Friday, February 24, 2017

It’s All About Attitude - PREDATOR 2

Compared to the glory days of the Seventies, when African American action stars like Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, and Pam Grier ruled the drive-ins, black representation in action movies in the following decades has been depressingly meager.  Things were particularly bleak during the Reagan years, where African Americans playing the lead in studio action films were pretty much limited to Eddie Murphy in the BEVERLY HILLS COP movies and Carl Weathers in ACTION JACKSON.  Great stuff, but not nearly enoughSo it was a pleasant surprise that in 1990 (technically still the ‘80’s if you ask calendar nerds), the sequel to one of the decade’s largest sci-fi action movies starred (and was absolutely dominated) by Danny Glover.  I am speaking of the one and only PREDATOR 2.

The Capsule:
In the near future of 1997, Los Angeles has issues.  Two vicious drug gangs are shooting the city to pieces, and the outmanned and outgunned cops are stuck in the middle.  On top of all that a mysterious third party is kicking ass and taking spines, leaving skinned bodies hanging all over the town.  When one of his team gets butchered by this new hunter, hotheaded Lt. Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) makes it his mission to put the bastard down.  He’s not the only one looking for the elusive killer.  The Feds, led by Agent Keyes (Gary Busey), have their own special interest in the target, which happens to be a seven foot tall invisible walking scorpion with a laser cannon.  Harrigan will need to push himself to the limit if he wants to keep this predator from turning his skull into a trophy.  

PREDATOR 2 is the perfect franchise sequel.  It takes the basic idea of the original, super tough alien big game hunter poaching gun toting humans, but completely shakes up all the other details.  The isolated jungle setting is replaced by a near future crime ridden cityscape.  There is still an ensemble cast of protagonists, only with about a third of the combined muscle weight.  Instead of a super elite team of mercenaries who can take down an entire guerilla compound, PREDATOR 2 gives us a batch of brave but thoroughly ordinary cops.  The point of the first film was to show that even a team of the best warriors on Earth were completely outclassed by just one of these “ugly motherfuckers”.  The implication here is that these cops, led by the incomparable but somewhat less athletic Danny Glover, are going to be mincemeat.  

Honestly, the cops have a hard enough time surviving even before the alien shows up.  They are regularly caught in the crossfire as the ruling street gangs try to massacre each other.  The projected L.A. of 1997 is the kind of ultraviolent warzone that the conservative law and order types always think civilization is on the brink of dissolving into.  I’m willing to bet that whenever Trump talks about “inner cities”, he is picturing scenes from this movie.  It’s surprising he hasn’t name checked the Jamaican Voodoo Posse in his tweets about “bad dudes” yet.

Allow me a slight aside on the subject of street gang wardrobe.  PREDATOR 2 may be set in 1997, but it is clearly a product of the Eighties.  And the Eighties loved its completely ridiculous looking street gangs.  For some reason it was decided that all gangs during this period were to be modeled after a mix of THE WARRIORS and WEST SIDE STORY.   The punks in the subway scene look like they could start breakdancing at any moment.  El Scorpio’s Columbian gang is the most practical, mostly headbands and bulletproof vests.  Other than Scorpio’s cocaine covered goatee, they aren’t that exciting. King Willie’s Jamaican Voodoo Posse, on the other hand, is glorious.  Everyone dresses like a combination of Rick James and the Mad Hatter.  One of the lieutenants is decked out in fringed gold riding chaps with matching gold six shooters.  King Willie himself wears a giant Africa shaped chest plate like he’s a Rasta conquistador.  Those cats understood style.  

The Predator is even deadlier than in the first movie.  As with all good sequels, this one gives us a greater variety of goodies.  This Predator is definitely the high tech gadget loving kind of hunter.  In addition to the standard cloaking field, shoulder cannon, and arm blades load out, it also packs a net gun, razor prong shooter, retractable spear, and best of all, a laser Frisbee.  It racks up way more of a body count.  Cops, criminals, civilians, silver suited Feds, anyone with a weapon is fair game.

