Monday, 28 March 2016

This is dread, man. Truly dread.

Predator 2
(1990)

(SPOILERS) 1990 was a banner year for under-achieving sequels, illustrative of the problems that occur when studios decree product must be launched by any and all means possible. Arnie opted out of battling the alien hunter again, the baffling short straw going to Danny Glover. Director John McTiernan had moved onto bigger things, leaving Jamaican-born Stephen Hopkins to attempt to pass muster. Predator 2 duly made about half the amount of the original surprise hit, putting paid to franchise potential for another twelve years, when a whole posse of them squared off (and bulked up) against xenomorphs. Hopkins’ movie is a moderately entertaining one, but where McTiernan lifted B material into the territory of first-rate action, the sequel, with its clunky near-future setting, derivative plotting and leaky cast, is merely costly schlock.


The sheer weight of sequels jostling out of the gate during 1990 would give even the staunchest studio exec pause. There was definitely a sense of anything and everything being played for, unsurprising since three of the biggest hits of ’89 had been Indiana Jones, Lethal Weapon and Back to the Future sequels). The most respectable was Back to the Future Part III, designed by its original director to cap the series. Elsewhere, even the reassembled original movers led to unwelcome side effects, whether it was through studio edicts tampering with a director’s vision (The Exorcist III), time and money constraints leading to misjudged execution (The Godfather Part III, and throw in the odd casting disaster too), simply a misjudged premise (Rocky V) or plain lazy rehashing (Another 48 HRS). The most estimable approach was taken by Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch, but taking the piss out of Warner Bros desire for a cash cow wasn’t just biting the hand that fed it, it also turned off audiences who didn’t expect something so wilfully anarchic and unbeholden to its much-loved predecessor.


It didn’t end there, though. The occasional sequel actually exceeded expectations. No one had exactly raved about Brat Pack gunslingers movie Young Guns in 1987, yet Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory, which progressed the story in an effectively downbeat manner, was greeted warmly. Other pictures from ’87 also garnered belated sequels; Three Men and a Little Lady took about $100m less than the original (the similarly tiny tot-themed Look Who’s Talking Too likewise illustrated that once was enough for most people). Action sequel Robocop 2 managed to bludgeon its audience with crude viscera and none of the satirical edge of the original, sadly lacking Paul Verhoeven’s inimitable eye (with Irvin Kershner more in Never Say Never Again than The Empire Strikes Back mode).


Which left Joel Silver, keen to ignite two action franchises, foundations for each having been laid by McTiernan. Without the director (his price tag had gone up, and the producers didn’t want to meet it), the producer was on much less certain ground, and curiously – although perhaps not, given his later role producing low budget horror remakes under the Dark Castle banner – he looked to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise for inspiration in both cases. Renny Harlin, director of Part IV, was big on muscular slow motion but small on storytelling, leading to Die Hard 2: Die Harder outgrossing its predecessor but otherwise exhibiting all the worst symptoms of sequelitis. Predator 2 plumbed for fifth instalment The Dream Child’s helmer, the less excessive but no-less narratively uncertain Stephen Hopkins (he’d later deliver half the first season of 24 for Fox, so can fairly claim to success in establishing at least one franchise).



The problem was, even more than Die Hard, Predator was formulated with negligible regard for further adventures (perhaps surprisingly, Silver reportedly had to convince Fox of the viability of a follow-up). One might reasonably suggest returning writers Jim and John Thomas had been enamoured by the barbed commentary of Robocop, since they punctuate Predator 2 with clueless reporters and bombastic newscasts, but this is far from satire; it’s as tone deaf as the attempts to offer 1997 fashions (all zoot suits and fedoras) and illustrate the impact of global warming (everyone sweats profusely throughout).



It’s curious that, while they lambasted Predator 2, critics were generally effusive regarding Danny Glover. I thought at the time, and still do, that he was dreadfully miscast. Arnie’s decision to pass took in variously reported reasons: (a) he was making Total Recall, (b) he asked for too much money, and (c) he didn’t favour Hopkins or the screenplay and its city setting. Considered as replacements were Patrick Swizzle (recovering from a Road House injury) and Fox’s favourite, Steven Seagal. Hopkins insisted against Seagal, no doubt emboldened by lofty notions of legitimate, awards-worthy thesps marbling his masterpiece-in-waiting.  Ironically, since – and I’m no fan, despite his status as prolific fabulist with regard to alleged intelligence services activities, his unquestionably unlikely Buddhist tendencies and exquisite culinary skills – he’d have been much more suited to the unalloyed genre clichés stacking Predator 2 wall-to-wall.



No one wants to see Danny Glover as an action hero, probably not even Danny Glover; the whole point of Lethal Weapon is that he’s a bumbling old desk guy, and while he is playing very much his slender 44 years at the time here (he’s the regular Clive Dunn of action cinema), his lanky, wheezing gait and generally shambling disposition speak against anything iconic, confident or stalwart. He acts too much, basically, sticking out like a sore thumb in a movie otherwise populated by impossibly broad performances (Gary Busey, Robert Davi, Bill Paxton, Calvin Lockhart, Morton Downey Jr) or terrible ones (Maria Conchita Alonso). When Glover hares into action, or is cited as a loose cannon, we double take and query, do they mean him?


