I’ve never really got on with Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. With the notable exception of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, both of which cleverly play with his monolithic physicality, Schwarzenegger’s action roles leave me cold. In some cases, such as Conan the Destroyer, it’s because the film itself is just flat out bad but in most cases it’s because I never, for a second, believe he’s in any physical danger. The curse of the ’80s action hero was to be invulnerable, the rock against which the villains break themselves and Schwarzenegger was the one who suffered the most in this regard. Stallone was able to balance the death bringer of the later Rambo movies with the perenially down on his luck Rocky, Van Damme’s entire career was based around the concept of the ‘good man pushed too far’ and Willis traded, and continues to trade, on being an average guy in an impossible situation. To a greater or lesser extent, they all bleed, they’re all vulnerable, they’re all mortal. Schwarzenegger isn’t, and this is never more apparent than in Predator.
One of the iconic action movies of the last thirty years, Predator is a neat combination of late-run Cold War paranoia and flat out action. A special operations team, led by Schwarzenegger’s Col Dutch Schulz, is dispatched to Guatemala along with a CIA liaison officer to rescue a group of politicians. Instead, they find themselves forced to destroy a rebel encampment and, even as they realise the CIA have used them, they are tracked and killed in short order by an invisible alien hunter. It’s a devastatingly simple premise and it sits at the centre of the web of ’80s action movies. The CIA liaison, Dillon, is played by Carl Weathers who in turn played Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies, the Predator itself is played, briefly, by none other than Jean Claude Van Damme and Hawkins, the only member of the team to resemble an actual human and not a superhero, is played by Shane Black who wrote Lethal Weapon and, in The Long Kiss Goodnight and http://www.wordwww.wwwwwww is responsible for two of the best action movies of the last three decades. Predator, in short, has a pedigree. However, it also has Schwarzenegger, which presents a problem that nearly sinks the movie; a near total lack of physical threat. There isn’t a single moment where you believe, for a second, he’s in any physical danger culminating in him outrunning what appears to be a miniature nuclear explosion with no ill effects. He’s an elemental force rather than a man, a Hero who knows he’s bulletproof and the end result is a film which feels oddly flat when it should be visceral and brutal and painfully human.
It’s a problem that’s dogged the series as a whole, with each successive movie featuring the Predators trying a different approach. The sequel, Predator 2, attempted to solve this by casting Danny Glover in the lead and largely succeeded whilst the Alien vs Predator films went a step further, expanding on the Predator culture in one instance and having the Predator act as a ‘cleaner’ in the other, a constant physical threat prepared to kill anyone to cover it’s presence and that of it’s prey. They all worked, to a greater or lesser degree, but none of them focussed in on the horror at the centre of the concept, instead focussing on the basic, iconic element of a huge alien hunter that kills us for sport. It’s a beautiful, pulpy concept but it’s one which is shallow, light, a confection spun out of blood and bullet casings.
Predators is the first entry in the series that stops trying to fix it. Instead, it embraces the insubstantial nature of the central concept and uses that to create a story wich is both gleefully stereotypical and far darker than anything that’s gone before it. If Predator was the product of the Cold War-riddled ’80s and Predator 2 was born of the urban paranoia and early millennium fever of the ’90s then Predators re-invents the series for the 21st Century, stripping everything away to create a story about a group of hugely troubled, largely doomed people unsure of what they’re fighting for or if they should be fighting at all.
Everything the film does right is wrapped up in the two central characters of Royce and Isabelle and the supporting character of Noland. Royce, played by Adrien Brody, is the antithesis of Schwarzenegger, a lean, calm figure who excels at looking after himself but has no desire to be saddled with looking after the others. He’s everything Dutch isn’t, a quiet, almost reticent loner who is intimately concerned with his own survival and only slowly allows himself to care about other people. Brody is easily the best part of the film, and there’s an odd, restrained formality to how he plays Royce which is a neat contrast to the broader characters that fill out the cast. Royce isn’t the head of a team of soldiers, he’s not a hero, he’s not even physically imposing. Instead, he’s a quiet, oddly polite man who is able to take almost all the challenges they encounter in his stride because, when it comes down to it, he has absolute confidence in himself. Royce mentions the Hemingway quote at the top of this article, and that willingness to accept the horrific idea that they’re being hunted is something which marks out the film as very different from it’s predecessors, clearly staking out Royce’s place as a man who thinks before he fights. There’s no posturing, no machismo, just a smart, calm man attacking the world with his brain more than his fists in an attempt to survive. Royce is a cold and ruthless excuse for a hero and at one point he effectively uses the others to draw the Predators out into the open to try and learn about them. It’s a brutal manouvere and one that Isabelle calls him on only to have Royce list everything they’ve learnt from the incident. He’s quite up front about the fact a man is dead as a result of his decision and, without saying it out loud, makes it clear that this is a price worth paying. It’s quite a departure from Schwarzenegger’s leader of doomed men and gives Royce a far clearer narrative journey from cold, intellectual loner to reluctant leader than Schulz enjoys in the original. He’s not a good man, he even admits as such, but he has potential to be something other than just prey or hunter.
