Monday, November 12, 2018

Predator Week, part II: Oh, it's the urban jungle, I get it


PREDATOR 2

Predator 2 never quite justifies its existence, but it mostly earns your attention, and that will have to do.

1990
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Written by Jim Thomas and John Thomas
With Danny Glover (Lt. Mike Harrigan), Ruben Blades (Danny Archuleta), Maria Conchita Alonso (Leona Cantrell), Bill Paxton (Jerry Lambert), Gary Busey (Peter Keyes), Kevin Peter Hall (a Predator, why is he credited as "the Predator"? the Predator is dead)

Spoiler alert: moderate


Predator 2 is basically okay, but there's a lot of disappointed sneering packed into that five-word review, because Predator 2 is the sequel to Predator, one of the 80s' smartest, buffest action films, one of its most iconic horror films, and one of its most portentous sci-fi films, all at the same time.  It's an unnecessary sequel, of course, but others of its pedigree seemed that way at first: I suspect it's only hindsight telling us that Alien and The Terminator demanded their follow-ups, and it's only through hindsight that we know that those films were destined to be even better than their originals.  However, since "Destiny" is apparently my pet name for James Cameron, and Predator 2 definitely wasn't directed by any kind of James Cameron, it follows that Predator 2 wasn't ever destined for anything.  Never even in the same league as its predecessor—you can quibble over whether Aliens is better than Alien or T2 is better than Terminator, but you've got to agree they're in the same class, or you're just crazy—Predator 2 restyles all the smartness and portentousness (even the buffness) of the original Predator as the exact thing that Predator might've looked like, if you happened to see it sitting upon a faraway video store shelf, but never actually was: one more 80s creature-feature, except released in 1990, a small fact we can disregard, inasmuch as 1990 was less the beginning of its own decade and more like the eleventh year of a decade that just kept going.

1990 had found Predator's director, John McTiernan, called on to bigger-if-not-quite-better things, first Die Hard, then Hunt For Red October, premiering eight months prior in March (meaning that Predator 2, strangely enough, received a prime holiday season release, because nothing says "family fun" like watching a murderous alien intervene in a drug war fought between racist cartoons, then killing a bunch of cops).  But Predator 2 did retain the two brothers who'd conceived and co-written Predator, John and Jim Thomas, and while it's tempting to suspect that McTiernan and Predator's uncredited script polisher David Peoples are therefore responsible for everything that elevated Predator to the topmost tier of its several genres—in McTiernan's case, that's obviously at least partly true—let's not despise the Thomases, for they were doubtless seduced with a truckload of money to write a script for a movie that was going to be made regardless, and if they secretly knew they only had one movie's worth of ideas about the extraterrestrial hunter they created, and even if they knew that what they were writing was hackwork of the purest sort (approaching genuinely bad screenwriting), at least they didn't make their sequel a complete retread.  On the other hand, they accomplished that mainly just by moving the setting to the opposite of the jungle (or, as the film blandly asks, is it?), Los Angeles.  That's Los Angeles in the future of 1997, incidentally, transparently because the Thomases had no interest in doing research about the actual ethnic makeup of Angeleno gangs in 1990, being firmly committed to using the stereotypes they wanted to use.  Well, science fiction has, after all, always attracted the visionary.


So, in 1997, we arrive upon one of the backlottier parts of L.A., subsequent to a cheeky (frankly, successfully cheeky) helicopter shot over a thicket of palm trees that reminds us of the Central American rain forest we left in a shambles last time.  One of the two gangs vying for control of the Angeleno drug trade, the Colombians, has engaged the police in a military-grade firefight in the streets, killing plenty, wounding more, and prompting a local TV dickhead to angrily wonder when the government's going to get around to declaring martial law.  Fortunately for freedom, troops aren't necessary when you have cops like Lt. Mike Harrigan, famed for his excessive force charges and his conviction record alike, and who rallies his fellow officers against the Colombians at the barricade, eventually driving them back inside their fortified lair—where, much to everyone's surprise, they start firing, apparently either at themselves, or at nothing at all.  Disobeying orders not to breach, Harrigan goes in, and finds all of them dead—not even shot dead, but stabbed and slashed, even hung from the rafters—and he finds something else, too, a little shimmer in the hot air on the roof, that we recognize, but which he can only dismiss as a trick of the light... at least, until the bodies of gang members, both Colombians and their rivals, the Jamaicans, start piling up again, with the exact same M.O.

