Sunday, July 04, 2010

Predator 2

Predator 2 (3/5)

A sequel should do at least two things: 1) respect the established world of the previous installment(s) and 2) contribute to the mythology. Aliens is the obvious example of a film that accomplished both these requirements. The film manages to expand the scope of the original by introducing the space marines and giving us a glimpse of the alien hierarchy while simultaneously exploring themes from the first film, including an interrogation of feminism, rape and the military industrial complex. Predator 2 is no Aliens. However, I am happy to say that for a film that has a bad reputation, this sequel to the Schwarzenegger classic holds up surprisingly well. At the very least, the movie does respect the rules honed in the first film, even if it never manages to truly justify its own existence.

Predator 2’s simple twist on the formula of the first film is that the predator is now in the city. In a clever opening shot, the camera pans along tropical looking flora until we see the skyline of Los Angeles. Supposedly, it was this new setting that turned Schwarzenegger off the project. Normally, when a principal actor turns down a role for the sequel (think Batman Forever and Batman and Robin) this indicates a deeply flawed shift in the series, but in this case Schwarzenegger isn’t missed. The strength of the first movie was the ensemble nature of the cast, not just the central protagonist, and the writers would have been forced to come up with something pretty outlandish in order to keep all the characters from the Predator in the sequel. (Although, Voodoo does play a key part of Predator 2, which likely means we were extremely close to a Predator versus Zombies movie. Hollywood, if you’re listening, I would love to see Predator tangle with a Zombie Blain).

This time, instead of the Governator, Danny Glover steps up as the man who must hunt the hunter. And while he may not have the ‘roided up muscles of Schwarzenegger, he brings an everyman quality to his character that grounds the more ostentatious sci-fi moments of the film. Glover plays Mike Harrigan, a police officer caught in the middle of the sweltering urban heat and an escalating gang war between Columbians and Voodoo practicing Jamaicans (Voodoo is mostly practiced among Haitians, but okay, I’ll bite). We are first introduced to Harrigan when he storms into a firefight between the police and a Columbian gang in order to save two downed officers. Draping two bullet proof vests over a car window, he places himself between the gang members and the wounded police and then manages to outflank several of the whooping and hollering Columbians. The rest of the gang take refuge in a high rise, but when Harrigan and his team attempt to flush them out, instead of entering into another firefight, he finds almost the entire gang slaughtered with their blood and body parts strewn across walls and floors.

Not only must Harrigan deal with a mysterious newcomer on the streets of LA, but he also must struggle with an unknown federal agency that wants to hobble Harrigan’s freewheeling attitude. Shortly after his heroics with the Columbian gang, Harrigan finds himself dressed down by Agent Keyes (Gary Busey) who tells him to play start playing by the rules. In a subplot borrowed from the Alien films, it turns out Keyes belongs to a government agency (that is eerily similar to the same organization shown in the film Repo Man) entrusted with capturing the predator and, more importantly, his technology. Oh, and Harrigan’s team been assigned a new, unproven member, Jerry, played to an obnoxious hilt by Bill Paxton. The film devotes most of its time to Harrigan and his team’s investigation into the predator and how their attempts to piece together who it is that has the gall to murder the most vicious of L.A.’s gangs, as well as more than a few cops.

Predator 2 keenly follows the formula and rules established in the first film. Fans of the original film will likely remember the female prisoner’s monologue about the predator’s predilection for extreme tropical climates, specifically stating that the creature would appear only during the hottest of summers (this is a part of the film that the makers of Alien Vs. Predator apparently forgot). In the sequel, the director has several characters make note of the asphalt melting heat and their uniforms are blotted with sweat stains, a nice allusion to the first film that respects the audience enough to let them make the connection. While the look of the predator stays true to the delineation of the first film, Stan Winston has tweaked the predator design for this film, providing this creature with crowded dreadlocks, an elongated skull and the reptilian designs of a copperhead snake. Towards the end of the film, we are treated with half a dozen or so different predators that both conform to the outlines of the alien from the first film and present a unique take on what a predator can look like.

Furthermore, the predator’s modus operandi isn’t much different, which turns out to be both a strength and a weakness. Once again, he searches for warriors, kills them and smuggles some trophies. This time, however, the predator eschews subtly for wholesale slaughter. Instead of picking enemies off one by one, he prefers to jump into the middle of a group and takes them out en mass. The brash tactics are never explained. Perhaps he’s a much younger predator, used to eating everything in the cookie jar rather than savoring them one by one. Age has a way of making you appreciate a kill. Unfortunately, this tactic makes the predator far less interesting. The first film formed a battle of wits between the predator and the mercenaries, but here the gangs and cops are completely outclassed. If he came to Earth to hunt game, then it hardly seems like a sport—kind of like Dick Cheney driving around in an SUV in order to shoot quails and his friend’s face. If there’s no effort then it’s no fun.

The director does manage to add his own stylized take on the urban predator. There is one particular scene that provides a glimpse of what the film could have been. The predator follows Harrigan to his meeting with King Willie, the leader of the Jamaican Voodoo gang. After Harrigan leaves, the predator plunges from the rooftops and into the alleyway. In a close shot we follow the invisible footsteps of the predator as he approaches King Willie who then brandishes two knives. We cut to an image of his face screaming, which, as the visage moves farther away, is revealed to be a decapitated head in the grasp of the predator. The filmmaker makes use of the indeterminate temporal nature of the cut—that we are never certain how much time has passed when a cut occurs—and what we expect to be an image from the middle of an intense brawl reveals itself as an easy kill for the predator.

It’s the filmmaker’s attempts to broaden the mythology where the film ultimately fails. This time around the predator has some new toys, including a boomerang death discus, a piano wire net and a double sided harpoon, and while the weaponry is fun, it adds little to the overall predator mythos. The filmmakers make another attempt at expanding the universe at the end of the film when Harrigan stumbles into the predator ship and notices a trophy display, containing, most famously, the head of an alien from that other franchise. When he finally kills the predator, one of the creature’s brethren hands Harrigan an 18th century pistol, suggesting that humans have served as game for the predators for centuries. But the fact that the predators have returned to Earth again and again was already established in the first film. We do discover more about the predator’s ethos when he refuses to kill Harrigan’s female companion because she’s with child, revealing that the predators are pro-life. This, of course, begs the question as to whether or not the predator has a Jesus fish on the back of his spaceship.

Perhaps the most mystifying change to the formula of the first film was the decision to make it take place in the future (or the past depending on whether you start from when I’m writing or when the film was made). Predator 2 takes place in 1997, a whole seven years from when it was made. Of course, it is a 1997 that looks strangely like 1990, but with weirder looking guns and police cars that look like hybrid mini-vans. The futuristic setting only serves to make the movie look older than it really is.

If the film only relied on momentum from the first film with a few new details, then I think it would have a much stronger reputation, but there are unfortunate performances throughout the movie. Bill Paxton, who has turned in strong roles before, is at his guffawing worst. The gangs are mostly cartoonish and are one step removed from Looney Tunes characters. That is, if Bugs Bunny often left mounds of coke lying around and, instead of replacing Rabbit Season signs with Duck Season signs, decided to ritualistically murder Daffy Duck. Shockingly, Gary Busey, who has transformed into a living breathing cartoon character himself, gives a nuanced performance by the standards of the film.

Predator 2 is a mixed bag of some old standbys and half formed ideas. It may not deserve the awful reputation it has garnered over the years, but it is far from the classic of the first. If you haven’t seen the film in a long time, I would recommend a second visit. You might be surprised at how entertaining the film still is.

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