Alice Braga as Isabelle is very much the other side of the ideological coin. Where Royce is a private operator, Isabelle is an Israeli Defence Force sniper who lost her spotter shortly before being abducted. She’s desperately focussed on people in exactly the way Royce isn’t and a lesser fim would have made it clear that this was because she was a woman and therefore weaker than Royce. Thankfully, the film never goes down this route and Isabelle is not only set up as a consistent voice of human conscience in the group but is even given a reason for her actions. She chose to let her spotter die instead of dying in a futile attempt to save him and this incident haunts her and colours her actions. Crucially, she’s also the only member of the group to have an inkling of what’s really going on and where they really are. There’s a nice piece of duality in the script where Royce refuses to tell anyone his name and Isabelle criticises him for it even as she does the same thing and, worse, holds back the information she has until Royce calls her on it. She’s humane but not fully human and just as Royce gradually learns to accept her she learns to open up to him. Thankfully, there’s never a hint of anything romantic between the two and instead they are presented as equals, people who are aware that they need each other to survive but who also accept that they have a lot in common. It’s a partnership born of necessity, a desperate human connection on a world which sets out to punish anyone not focussed entirely on survival. They cover each other’s backs and whilst that’s not enough, it’s all the comfort they can afford.
Noland, played by Laurence Fishburne, perfectly demonstrates the direction Royce and Isabelle could have taken. He’s a quiet, reticent figure just like Royce and, just lke Isabelle, lost someone close to him shortly before being taken. The difference between them is both simple and vast; Noland survived at the expense of other people, subsuming everything from his smell to his sanity to survive. Fishburne has instinctive presence and his scenes are amongst the film’s best, especially the casual ways that he lets us see the damage Noland has taken. When he first appears, literally thanks to a stolen Predator cloaking device, he’s the epitome of calm, efficient death. This is a man who had done the impossible, not only surviving on a planet-sized game reserve but killing two of the hunters. However, He’s completely sane until he starts talking to someone who isn’t there, is fully prepared to kill the other characters to acquire their technology and has given up in exactly the way Royce and Isabelle hasn’t. Noland has chosen survival at the expense of living, and whilst he has a roof over his head, food, defences and enough knowledge to survive, he doesn’t have people, or companionship. Noland has evolved in exactly the same way the Predators have, cutting away everything he doesn’t need to survive and as a result, completely isolating himself from not only his humanity but the chance of regaining that humanity. In stark contrast, Royce and Isabelle choose living knowing full well they may not survive.
The film revolves around these three people and the choices they make, with the other characters providing the connective glue with the rest of the series. Former mixed martial artist Oleg Taktarov plays a Russian soldier whose weapon of choice is the mini-gun from the original film, whilst Topher Grace and Walton Goggins score as an unassuming doctor and a death row inmate respectively. It’s an excellent cast, but none of them are characters in the same way that Royce, Isabelle and Noland are. They’re connective tissue with dialogue, part of a structure designed to support the long dark night of the soul that Royce, Isabelle and Noland all go through in very different ways. Each is hunted, each is pursued and each chooses their moment to stand and fight and who they stand with. As the film closes, it becomes clear that Royce and Isabelle have a taste not for hunting, but for life, and nothing less, red in tooth and claw and short as it may be, will do. They are the predators, just as Royce realises early in the film but, for the first time, they’re comfortable with that. The hunt continues but, for the first time, the hunt continues on their terms.