Harrigan is bound to investigate—honor-bound, once his fellow officer Danny Archuleta becomes a victim of this mysterious assassin—and that's exactly what he, his ballbusting colleague Leona Cantrell, and his almost-Shane-Blackishly-annoying new detective Jerry Lambert do, except every time they try, they run into the brick wall of a shadowy government agency, represented by the incredibly belligerent and unhelpful Peter Keyes.  But not even a government conspiracy is going to stop Harrigan from finding the killer, and find him he does, as it wouldn't be much of a Predator movie if he didn't.


The most bracing thing about Predator 2 in 2018 is that it is just openly fascist, even for an 80s movie about cops—even in comparison to a shallow reading of its predecessor—and to the extent it's not exactly jackbooted about it, it's only because it's marginally possible that what we're watching is actually the failure mode of an 80s cop movie satire, in the same way Predator was a successful 80s action movie satire.  But it certainly still hates most of the things that fascists hate, like the media and what I suppose we'd describe today as the Deep State, and Predator 2 only evades charges of really blaring racism to the extent that its principal cast is mostly non-white (including its extraterrestrial villain, with Kevin Peter Hall back in the suit), and its hero is Danny Glover, a black man with all the right answers, or, at least, all the right questions.  Still, it's pretty racist, in ways that even "American soldiers blow up a ton of anonymous commie Latins because it looks cool" doesn't approach; it's racist like cartoons from the 1930s that tend not to find their way into collections without big upfront warning labels are racist.  Oh, yes, Predator 2 kills a lot of its own Latin Americans, and they're bloodthirsty and evil and presented more-or-less as animals in ways Predator never imagined, but the Colombians, given life mostly as "flashy brown drug people" still get off easy in comparison to the Jamaicans, who are every last inch of what you'd think of if I said "horrible Caribbean stereotype," smoking giant spliffs and yammering about "voodoo magic, man!"—fucking voodoo, meaning that they didn't even match the right black country to the right black religion—whilst ritualistically murdering and sexually menacing their foes.

Now, "I don't like this movie's politics" isn't the whole of any criticism: obviously, it comes off as terrifyingly irresponsible today, but there have been plenty of good and even great movies that were fascist in their overtones, and being fascist, albeit weirdly and seemingly unnecessarily, because at heart it's just one more movie about killing an alien monster till it dies, is not the end of Predator 2.  In fact, it's oddly incidental, though I'm not sure if that doesn't make it worse.  Either way, and for whatever reason, as a cinematic object it tends to peak when our Jamaicans are still a going concern: that aforementioned Jamaican death squad is the first group of victims we see the Predator kill, often from his point of view, and it's terribly cool.  Likewise, the film's in-a-walk best moment, and probably even its best performance, belongs to Calvin Lockhart as King Willie, the Jamaicans' boss, who remains every bit as caricatured as his henchmen, but at least drags some gravitas into his one scene, intoning that "there's no stopping what can't be stopped, no killing what can't be killed" (likely any Predator film's best line read) just moments before realizing that the Predator's been there the whole time and challenging the colossal alien beast to a duel that is completed all inside the invisible space of a single, awesome cut, from the first flash of Willie's cane sword (well, of course it is), to a close-up of the old lion's face, which we belatedly realize is receding from the camera because the head it's attached to is being carried off by the Predator to be stripped and cleaned for his trophy case.

Then again, I'm not sure it says great things about an action movie when it's best action beat is the one it doesn't show.

