Friday, 23 June 2017


2017 represents the 30th anniversary for two of Arnold Schwarzenegger's most famous movies, Predator and The Running Man. Here's a retrospective review.

Predator (dir. John McTiernan)
One of Arnie's most iconic movies, as well as one of the best, Predator also represented a breakthrough for director John McTiernan, who would follow up this movie with two more action classics, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October.

A group of commandos are sent to the South American jungle to rescue some hostages. After the operation is concluded, they have to make their way through the dense jungle to reach the border and safety. What they don't count on is a mysterious hunter who is looking to turn them all into trophies...

One of the best action movies ever made, Predator strikes a near-perfect balance between OTT action and genuine tension. 

This is also the movie where the Ah-nuld we all know emerged. Before Predator, Schwarzenegger is stiff as a board. Sometimes this works (Conan and The Terminator), but mostly it's terrible (Raw Deal and Commando). In Predator, viewers finally get a look at the swaggering, cigar-chomping, one liner-spouting man-mountain we all know and love.

In his book Action Speaks Louder, Eric Lichtenfeld notes that Predator is the first movie where it feels like Arnie can lose, and it is really true. It helps that he is fighting an alien who is bigger than he is, but it is also a testament to director John McTiernan's talents as a filmmaker. Unlike most of the other directors Schwarzenegger was working with at the time, McTiernan manages to bring out a certain level of vulnerability which does not feel wooden. Especially during the third act, Dutch's panic feels real.

The other component which makes this movie a success is the focus on a team. It's rare that Schwarzenegger shares the screen with comparably outsized macho figures, and it makes the movie far more interesting. Jesse Ventura has made the comment that in order for the Predator to come across as a believable threat for Schwarzenegger, it has to kill people who are more macho and badass than the Austrian Oak. While his comment is clearly an attempt to push himself, there is an element of truth to it.

The first two acts of the movie are all about establishing Arnie AND his team as competent special forces soldiers. Unlike most slasher movies (which Predator resembles), the script takes time to give each of the team members a few characteristics. During the opening action scene, we get a sense of how they work as a team, and once the Predator starts to hunt them, how they work under stress.
By the time the alien has torn through Ventura's Blaine, Bill Duke's Mac, Sonny Landham's Billy, Richard Chaves' Poncho and Carl Weathers' Dillon, not only do we get an escalation in tension, but also a better sense of what Dutch is up against, as each kill reveals more of the Predator's talents and weapons.

Famously, the title character's design was not finalised until after shooting had started. In fact, production had to shut down before the shooting of the third act. And it's a good thing they did: as designed by maestro Stan Winston, and embodied by 7'2" Kevin Peter Hall (who also played Harry in Harry and the Hendersons), the Predator is one of the best villains in sci-fi.

The third act is the thing that shoves Predator into the upper echelons. Stripped of his team and weapons, Dutch has to become a primordial hunter in order to beat his foe - using intelligence, rocks and fire to defeat his superior foe. In a weird way, it's the one time Arnie feels the most like an everyman, albeit one more along the lines of classical heroes like Beowulf than John McClane. The movie becomes a one-on-one contest, where the emphasis is on strategy and suspense, rather than gunfire. The way the scene plays out keeps the viewer constantly on their toes, as Dutch attempts to confound and neutralise the Predator's heat vision and invisibility.  Because McTiernan emphasises his pain and fear, drawing out their struggle, when Dutch finally wins, it feels like a genuine victory.

Predator is the perfect example of a great action movie that does not rely on a massive set piece as an ending. This is true of a lot of the great action movies of this era - the endings to The Terminator, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are fairly small, intimate fights, with the battered protagonist facing off against their main nemesis. It's a type of dramatic resolution that we don't see any more (think of the ending to almost every single Marvel movie).

To sum it all up, Predator is a terrific flick that remains just as entertaining now as it did thirty years ago.

The Running Man (dir. Paul Michael Glaser)
Released in November of 1987, The Running Man is based on a novel by Stephen King, writing under his pen name Richard Bachmann.

The present. America's economy has collapsed and the country has turned into a fascistic police state where the President has an agent, fake news is omnipresent and the most powerful man in the country is a game show host, Damon Killian (Richard Dawson).

Police helicopter pilot Ben Richards (Ah-nuld) is monitoring a food riot in Bakersfield, California, when he is ordered to open fire on the crowd. When he refuses, his crew-mates arrest him and began the attack. Tarred as the 'butcher of Bakersfield', Richards is set up as a scapegoat and sent to prison.

