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 (Rubén 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.