It’s also a bit more of a dick than the first one.  It taunts Harrigan at the grave of his friend Danny (Rubén Blades) by leaving him the necklace it tore off his corpse.  It has zero respect for public property, and it seems a little too eager to use its atomic wrist bomb in the middle of the city.  The attack in the subway was just it showing off for a crowd (and giving a noble death to the otherwise completely irritating Bill Paxton, playing a smarmier version of Hudson from ALIENS).  On the other hand, it does leave the kids alone, and didn’t kill Leona (Maria Conchita Alonso) when it sees that she is pregnant.  I guess it wanted them to grow up to have full sized trophy skulls.  

So our heroes are clearly outmatched in almost every regard.  It’s the disparity that makes this movie work so well.  Danny Glover is as far as you can get from Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he makes Harrigan even more of a badass.  Dutch is a battle hardened warrior in prime physical condition.  He knows tactics, he can make booby traps, he can lift a truck.  And he still got his ass kicked by a Predator.  Luck and quick thinking was the only thing that saved him.  Compared to him, Harrigan, a middle aged cop who gets winded running up stairs, seems like he would be lucky to last five seconds against one of these things.  He doesn’t have the muscle or the elite training.  What he does have above everything else is motherfucking determination.  This guy will not quit.  He will not let his superiors, the Feds, or seven foot tall invisible monsters get in his way.    Attitude is his greatest weapon.

Another nice twist is that it is Harrigan who spends most of the movie hunting the Predator.  The first half is basically a police procedural.  He runs down clues, consults the Medical Examiner, and has his people running tails.  We don’t get to see the asshole police chief (Robert Davi, the go to man for asshole superiors) ask Harrigan for his badge, but it comes close.  He even has a secret meeting with King Willie (Calvin Lockhart), the superstitious crime boss, for advice.  The entire third act is a cross-town, cross-building chase.  Harrigan will stop at nothing to catch his man.  Or scorpion faced alien thing.

All this leads to perhaps the most badass scene in all of cinema.  Harrigan follows the Predator down into his ship for the final confrontation.  The fight itself is amazing, sort of a high tech knife fight in a misty, weirdly lit crypt.  Again, the odds are wildly out of whack.  Kevin Peter Hall in his Predator gear dwarfed Schwarzenegger when they faced off.  Here, he looks like he could just step on Glover.  Harrigan gets smacked around like a rag doll.  The Predator’s arrogance gets the better of him, and despite having lost an arm to him earlier, it can’t help but underestimate the bloody and exhausted cop.  That’s when Harrigan [spoiler] shoves a laser Frisbee right through its chest.  

Awesome as that was, it isn’t the badass part.  Once Harrigan has confirmed his kill, the familiar triangular laser sights start moving over him.  A dozen more Predators appear from out of the mist.  They surround him.  Harrigan drops the laser Frisbee, shrugs, and asks “Who’s next?”

Daaaamn.  He just stood down a room full of the galaxy’s most fearsome killers with nothing but attitude.  The only thing the punked Predators can do is look at their feet and let him leave.  The leader even throws him a trophy, an ancient flintlock pistol.  It had a personal engraving from the previous owner, but everyone knows what it should read: “Earth’s #1 Badass”.

It’s also worth noting that if not for Harrigan, this would have been a straight up vigilante movie.  The Predator isn’t hunting cops, it’s hunting the criminals.  They are the most dangerous game in this scenario.  The Predator only starts to go after the cops because Harrigan keeps pushing it.  If he had listened to orders and stayed out of it, the Predator would have taken out all the gangs, collected its trophies, and taken off.  It kind of would have been the hero, The Punisher with Pincers.  I’m sure that’s how the other Predators framed it to this guy’s Predator wife and kids back on Predator Planet.  

Director Stephen Hopkins is no John McTiernan, and while PREDATOR 2 lacks much of the emotion and beauty of the original, it more than makes up for it in guts and pure entertainment.  It’s a great example of how unconventional casting can elevate a film.  Although the monster is the title character, Danny Glover owns this movie.  The Eighties may have been an embarrassingly sparse decade for African American leading roles in action, but at least it ended strong.

C Chaka

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