A year before John McTiernan directed Die Hard, he made Predator. One thing that unites both movies is that, while they’re justifiably thought of as great action movies, they’re both funnier than they need to be. Die Hard‘s comedy comes largely from John McClane himself, who is furious about the position he’s found himself in.
The humor in Predator is subtler, so much so that it’s actually possible to watch the movie without seeing the satire hidden just below the surface. There’s a reason, though, that one of the great memes in the history of the internet comes from the image of a muscular Arnold Schwarzenegger grabbing the hand of a muscular Carl Weathers. Underneath the thrilling action, Predator is really a movie about fragile masculinity and the way American masculinity in particular was undercut by the U.S. defeat in Vietnam.
Like most pieces of great satire, Predator totally works if you want to watch it as an action movie. There’s another layer, though, that makes Predator even more fun. The movie, which is a story about a group of commandos who are hired to take out rebels in a remote part of the world with the confidence that they’ll be able to get the mission done, is also about how silly these men are.
That only becomes more evident once they accomplish their initial mission and realize they’re being hunted by something much stronger than the rebels they ambushed. What makes the movie even better is that these guys are muscular Vietnam veterans; men who have already seen how bad things can go when you go into the jungle with too much confidence.
Although we see just how good these commandos are during their initial attack on rebel forces, we also see how much bravado they bring to the job. Schwarzenegger is full of cheesy one-liners that you might read at face value the first time you watch the movie. Once he comes up against the Predator, all of that largely melts away. One liners are great as long as you’re winning, but when you aren’t they start to seem more like what they actually are: a show of confidence designed to make you look cool.
The send-up of machismo has been widely written about in the years since Predator was released, and some have even argued that the sequels carry on that legacy of precise interrogation. It’s worth noting, though, that at the time, Predator was not universally beloved. Most critics reviewing it in 1987 saw it as little more than another piece of generic action filmmaking, even if McTiernan’s direction was particularly precise.
The Los Angeles Times called it one “arguably one of the emptiest, feeblest, most derivative scripts ever made as a major studio movie,” and Roger Ebert, who liked the movie quite a bit better, still saw it mostly as a competent blockbuster that delivers on exactly what it promises. “Predator moves at a breakneck pace, it has strong and simple characterizations, it has good location photography and terrific special effects, and it supplies what it claims to supply: an effective action movie,” he wrote at the time.
With age, though, the vapidity that many critics initially derided starts to feel like the point. It’s a movie about how stupid the men at the center of most action movies are, and one that delights in killing most of these macho men off in grisly fashion.
Even as the movie thoroughly deconstructs the bravado of its central cast, it also works as a sendup of both the Vietnam War and American excesses abroad more generally. The parallels to Vietnam are almost self-evident, but the early plot development wherein we discover that Dutch and his team were misled about the nature of their mission is a reminder of how corruptible these kinds of special military ops are, even when the soldiers involved have good intentions.
For those who may not remember, Schwarzenegger’s character Dutch initially believes that he’s been asked to assemble a team of commandos to recapture a “cabinet minister” who has gone missing in the jungle and was presumably shot down by rebel forces. In reality, though, Dutch was hired to take out some remote rebels and given a story that would adhere to his morals. He realizes this after they’ve completed the raid, but by that point, not much can be done about it.
Dutch and his crew are just hired goons, and it’s not even hard to manipulate them into doing something terrible on behalf of the US government. Coming out in 1987, Predator was remarkably timely in its commentary about a group of American expats who take out rebel forces without really thinking about the morality of their actions.
Of course, that connects to the bravado and machismo that these men constantly put on display. In many ways, it’s connected to their sense that not only are they the best soldiers in the world, but they’re also morally justified because of the flag that they fight under. Pretty quickly, though, the movie dispenses with the notion that these guys are anything more than hired thugs who have been brought into to do the dirty work of a corrupt and meddling U.S. government.
If you want to, it’s possible to watch Predator 100 times and ignore all of the subtext that’s just barely hidden below the surface. Predator is, first and foremost, and masterfully directed action movie in which a bunch of guys attempt to survive an encounter with a horrific enemy life-force. It’s an important film in the arc of Schwarzenegger’s career, and it also created a truly excellent meme.
If you look closer, though, you’ll see that Predator is more self-aware than most action movies, and all the better for its ability to critique both the genre of action movies and the real world around it. These men may be macho, but that doesn’t save them from a Predator who has judged them to be vulnerable prey, whether they believe themselves to be or not.
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