As for the Keyes Konspiracy, it's maybe not quite as half-baked as the Evil Government Subplot tends to be in 80s (and early 90s) sci-fi.  He wants to freeze the Predator, for study, and on paper shooting liquid nitrogen at an invisible enemy who sees in infrared has a certain logic to it—I mean, not real logic, because cold would just make heat sources pop brighter, but I didn't hold IR vision working flawlessly in a 98 degree jungle against Predator, either.  Well, despite eventually offering some arguably-interesting imagery (between glowing green blood and blacklights, Predator 2 goes day-glo for a full reel), all this manifests mostly as a secondary antagonism for Harrigan that gets real repetitive, real quick.  There's an overwhelming sense of the film going 'round in circles through the whole middle hour (Predator 2 is 108 minutes and feels every second of it), wherein Harrigan's colleagues are picked off, presumably because otherwise there's nothing to escalate Harrigan's obsession.  If there was ever any question that Predator was a slasher, I present Predator 2: a sequel with an all-new cast except the monster, all of whom except Final Girl Glover are once again here to die, or, in Leona's case, not die because she's pregnant.  (Which I guess you could interpret as an anti-abortion message to throw atop Predator 2's pile of politics, though I interpret it as the film's most successful piece of mythology-building.  He merely wants to keep his hunting ground stocked.)

Given that I've touched on some of its highlights, I've possibly made it seem like Predator 2 has an abiding visual sensibility.  That's even somewhat true, though it's not a consistently successful one.  I like to think director Stephen Hopkins got the job because he'd directed a movie called Dangerous Game, even if that movie has nothing to do with the novella that must've partway inspired the original Predator; anyway, it's hard to see why else he'd have been given Predator's sequel based on Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, at the time the least-successful film in that franchise.

Nevertheless, given a script that's half gonzo crime film and half (somehow-less-gonzo) alien invader flick, Hopkins decides the thing to do for most of Predator 2 is to task his loyal cinematographer Peter Levy to make a lurid neo-noir that looks like somebody described Body Heat to him third-hand, with long shadows and uncanny color temperatures, and if one thing about Predator 2 actually does say "made in 1990," then that is absolutely its turn-of-the-decade look, with its jarring hues, not-quite-there bluescreen, and huge-yet-somehow-still-stagebound sets all combining to give it the kind of fakey complexion that worked better in actioners that were supposed to feel like live-action cartoon noirs—'89's Batman, fellow 1990 alumnus Dick Tracy, even 1994's The Shadow—than it does in a movie that betrays the aesthetic already established by a gritty, location-shot precursor, which, in this case, looked twice as expensive at half the cost.


And while Hopkins is mostly competent in shepherding the action around, it's routinely unclear whether he's the one coming up with the neat ideas that he can't quite visualize (like the strobe-lit train massacre that ought to be rad as hell, but somehow contains almost no actual content), or if he's simply failing the ideas that were already in the Thomases' script.  Of course, neither Hopkins or the Thomases manage to conceal the hollowness of this sequel's exercise.  Sometimes they even showcase it—if I thought these were thoughtful people, I'd call it outright contemptuous.  Consider the aftermath of that train attack, where we find the hung meat of a dozen armed commuters (after a full hour establishing a Mad Maxian hell-on-earth, what kind of critique of gun ownership does Predator 2 think it could possibly get away with?).  But why have they been hung?  Because that's just what Predators do.

Predator 2 improves once it finally places Harrigan in position and begins his running rooftop battle with his nemesis—in individual moments (like the half-scary, half-goofy spectacle of a supernatural alien tearing through a perfectly-mundane apartment building's walls), it even hits just about the same heights it did in its first act, before the suspense dried up but the film still had a second act to fill regardless.  Moreover, it's the first time that Glover gets to do anything with his performance beyond shouting profanity-laced invective at superior officers, and, as Glover talks himself through Harrigan's acrophobia-induced vertigo, he reveals our hero's vulnerabilities, marking the first time Harrigan feels like an actual human being rather than a remarkably rote Righteously Angry Action Cop.  That human being—almost needless to say—is just Roger Murtaugh, but, hey, Lethal Weapon probably wouldn't have been nearly as popular if its co-lead weren't appealing.  I even think I like the low-rent charm of Predator 2's spaceship denouement—despite it being partially responsible for AVP: Requiem, despite it taking the Predators on their first step down the path toward becoming a warrior race rather than a mysterious alien civilization that had produced, on occasion, a smattering of human-hunting assholes, and despite it being the cheesiest thing in a film that leans into cheesy pretty often.  And I definitely like making the subtext text and calling the Predator "pussyface."

But, as that implies, I am easily-pleased and not very bright.  Predator 2 is not a very good movie—but it has its moments, and it passes the time.  That's not the most you could hope for out of a sequel to a masterpiece, but it is, I suppose, all you could reasonably expect from a pure cash-in like this.

Scope: 6/10

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