Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Predator 2

I didn't know what to expect from Predator 2, other than there being a Predator in it and no Arnold. When it was over, I didn't know what to think of it.

This sequel is set in 1997, even though it was released in 1990. But wisely for a movie like this the future setting doesn't date the movie at all. Because there's really no indication of it being "the future" except that the L.A. gangs are Jamaicans and Colombians and that it's apparently a lot hotter (global warming, perhaps?). Here's a movie that was smart enough to say that we wouldn't all suddenly have flying cars and ninja powers in the span of seven years. James Cameron pulled a similar jump to the future in Terminator 2, though that was only three years forward. It must have something to do with that magical "ten years have passed" between sequels. Strange, because there's really very little reason for this to be set in the future. Besides maybe giving the government a bit more time to develop strategy against the Predators after Dutch's report on the events of the first movie, the future setting has little or no bearing on this movie at all.

We open with a jungle shot, reminding us of the first movie, but the camera pans until revealing that we are in fact in Los Angeles: the urban jungle. Herein lies what may be a serious misstep on the part of this movie. A lot of what was wrong with the original Predator was forgivable in the remote jungle setting. It was a unique locale for an action picture, and it made for some good visuals. It might have made sense to open the film in L.A., then move somewhere else, but no; Predator 2 wants a Predator in the city or else! This story is reminiscent of another monster sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park which decided to unleash a T-Rex on an urban populace. Why? Because some filmmaker thinks its cool. And even Jurassic Park was smart enough to set most of its story on a remote island (The Lost World has almost nothing to do with Crichton and is really a thinly-veiled remake of King Kong. No seriously, go watch them back to back). The urban setting on one hand might seem like a logical next step for these creatures. Why not hunt big game where they are densely populated? But there are so many illogical elements the movie needs to make this work that it does more harm than good. Also, in the movie's second act, the city feels very "been there, done that" and the movie drags.

Before the movie begins dragging though, it gets a lot of things right. Our lead in this movie is Danny Glover, in full "I'm getting to old for this" mode. He's no Schwarzeneggar, but he has a good vibe for the early part of the picture. I liked him pretty early in the movie. I criticized the previous movie for introducing us to the alien, then ignoring it for some stupid action story that then led back into the Predator story. Well, the writers must have read my mind because they decided with this movie to open the film with the big irrelevant action sequence instead of plopping it into the first act for no reason. This is infinitely more effective. We are dropped into a gang war as rivals shoot at each other with the police trying to keep order. But then somewhere in the middle of it all, there's a Predator. When this invisible fiend gets a drug lord killed, it starts an investigation. What seemed like simple gang violence has started to become a bit more involved; someone attacked a bunch of them and did things to them no human could possibly do. This is such a more effective use of the action set-up. The mostly irrelevant action LEADS to the Predator story.

I was also very interested in the way they went with that story. Again, in the first movie we had been introduced to the alien ship, then the strangely mutilated corpses, but then got sidetracked with the attack on the rebels; the mystery was ignored for awhile. Here, the movie is ABOUT the mystery. The film plays out like a police procedural and for the most part it's pretty good. The film seems yet another source lovingly ripped off by Chris Carter for The X-Files. All the classic elements of that show are in place. We have a monster loose in the city and feds investigating these murders as evidence slowly begins pointing to something otherworldly. I really enjoyed these pieces of it, and it seemed that Predator 2 was shaping up to be better than its predecessor. They were rehashing the first movie in some ways, but fixing the elements that didn't work. Unfortunately, that good faith was squandered.

Why is the rival gang Jamaican? Isn't Jamaica really far from Los Angeles? I cannot conceive of a reason for there to be such a strong Jamaican presence on the other side of the country. The movie is terribly stereotypical about them. Like they were only chosen because it's a drug war and Jamaicans represent drugs. I can just imagine the writers pitching ideas. "We need some drug gangs. What kinda people sell drugs?" "Canadians?" "No, that's prescription drugs. I mean illegal drugs." "Jamaicans maybe?" "Yeah, that's a good idea! Jamaicans!"

