Predator 2 (1990)

The first Predator was a huge success, combining the suspenseful action of Aliens with an uncluttered plot and the muscle of Schwarzenegger in his prime. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, a follow-up was not instantly greenlit. There are varying accounts about why this was: Arnold’s rumoured dislike of the proposed storyline; his scheduling clash with the forthcoming Terminator sequel; and studio bean-counters waiting to see how well the comic-book spin-off series was received. In the end, for whatever reason, Schwarzenegger bailed and the sequel was forced to search for a new leading man. Enter… um, Danny Glover?

This would actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise. In contrast with the Alien franchise, where Sigourney Weaver’s continued participation eventually became something of a narrative millstone, the Predator series was free to make its extra-terrestrial villains the stars of the show, and not worry about how to convincingly re-work Dutch in to the story. But this created a different problem. How would audiences react to a Schwarzenegger-less sequel? Were the Predators sufficiently interesting to merit a return visit without the familiar presence of Hollywood’s number one box-office star?

The Predators are often compared to their Alien counterparts, especially with reference to the AVP crossover series, and the argument usually goes that the Alien is a darker and more interesting creation that its younger stablemate. I wouldn’t presume to dispute that, but the Predator is too often unfairly dismissed as clumsy and silly by comparison. Where the Alien originated from the nightmarish imagination of artist H.R. Giger, the Predator had its roots in the somewhat more conventional mind of the late SFX maestro Stan Winston. Reptilian in appearance but humanoid in stature, it initially seems only a few short steps away from being a Star Trek heavy.

But it is the characteristics and behaviour of the Predator, rather than its look, which makes it a worthy addition to the monster hall of fame. The notion that an alien species has evolved to the point of being capable of long distance space travel, but whose culture continues to be defined by their skill as competitive hunters, is both mysterious and slightly chilling. Its penchant for collecting the skulls of its victims (taking time to clean and polish them of course) and its preference to commit suicide rather than live with defeat re-enforce the impression that this is an advanced and intelligent race that is also knowingly violent and bloody – and therefore should be avoided at all costs.

In a stroke of genius, Kevin Peter Hall’s intriguing performance echoes this culture of the primitive mixed with the futuristic through his use of tribal dance movement, especially noticeable in the original movie during the showdown with Dutch. The Predator has the distinction of being one of the few Hollywood aliens that is instantly recognisable through its body language. Add to this the cool weapons and toys they have (invisibility, various forms of thermal imaging, shoulder-mounted cannons, etc.) and you have a character more than worth revisiting, especially if unencumbered by the presence of Ahnuld.

Predator 2 brazenly takes this challenge on, not only eschewing the jungle setting of its predecessor in favour of an urban environment – a heatwave-struck Los Angeles – but also moving the action forward ten years to 1997. It also bravely replaces the optimistic, brawny, pro-American attitude of the first film with a grimmer scenario of high racial tensions and failing law and order. Against a background of immigrant gang warfare between two drug cartels (the Jamaicans and the Colombians) which the police are barely able to contain, Danny Glover’s no-nonsense Lt. Mike Harrigan quickly realises a new player is in town when henchmen from both sides start to turn up dead, with their bodies hung up and skinned. His investigation is blocked however by mysterious government agent Peter Keyes (Gary Busey), who it turns out has been investigating the Predator ever since Arnold’s encounter a decade earlier and is obsessed with finding and capturing another.

Flashily directed by Stephen Hopkins, Predator 2 doesn’t come close to capturing the suspenseful action of its predecessor, though there are a couple of decent set-pieces: the subway sequence is rather good, while the meat warehouse showdown enjoyably, if unashamedly, rips off Aliens. But the various factions lined up against the new Predator – Jamaicans, Colombians, the police, secret government agents – add a few more layers to the plot than the comparatively straightforward first film, thus avoiding the usual trap of simply repeating the original. It also has plenty of blood and sweat, and in its leading man a real actor rather than, well, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Glover just about passes muster in the action scenes, but crucially he has a gravitas which anchors the film throughout. The supporting cast all register strongly as well, with Busey especially good value and Harrigan’s team (RubĂ©n Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso and the always welcome Bill Paxton) nicely filled out.

The ending is far from perfect, with its disappointing interior design of the alien ship (all naff orange walls and dry ice) and Glover miraculously overcoming the Predator in hand-to-hand combat. But it does have its infamous trophy case of skulls, and a pistol dated 1715 tossed to Harrigan by a Predator leader intriguingly raises more questions than it does answers. All in all Predator 2 is a decent sci-fi actioner, and its weak reputation is ill-deserved. It didn’t do too well at the box office, and plans for a third film melted away in the mid-90s (though a script was written by a young Robert Rodriguez, who finally, and rather unexpectedly, managed to bring it to the screen earlier this year in the form of Predators). Fans of the first film expecting another dose of loud Schwarzenegger-style action may be left disappointed, but everyone else will find a refreshingly different follow-up.

[xrr rating=3/5]

Beverly Hills Cop – a classic film?

What constitutes a “classic” film?

I pondered this question – in a vague, gentle, back-of-the-head kind of way – while I was watching Beverly Hills Cop last night. I’ve enjoyed BHC every time I’ve seen it, and yesterday was no exception. Purchasing BHC2 (which I haven’t seen for many a year) for £1.99 from CD-Wow recently provided an excellent excuse to introduce Mrs. Ark to the pleasures of Axel Foley and his escapades in the titular upmarket district of Los Angeles.

This is a film that many would call a classic 80s movie, and indeed it is enormously entertaining. There is of course Eddie Murphy’s brilliant performance, in a career-defining turn; the genius theme tune and score from Harold Faltermeyer; Martin Brest’s crisp direction; the excellent photography in Detroit and Beverly Hills; a great supporting cast; etc etc.

I wouldn’t deny any of these things, but as enjoyable as it is, I couldn’t give it a 5 stars out of 5 rating. A 5 out of 5 for me denotes a perfect film that goes beyond mere technical and artistic excellence – it has something meaningful to say about the world, or society, or life in general. Even as I’m writing this, I’m finding it difficult to put my finger on what makes a film truly 5 star for me. There’s that moment where a film can transcend being mere entertainment, and it actually touches your soul – it makes you see something differently, or gives you an experience you haven’t had before. That’s the indefinable magic of cinema I suppose, and probably why we’re all film fans in the first place.

So, does the word “classic” only denote those films that reach that lofty plane of filmmaking that extends the boundaries of cinema? Not necessarily, I think. Calling BHC a classic of the 80s, or a classic of its genre is dead right.  Films can be classics without necessarily being world-shattering pieces of cinema. BHC turned out to be an excellent genre piece that did everything that was asked of it. It was funny, it had memorable action, memorable bad guys, amusing sidekicks, good music – a prime example of 80s Hollywood. In short, it did everything right without re-inventing the wheel. And in this case, the wheel did not need to be re-invented.

There are several yardsticks by which a film could be defined as a classic: it is groundbreaking or taboo-busting in some way; it might be technically revolutionary; it broke box-office records; or, simply how popular it is with people many years later (look at It’s a Wonderful Life). BHC was extremely popular when it came out and as far as I can tell, remains popular to this day – so much so that a fourth outing is currently being developed with Murphy onboard.

In many ways, the label “classic” is beside the point. A good film is a good film, regardless of whether it qualifies as a “classic” in the mind of the viewer. But it is reassuring to me that a film can be great without being revolutionary. Maybe it makes me feel less guilty for enjoying those films that are just nice and straightforward, or that are, shall we say, less than perfect.

Now, I wonder if BHC2 is an 80s “classic” as well…?