Poor Danny-boy (the name Glover’s Lieutenant Harrigan gives Blades’ character) also has a fear of heights. Perhaps that’s why he can’t move convincingly: being so tall and all. Such afflictions make it that much more unlikely when, aboard the Predator’s ship, he dispatches his alien foe with remarkable ease (remember all the aggro Arnie had to go through?) It’s one thing to be a young, inexperienced Predator, quite another to be taken down by a middle-aged geriatric who can’t even run in a straight line.


The perversely positive side of Glover-s non-heroic posing is you’re much more interested in the Predator itself. It’s evident from the (really great) poster and it’s tag line (“He’s coming to town with a few days to kill”) that the Fox marketing department thought so too. One might, if one was right-leaning, identify him as a nominal hero, cleaning the streets of drug-laden/fuelled immigrants (it probably didn’t escape Fox’s notice); it certainly would have been different, making the movie from the Predator’s point of view. 


There are a few nice touches; we see him engaging in a feat of superior DIY medicare, cauterising a severed limb. Then there’s his warrior code; an encounter with a toy machine gun-wielding child (fortunately, he’s not that kind of predator. “Want some candy?” is also a much more memorable catchphrase than “Shit happens”), deigning not to kill a pregnant woman, and his compatriots presenting Harrigan with a souvenir following his victory (a flintlock pistol).


Generally, though, while there’s a smattering of cool Predator moments, Hopkins doesn’t shoot the beast nearly as well as McTiernan did (although the mandible design is strong, they also look much cooler with their masks on), and even indulges in some abject silliness (the Predator struck by lightning, high atop a building, as some kind of crappy homage to Universal horror movies). And, while the geek-baiting inclusion of a xenomorph skull is massively fangasmic, the Predator ship is resolutely unimaginative, an alien discotheque outfitted with floods of dry ice.


Harrigan: It’s alright, I’m a cop.
Ruth: I don’t think he gives a shit!

Hopkins’ action generally displays sound essentials but a lack of the necessary flair to pull them off. The subway takedown is reasonable enough, but it’s better before the Predator arrives, when the punk gang experiences the embarrassment of a train full of commuters pulling weaponry on them. Likewise, the best part of Harrigan’s rooftop altercation with the alien hunter comes when he pursues it into an old couple’s apartment (“Herb, there’s somebody in the bathroom”).


Keyes: He’s on safari. Lions, tigers, bears… Oh, my!

So too, the character of Keyes (Busey) and his attempts to ensnare the Predator. It seems Keyes was originally earmarked as the Dutch role (which strikes me as plain odd, bringing the Oak back for a supporting role; presumably it went through alterations post- his refusal), and the character’s involvement is as much an obvious imitation as the Robocop riffing, only this time of Aliens. Hopkins wanted John Lithgow, who would pop up in another Silver production the following year, Ricochet, as an over-the-top Aryan racist (is there any other kind?) Keyes’ crack squad (including Gamergate self-stylist Adam Baldwin) arrive armed-to-the-teeth, but the Predator makes short work of them (again, the standout moment here is Keyes’ brief resurgence, rather than the action itself, Busey giving it the full Busey with “Guess who’s back?”)


As if we needed confirmation that this picture is looking everywhere else for inspiration, it even brings in Aliens veteran Paxton as Lambert, goofing off with crude, sexist jokes (“Goddam, that bitch on the rag or what?”) but essentially a solid fellow and partial to a cocky catchphrase (“Public relations/ surveillance/ luck is my specialty”). Generally, Hopkins picture is entirely bereft of self-restraint, awash with blood and naked (mostly female) flesh. It initially received a NC-17 (Henry & June was the first to receive the rating that same year) and Hopkins recut the picture more than twenty times to bring it down to an R.


Lambert: Who the hell is King Willie?

It’s also replete with questionable stereotypes, from Colombian drug dealers who are studiously incapable of shooting straight, probably because they are required to carry an Uzi in each hand, to some incredibly broad (and thus very memorable) rival Jamaicans. Chief among these is Lockhart’s King Willie, given to cryptic utterances such as “You can’t see the eyes of the demon until he come calling” and (best of all) “This is dread, man. Truly dread”.


Predator 2 might be commended for ignoring the call of the jungle, but it only has a string of clichés as a replacement. More problematically, it lacks a guiding hand with an idea of how to make the proceedings stand out. It’s fitfully quite good fun, and unlike the ugly and dull Robocop 2 is at least lively and daft, but miscasting and an inability to truly revel in its potential (ultimately down to a lack of imagination on Hopkins’ part) make it a very expensive bodge. The Thomas brothers had the idea of pitching a third Predator showdown in a pre-technological time (hence the flintlock) and I rather liked that, a kind of Star Trek’s Arena meets Valley of the Gwangi. Whatever Shane Black has in mind, I’m sure that, when it nurses clichés, it will be making capital of them, while displaying of a far more distinctive stylistic sensibility.






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