The one area I thought using the Jamaicans was clever was the dreadlocks. All the Jamaicans have dreadlocks (again, a bit of stereotyping there?), but remember so do the Predators! I thought this was an interesting way to implicate the Jamaicans in the film, or make the Predator able to blend in (oh wait why does he need to? He's invisible). But this connection is never exploited in the film.

And did I forget to mention? All the Jamaicans have voodoo powers. That's right, voodoo powers. They work for a boss named King Voodoo or something like that. When they attack some corporate dude and his lady friend, they start performing a voodoo ritual. Why? So that the police will get thrown off and think that the Predator's hunting behavior is really just gang voodoo violence. It feels really silly.

I should really turn my attention now to the Predator himself in this movie. It's a different one from the first film (no duh, since the first one nuked himself). For a skilled hunter, his actions make no sense. There's a point early in the film where he shoots at one of the guys with something that gets stuck in the wall. And then he leaves it there. He leaves evidence behind! This is great for the police, who take it and find out that it contains no known elements, which means it's from space. But really? You're killing these humans and leaving evidence behind that they can trace? There also seems to be no rhyme or reason to those he kills. And as the movie goes on, it seems to revel more in the fact that he is killing than anything else. In the first movie you almost got a territorial sense about the Predator. Here, he kills clumsily and indiscriminately. All that was interesting about a character is put on hold and he becomes little more than a standard serial killer for the middle of the movie. The creators have said that maybe he was a younger, undisciplined Predator, thus explaining his actions. Well, we the audience have no reference for that. We've only ever met one of these things. We have no idea what their normal behavior is! The movie seems to enjoy the violence more than in the first movie. The Predator decapitates King Voodoo and carries his head away, and then we are treated to the careful cleaning and buffing process he goes through to make the skull into a nice trophy. This feels a LOT like a serial killer movie. But even in crazy slasher movies we are given some explanation for the actions. "Hunting for trophies" just isn't enough. Why hasn't he got buffed skulls from everyone he slew?

On the human side, the movie goes all kinds of wrong by trying to imitate other films. If the first Predator bore shades of Alien, this one bears shades of Aliens and even more directly. They cast Bill Paxton as a new cop in charge, who's really just there to make snarky comments. Oh, and the police also have a feisty latina who doesn't get along with him. Does this sound like a pale imitation of Aliens to anyone else? These characters are not really relevant and take something away from Danny Glover's character and his partner who soon dies and must be avenged. On a more interesting level is Gary Busey(!) who plays a guy keeping Glover in the dark about the goings-on. Turns out he has an elite team who've been aware of the Predator and are trying to track and trap him to gain access to his superior technology. This serves to show that the government took action after the events of the first film. I liked that. I also really enjoyed the dynamic between Busey and Glover. It seems like the guy knows more than he's letting on because he does! That's the sort of thing the first movie needed. Carl Weathers should have had information about the Predator, not some other random nonsense about a CIA coup. This will likely be the last praise I give this film.

I liked that the Predator's make-up is slightly different in this movie. It's a bit more sophisticated, and it makes clear that not all aliens look exactly alike. It lends an authenticity to their world. But after the 2nd act's boring street cop drama/serial killer slasher film, the movie had no idea where to go. Thus begins a third act which leaves all logic behind. Ultimately, it's Danny Glover versus the Predator in scenes and situations that grow increasingly ridiculous. At various times in this movie I started wondering if anyone even LIVED in this L.A. So much noisy action goes on in the streets below and on the rooftops above and no one else in the entire city reacts. The Predator comes crashing through an apartment wall right into some old lady's bathroom and nobody does anything at all! He's been wounded, you see, so he's mixing up some stuff to clot his wounds, screaming all the while. But it takes like ten minutes of this before the woman stumbles down the hall to say "I think somebody's in the bathroom." Really lady? What tipped you off, the deafening crash of brick and mortar imploding? So then the Predator busts down the door and takes off through her apartment with Danny Glover in hot pursuit. And there's barely a reaction. And nobody else in the building does anything or even opens a door. I guess when you've got constant gang warfare, you learn to sleep soundly.

