John McTiernan did so much to shape the modern studio action picture, and it’s wild to look at his resume and see how many classic titles he has to his credit: Nomads (his creepy and odd ghost story debut), Die Hard (quite possibly the best American action movie of all-time), Die Hard: With a Vengeance (as good as threequels will ever get), The Hunt for the Red October (an unimpeachable classic), The Last Action Hero (sue me, I love this incredible action movie deconstruction from genre MASTER screenwriter Shane Black) and The Thomas Crown Affair (one of the best remakes around). Sure, he’s had rough times, mostly due to studio interference (The 13th Warrior and his Rollerball remake were not career highlights because of studio meddling, despite typically great scenes of action), but it’s inescapably true that he’s one of the finest pure action directors of all time. And his genre-hybrid Predator, mixing action and comedy and horror and science-fiction, still stands as one of his best works, a movie filled with non-stop action, macho humor, incredible physical locations, rugged cinematography (the great Donald McAlpine captured the jungle in all its exploding glory with testosterone fueled imagery that has the power to elicit gasps and laughter), and a massively engaging central performance from Arnold Schwarzenegger, who hit all the proper notes of aggressive man-of-action, cheesy drama, and of course, his own brand of signature one-liner humor that never suffered thanks to the witty and inventive screenplay from Jim and John Thomas. The two writers threw tons of stylistic ingredients into the cinematic blender, and because of McTiernan’s fantastic use of space and coherent sense of action, the resulting effort is one of the most satisfying and exciting action films from the 1980’s.
No need in rehashing the plot; if you haven’t seen this movie by now I question what planet you call home base. I’ve always loved the main conceit of Predator, in that another, way more advanced species would drop off their young in order for them to train and hunt, with humans as their mostly defenseless prey. It’s such a classic sci-fi idea, and when joined at the hip with the military action adventure scenario, the film carries a whiff of unpretentious high-concept that would be tough to pull off now and generate the same level of thrills and enjoyment. While I liked the Steven Hopkins directed sequel from 1991 more than most, look no further than Alien vs. Predator as an example of a potentially good idea run amok. The practical and early visual effects, while clearly dated, are still awesome in that nostalgic, pre-CGI fashion that genre efforts from the 80’s all had. The pseudo-sequel from 2010, Predators, the more I think back on it, is sort of underrated; I should give that one another viewing. But on Predator, the filmmakers had to resort to real stunts and real explosions and real props before the onslaught and reliance of the computer, and there’s an honest physicality to the entire production that feels sturdy and realistic. And that’s because this film was legitimately shot in the jungle – deep in the jungle – and it shows.
McTiernan’s films all have a sense of rough and tumble action, and I’ve long loved his mixing of hand-held and stationary camerawork, always filling the widescreen frame with detail and high-powered images that feel lush and expensive. The supporting cast is a rogues gallery of manly-men performers, with everyone bringing their scenery chewing A-game: Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, and Sonny Landham, all impossibly juiced, jacked, and ripped beyond belief, carrying the world’s largest machine guns, and destroying everything in sight. And let’s not forget action movie author extraordinaire Shane Black as the group’s wise-cracking purveyor of comedy relief; he also did well with his firearms when called upon. And of course, goes without saying, the hulking Kevin Peter Hall was man-in-suit perfection as the titular beast, and the one-on-one face-off with Schwarzenegger at the end still stands as one of the best final fights ever. The camp-site raid at the half-way point is utterly staggering in its balls-out awesomeness, with shell casings galore, bodies flying through the air, and enough fireballs to choke a horse. It’s almost impossible to think that this was a $15 million production back in the day – that wouldn’t even cover the catering costs if a re-make was attempted in this day and age! I’ve long been a huge fan of this definitive piece of movie magic for years, and it’s terrific to note how well it’s held up as the decades have progressed.