jungle hellhole in the first place, unless it is to establish him as a bureaucratic foil to Schwarzenegger?)

But audiences, many of them flocking to see Schwarzenegger do what he did best at the time, generally loved the movie. Shot in Mexico on a relatively small budget of $15.1 million, Predator crossed into black ink in its first week out, pegging the box office as the number one film that week and raking-in $12 million between Friday and Saturday. By the end of summer it had become the second biggest money-maker of the year (after Beverly Hills Cop 2), pulling-in more than $75 million, and by the end of the year it had settled in at $98.25 million. Later, it became a staple of the premium channels action and sci-fi line-ups, and faired far better than expected in video sales.

In fact, over time, Predator became something of a classic, rising more-or-less continuously on the greatest hits charts of action movies and sci-fi thrillers. It gave birth to plenty of sequels, though most fans of the series regard the first film as the best. Shane Black, who starred as Hawkins in the first film, is nearing completion of what he hopes to be a substantial reboot of the franchise under his direction. (Black, buoyed by the success of his scriptwriting for Lethal Weapon, got the role of Hawkins in part to observe up close production of a major film under the tutelage of McTiernan).

The movie spawned numerous famous and infamous lines, most notably Jesse Ventura’s classic “I ain’t got time to bleed” line delivered during the assault on the rebel camp. The line became the title of Ventura’s 1999 book delivering his message of reform in American politics.
Predator Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sonny Landham
And that takes us to not just politics but elective office as well. Predator may be the film most responsible for the most candidacies for public office of any action film in U.S. history. Ventura, in case you slept through the 1990s, became a celebrity within the Reform Party movement started by H. Ross Perot in 1992. Ventura ran successfully to become Mayor of Brooklyn Park in 1991, defeating the town’s 25-year incumbent in a stunning upset. Later, he would successfully run for the governorship of Minnesota, becoming the only member of the Reform Party to secure high office. Landham also ran for public office, seeking the Republican nomination for the governorship of Kentucky in 2003 and running again for Mitch McConnell’s Senate seat in 2008. He was unsuccessful in both races, but remained active in both Republican and third party politics. Bill Duke was rumored in the early aught years to be considering running for office as well. In the end, he chose not to enter politics despite the track record of his fellow cast members.

During shooting of Predator, McTiernan and the producers allowed Schwarzenegger to take off enough time to fly back to the states and marry his sweetheart, Maria Shriver. The rest of that tale is also history. Schwarzenegger eventually converted his love of politics and his screen charism into becoming Governor of California. Some in the GOP in those days lamented the fact that Arnold was born in Austria, not in the United States, for he would have surely been considered a possible Presidential candidate. Schwarzenegger, as we all know, served two terms as governor.

McTiernan went on to even more substantial success in the cresting niche devoted to action and heavy explosions. Die Hard (1988), starring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, became one of the most famous
action-adventure movies of all time, and spawned a half dozen sequels along with more than 100 imitations. McTiernan also directed the tense, taut Hunt for Red October (Alec Baldwin, Sean Connery, James Earl Jones), widely considered one of the best screen adaptations of a novel ever accomplished, in this case converting Tom Clancy’s famous story into a palatable and approachable film.

For the cast and crew, there have been some real-life downsides and tragedy.

McTiernan infamously served prison time for his part in a conspiracy involving private investigator Anthony Pellicano, who was allegedly paid to wiretap several top film producers involved in the development of the Rollerball remake in the early aught years. Making things worse for himself, McTiernan lied to prosecutors and to the judge about numerous key points in the unfolding scandal, deepening his troubles and perhaps assuring a longer jail sentence. After serving time he went back into film production, but remains unable to pay debts and still hangs precariously in bankruptcy.

The imposing Kevin Peter Hall, who reprised his role in the 1990 Predator 2, died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991 a year after receiving a blood transfusion infected with HIV.

Landham, after more than a decade of rattling around the political circles (he imploded after making extremist anti-Arab remarks on a radio talk show in late 2008), lost his legs in a Kentucky car crash a few years ago. Social media pages indicate that he lives in a motel somewhere in Kentucky, where he survives on disability income only, with a tiny smattering of royalty income from his film roles. A GoFundMe page was established in the fall of 2016 to help with his expenses and medical bills.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Alien: Covenant Delivers the Goods, and the Bads; Cameron Dale; Thursday Review; June 2, 2017.

Star Trek: Beyond; Maggie Nichols; Thursday Review; August 15, 2016.