Control Nathan and Clint: Predator 2 (1990)
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan and Clint. It’s the column where I give the everyday saints who pledge to this site’s Patreon an opportunity to choose between which of two dodgy-looking motion pictures Clint and I must watch, and then talk about on our podcast Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast.
The Scalding Hot Take for the episode we’re about to record is The Predator. Everywhere you look, people are talking about that movie. They’re saying things like, “I was disappointed”, “I had hoped for more” and “To be honest, it was a little underwhelming.” We’re eager to tap into the sizzling cultural conversation regarding whether The Predator was super-disappointing or merely underwhelming, so we’ve decided to pair it with a pair of Predator-themed motion pictures with reputations for being quite poor: Stephen Hopkins’ little-loved Predator-in-futuristic-Los Angeles stinker Predator 2 or Alien Vs. Predator, a film with the courage to not only ask, but answer the timeless question, “If an Alien fought a Predator, who would win?” The answer, strangely enough, is former heavyweight champion James “Buster” Douglas.
You kindly patrons overwhelmingly chose Predator 2. That made me happy, because, to be brutally honest, I’m not crazy about the Predator as a bad guy or a franchise. There’s not a whole lot to the Predator when it comes right down to it. He looks cool, is a devastatingly effective hunter who travels the galaxy looking for interesting and unknown new species to brutally murder and, in Predator 2 at least, delivers some profane remedial insults but other than that he’s kind of a blank. I guess he’s got his little warrior’s code where he won’t killed pregnant women, children or the unarmed and also cool hair but as villains go he’s lacking pathos, humanity and depth.
That’s why I appreciated that Predator 2 flipped the script and upended expectations by following up a lean, jungle-based tough guy bloodbath into a totally early 1990s Joel Silver futuristic action cop movie starring a murderer’s row of great tough guy character actors playing characters who get murdered.
The cast is led by Danny Glover as Lieutenant Michael "Mike" R. Harrigan. The Lethal Weapon star understandably jumped at the challenge of playing a cranky veteran cop who’s getting too old for this shit in a mega-budgeted, Joel Silver-produced, explosions-filled action sequel. He’s a cop like every other, a hotshot renegade with a long history of both getting in trouble with his superiors for his maverick ways and wracking up prestigious honors for his service to humanity. His methods are unorthodox but he gets results.
Glover is ably assisted by Gary Busey, Bill Paxton, Ruben Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso, Robert Davi, Adam Baldwin (I can only imagine the kinds of fascinating conversations those last two must have had on set), Calvin Lockhart and, to really time-stamp Predator 2 as an unmistakable product of 1990, Morton Downey Jr. as a hot head tabloid “journalist” who exists to be punched in the face by our hero. In case you’re curious, that happens sixty-four minutes in, and is just as emotionally satisfying as you’d hope.
With a cast like that who needs literally any other onscreen veteran of the first film other than the towering Kevin Peter Hall as the main Predator?
Predator 2 is distinguished as well by a level of casual and not so casual racism that’s glaring even by the standards of the time. Predator 2 was made before the dawn of cultural sensitivity, before anyone had any idea that racism was wrong.
The sequel takes place in a dystopian, crime and drug-ravaged Los Angeles where cartoonish bands of wild-eyed, machine-gun firing, cocaine-snorting Hispanic gangs do battle in the streets, transforming the city into a bullet-ravaged war zone. One particularly over-the-top heavy psyches himself up for a bit of the old ultra-violence by throwing handfuls of cocaine at his face in a way that’s supposed to seem very decadent but really just seems wasteful. I understand that he doesn’t have a lot of time to do drugs in the proper fashion but throwing cocaine around like that seems like a very inefficient way to consume some very expensive drugs.
At least this character gets a dramatic death scene where he dies as he lived: coked out of his mind and firing two machine guns wildly as he plummets off a building, terrified beyond words of an invisible-seeming interplanetary warrior.
To put things in the terms of a man who probably saw Predator 2 and thought it was a chilling documentary about our out of control inner cities, and the interplanetary hunters that plague them, the streets run red with blood shed by some bad hombres and nasty women but they’re nothing compared to the dark-skinned evil of King Willie’s Voodoo Gang.
My generation knows King Willie’s Voodoo Gang as a fun beachwear collection from the early 1990s but here they’re a dreadlocked, giant spliff-smoking monsters who combine the bloodthirsty villainy of drug-dealing gangbangers with the spooky, supernatural power of voodoo priests with a direct line to the spirit world who aren’t squeamish about cutting off the heads of their enemies.