Somehow the fight leads to the basement of a building, but I don't remember if its the apartment building or the slaughterhouse the Predator was hiding at. Anyway, then there's a hole that Danny Glover falls into which leads to... the interior of the Predator's ship. That's right, this whole time there's been a spaceship under the streets of L.A. And not that far down, considering the tracks it makes when it takes off at the end. The fights in this movie are annoying. The first movie had some really interesting interply between high-tech and low-tech combat. In this movie, it seems you can only take down a Predator with his own weapons. So Danny Glover takes the Predator's razor frisbee thing and continually attacks him with it until finally winning. It just doesn't seem as big a victory to me. Once he's won, a bunch more Predators decloak inside the ship and surround him. Now that's the ultimate joke on the character! But is anything made of this situation? No. They let the guy go. WHAT?? They take the body of their comrade into the recesses of the ship (whether he still lives we don't know). Then they apparently just respect Danny Glover as a fellow hunter and let him go. Now that's just dumb, but how else were we going to get a "happy ending"? But that's not the worst of it: this old Predator hands Glover a trophy from his belt for him to keep; it's an old pistol from 1715. Get it? The Predators have been here for hundreds of years! I'm sorry, that is just so lame. It already strained credibility for me that they'd return to that jungle over and over, but now they've been around and attacking Europeans for hundreds of years. And nobody knew anything about it? And if this Predator in this movie really was a rogue, why is there a ship full of them here landed in the city?? How long has it been here that no one has ever seen it?? It's not even cloaked! At least Captain Kirk had an invisible ship when he was tooling around San Francisco! Any idiot who strolls into the subway can see their giant spacecraft (though I guess those guys probably don't live to tell the tale). I don't understand what they were there for.

Oh, and remember that bit about the ship taking off at the end? Yeah, the Predators leave Earth. Why? What were they doing there in the first place? What suddenly made them leave? And the ship leaves very clear evidence of having been there. Yet again, nobody reacts to it's presence in any way. The ending is just so shockingly bad.

I wanted to like this movie, and for about 40 minutes I did. I liked the X-Files-type nature of it. But it ignored what made X-Files work. So many of those cases took place in suburban or small town areas where you could believe that something paranormal could go on under people's noses. I do not buy that these events could take place in such an urban setting for so long and nobody would have noticed. It just plays us for fools. But then, the movie really didn't know what to do with its setting. Rather than being like the X-Files series, it devolved into something similar to the X-Files movie with a climax in a spacecraft that takes off at the end leaving all kinds of logic behind on the way. Also, the filmmakers seemed to go out of their way to get an R-rating, as if they weren't going to already. I already mentioned some of the lingering gore of the skull polishing. There's also what feels like a lot more cursing (like every other word in some cases), and a sex scene thrown in why? Just to have a naked girl running around for awhile? Oh, and Morton Downey Jr.'s in this movie. He plays a sleazy TV journalist trying to get a scoop on what the investigation's REALLY about. But as bad as that is, it goes nowhere. He disappears halfway through the movie and never recurs. So what was the point of his being there?

I'm really conflicted about this movie. On one hand, it managed to correct things that really bothered me about the first one. And yet, even though by the end we've seen a spacecraft, we are no closer to understanding who these beings are or what makes them tick. The world created became laughable as it got more and more unrealistic. It's a shame, but the movie really ends up being terribly unfocused, caring more about killing humanity than fighting with or for it.

As a bonus, the wall of trophies in the Predator ship includes a lot of interesting creature skulls... including one of the alien xenomorphs from Alien. Though they mostly cut around it, the head is visible, both as an in-joke to some fans of the comic, and as precursor of the eventual things to come.

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