Two years from now, Richards will have to become a contestant on the most popular reality show in the history of television: The Running Man. If he expects to gain his freedom, Richards will have to pit wits and strength against a group of 'stalkers' as he runs across the deadly game zone...

if Dutch in Predator is the Arnie star persona reaching maturity, The Running Man is a throw-back to his earlier roles. Arnie is fine, but he is nowhere near as natural or charismatic as he is in Predator. In fact the movie is a great example of how unique his persona is, and the talent required to create suitable vehicles for him.

Like Conan and Raw Deal, it repeats the folly of trying to give Arnie a love interest and friends. As Tom Shone wrote in Blockbuster, Arnie's forte is not chemistry, it's physics. The interest in watching Schwarzenegger is watching his out-sized body smash and destroy buildings and people. Occasionally, with a filmmaker like John McTiernan or James Cameron, you can get more out of him, but in this case they really should not have tried.

This love interest is Amber, played by Maria Conchita Alonzo. Ah-nuld meets her when he goes to his brother's apartment - he quickly finds out that his brother has been arrested and Amber has moved in. Their relationship is very uncomfortable to watch.

Apart from having no chemistry, the filmmakers do not even attempt to hide the reason why she is in the movie. We are introduced to Alonzo while she s working out in her lingerie. She is quickly captured by Ah-nuld, who ties her to her aerobics machine in a very fetishistic pose (she is still in the lingerie). The rest of the movie basically alternates between her being antagonised by Arnold and a target for rape by the most despicable of the Stalkers, Dynamo (Erland Van Lidth). It's really odious.

The best character in the movie is the villain, Damon Killian.

Chewing the scenery like its his name on the movie poster, Dawson is magnificent. He's another Arnie villain who is not comparable in size or strength (ala Bennett in Commando), but what he lacks in muscles he makes up for in ego. Appropriately, Dawson was a former gameshow host (most famous for hosting Family Feud) and he drew on his own experiences to augment and refine his role, making Killian into the ultimate show biz asshole - if that asshole had control over the police and the Department of Justice.

While I don't like this movie, I LOVE Killian. He makes this movie so much more watchable. With his on-camera schtick (his interactions with the audience are hilarious) and offscreen sociopathy, he is the most vividly drawn character in the movie. He also deserves points for being the only character to have a decent comeback to Arnie's 'I'll be back' line ('Only in a re-run!').

Shot while Predator was on hiatus, The Running Man has become oddly (some might say, horrifically) prescient. The plot summary was in jest, but it is a bit disconcerting to watch the opening scene of this movie and realise that it is set in 2017, in an America where eighties Reaganism has metamorphosed into oppressive corporatism.

Despite its unintentional timeliness, The Running Man is nowhere near the same level as Predator. The movie went through several directors and was severally over-budget before Glaser was brought on-board to pull the whole mess to the finish line.

The rush to get the movie finished shows, as does the lack of budget: the 'prison' that Ben Richards escapes from looks like a quarry with a few guards, the airport where Ben is captured just looks like an airport circa-1986, and the game zone sets feel cramped and small. The whole movie feels like it is stuck on sound stages, rather than actual locations.

The most off-putting thing about the movie is tone. The movie is aiming for the same nihilistic satire as Total Recall, but it lacks Paul Verhoeven's intelligence. The movie has a mean streak that makes it hard to just sit back and enjoy it. It also has a disturbing focus on rape and sexual assault which adds to the movie's seediness. It might have been an attempt to make the future-USA look as desensitised to violence as possible, but it just comes off as clunky and disturbing.

In a recent interview, screenwriter Steven deSouza criticised the ending of the movie. Originally, the way it was scripted, Arnie and the girl were to be killed by celebrity Stalker Captain Freedom (his Predator co-star Jesse Ventura). In a twist, it would later be revealed that Killian and his minions had used CGI face replacement and body doubles to fake their deaths after our heroes had escaped the game zone.

Apparently, execs got cold feet after the film's test screening and re-cut the movie so that this sequence was moved later so that viewers would know what the villain was doing. Without this twist, the final third of The Running Man is extremely predictable - Arnie invades the TV station, wipes out an army of goons and kills Killian.

Ultimately, The Running Man is a pretty garbage movie - it's worth seeing for the concept and Richard Dawson's performance, but otherwise the direction is rote, the tone is extremely sleazy and the action un-inspired.

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