Thing is, even though PG-13 existed by this time due to parents freaking about about Gremlins in a microwave, a facial peel in Poltergeist and impromptu heart surgery in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, R-rated films were still largely aimed at the audience that PG-13 is aimed at now. It was pretty much accepted that, even though you were supposed to be 17, most likely the audience was going to be 12 on up to 50, and they better have something in there that entertains everyone.
If that means throwing together Alien and Rambo and throwing Arnold Schwarzenegger on screen for the nth time that same year, so be it. Of course, lack of an older brother to sneak me in meant I had to wait to rent it on video (you wouldn't believe how little most rental stores cared as long as it wasn't porn), but I still got to enjoy it in its original context.
Major Dutch Schaefer (Schwarzenegger) heads up a band of elite military operatives who help out whenever things have to be done without openly revealing U.S. involvement. In this case, a helicopter carrying a cabinet official of a Latin American country has crashed on the wrong side of the border and been kidnapped by rebels. The team is called into action by Gen. Phillips (R. G. Armstrong), but soon finds out that it will be following the lead of CIA agent Dillon (Carl Weathers), a former member of the group who has drifted into intelligence work.
The initial drop goes smoothly, but things begin to get complicated when their tracker Billy (Sonny Landham) notices that not only do footprints of guerilla forces lead away from the crash site of the helicopter, but so what appears to be U.S. military forces. Dillon denies any knowledge, even when the bodies of the soldiers are found hanging from trees and skinned alive. Dutch immediately recognizes the names on the dogtags, identifying them as a group of Green Berets, and growing suspicious as to the reason for the mission. However, the deaths are thought to have been the work of guerillas, which further incites the group, particularly Sgt. Blain (Jesse Ventura), who can't wait to settle the score.
This they do when they find the rebel outpost. After the guerillas kill the last hostage, the team goes in and wipes them out, discovering that they were working with Soviet military advisors and that Dillon, in fact, had lied about the mission and used Dutch's group to wipe out the camp or an intelligence gathering mission. Since the noise they made alerts other camps nearby, extraction is impossible, and the group must head through dense jungle back toward the border. To complicate things, Dillon insists on bringing Anna (Elpidia Carillo), the only surviving rebel from the raid.
The truth is, there is a third party involved in the proceedings, which has been watching the group the entire time and learning about them. It makes its presence known when it kills the bookish Hawkins (Shane Black) and drags him into the jungle in front of Anna. At first no one believes what she saw, but the alien soon makes itself known by killing Blain, which enrages his friend Mac (Bill Duke) into acting rashly. Several attempts to catch and kill the creature fail, leading to most of the crew being wiped out and leaving only Dutch alive to go take down what turns out to be a creature that has been using the jungle as a hunting ground for so long that it has become a legend with the natives.
This is one of Schwarzenegger's better roles, as he gets to be both tough and strategic. It also helps that his English had improved quite a bit by this point and that he was not saddled with being called "John Smith" or some silly ironic name. Make all the "get to the choppa" jokes you want, he had improved quite a bit by this point, and it wasn't just his muscles that made him one of the most popular action stars at the time.
At the heart it is a story about a bunch of macho guys going up against something that is stronger and deadlier than they are, so we're not talking about major character development here. This is a group that has been together for a long time, and this is their last mission. Any evolution of character has long since happened, and the bonds (and rivalries) all exist. This allows people known more for their other careers, such as Jesse Ventura and Sonny Landham, to just exist within the framework of the movie.
With the actors involved and the subject matter this could have been just a straightforward movie that would appeal to men only, but the one female character, Anna, is portrayed as just as tough and smart as any of her captors. There is no forced bonding or love story here, although she does quickly realize that, although she could probably take her captors on one-on-one if it came to ambushing them, she is just as helpless as they are against the alien creature.
And while Kevin Peter Hall spends the majority of the movie in Predator makeup (except for his brief cameo out of the suit as a helicopter pilot toward the end), he manages to instill the creature with its own sort of moral code while communicating how alien it really is. At this point there was no connection with the Alien universe, nor any hints of what the actual Predator society was like, so it was as much up to him as it was to special effects designer Stan Winston to bring the creature to life.
If there is any undercurrent to this movie it would be the continued concerns of the aftereffects of the Vietnam War and the possibility of getting into something similar by meddling in Latin American politics. Like with most Vietnam movies, the jungle itself is just as much a character as any of Dutch's men or the Predator, and director John McTiernan takes full advantage of the location shooting. Not only is it one of the most exciting action movies of the 1980s, but also one of the most beautiful to look at. That's quite a lot to come from something conceived as Rocky vs. E.T. and featuring a low-budget duck-headed lizard before everyone got their heads on straight.
Time: 107 minutes
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Elpida Carillo, Kevin Peter Hall
Director: John McTiernan