Filmmakers were not overly concerned about appearing racist in the 1980s or 1990s. Or the aughts I suppose. Or even today. Clearly no one seemed too concerned about the racial implications of a world filled with cartoonish representations of black and brown people as blood-crazed, sociopathic super-predators nearly as violent and impossible to relate to and identify with as the dreadlocked outer space super-hunter who, as the film’s immortal tagline so indelibly bragged, was in town with a few days to kill.
Of course you could also argue that with the exception of the assholes played by Gary Busey, Adam Baldwin and Bill Paxton, pretty much every character is played by a person of color, including the heroes so pretty much everybody in this lawless, unmanageable hells cape is a person of color, not just the ones inhabiting racist stereotypes in unusually pure, unabashed form.
Predator 2 is a monster movie but for its first forty minutes or so it’s an enjoyably lurid, blaxploitation-leaning action mystery about a very tough cop who takes a very long time to figure out that the brutal, seemingly superhuman murders plaguing Los Angeles’ meanest streets were not carried out by King Willie’s Voodoo Gang but rather by a superhuman monster from outer space who can camouflage his sinister appearance so well that he’s essentially invisible for much of the movie, a stealthy, devastating effective killer who seemingly lives to hunt and hunts to live.
To their credit or detriment, King Willie’s Voodoo Gang totally get the uptight cop zooted on some primo kind bud, second hand smoke style in a moment that, sadly, does not lead to an extended physical comedy set piece featuring Danny Glover hammily acting out the intoxication and disorientation of a “Square” blasted out of his gourd on some of the sweet leaf.
The Predator is an unstoppable killing machine but he's not a monster. Well, I mean, obviously he is a monster. That’s the whole fucking point but he’s a monster with principles and a worldview not unlike that of Bernard Goetz so when he makes it to L.A instead of setting up meetings with agents and getting head shots or working on a tight five he begins killing unsavory dark-skinned types in ways that would make the average FOX News viewer stand up and cheer. Finally, someone, or rather some thing is doing something about all the bad people doing the crimes by murdering them, thereby greatly inhibiting their ability to do bad things in the future.
But then The Predator goes and kills Blade’s character in a way that suggests that maybe he’s not actually a “Blues Lives Matter” kind of space hunter from beyond the galaxy after all.
Before, Glover was going to hunt down and kill an unstoppable alien murder machine for purely professional reasons. But when the big guy kills his colleague and friend it becomes PERSONAL.
Predator 2 wants very much to be a pulpy, engaging James Cameron action movie about a community of smart-ass badasses confronting creatures from another world. More specifically, it wants to be Aliens. To that end they’ve cast the late, great Bill Paxton as a blow-dried, expensive suit-wearing womanizer, the kind of guy who would get nicknamed “Show-Biz” or “Hollywood” or “Prime time” in a proper action comedy, although “The Lone Ranger” isn’t bad as cheesy nicknames go.
Paxton, god bless him, seems to be acting in an entirely different movie than the rest of the cast. While they’re grimly facing down a threat beyond what their minds can even comprehend, he is having a blast, shamelessly hitting on the only woman with a sizable role in the cast, grinning like a country-fried idiot and gleefully delivering seemingly ad-libbed dialogue like “I stabbed that guy in the leg plenty of times. He never died on me before!”
In other words, Paxton was delivering a broad, entirely comic performance in a movie that only intermittently has a sense of humor in a way that gives the entire film a weird, refreshing energy that dissipates entirely when Paxton is offscreen.
Predator 2 climaxes with Glover getting on the Predator’s ship and confronting an eight foot mass of muscles, might and murderous super-human technology with some two hundred or so pounds of veteran cop and emerging victorious.
It makes no sense for a mere man like Glover to defeat a beast like the Predator but there’s a real sense of wonder to the scene on the ship, an almost Spielberg-like sense of awe at what might exist in worlds beyond our own.
Predator 2 reminded me a lot of Robocop 2, another audacious, less-than-rapturously-received sequel to an iconic pop classic. I enjoyed both films despite neither of them being very good. No, that’s not quite right. I think Robocop 2 and Predator 2 are fun, enjoyable and extremely watchable exercises in lurid pulp largely because they don’t aspire to be anything other than entertaining trash.
I also enjoyed Predator 2 because it so totally and delightfully captures the spirit of its time. When I was a younger critic, and in a frightful hurry, I thought movies should be timeless, and that it was a terrible flaw for an older movie to feel dated. I feel much differently now. I now love it when a movie feels dated. Watching Predator 2 twenty-eight years later, long after whatever brief cultural conversation about its merits had ended, I loved how 1990 the film was. I did not, and could not, have appreciated the movie’s 1990ness at the time.
It also did not hurt that I came to the movie with low expectations. It took the Predator franchise in a bold new direction that, while it didn’t exactly work, creatively or commercially, is nevertheless a whole lot more silly fun than it really has any right to be.
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