Predator 2 (1990) Predator 2 (1990) **

     Permit me to begin this review with a confession: I’ve always had difficulty being fair to Predator 2, because it almost completely foreclosed my admittedly eccentric preferred interpretation of the original Predator’s back-story. You see, not long after seeing the first film in its theatrical run, I developed and became enamored of a notion that back on its homeworld, the alien creature that turned six of Earth’s deadliest mercenaries into so many piles of cauterized meat had a day job— and not just any day job, either. I pictured him as, like, a dentist or an actuary or a stockbroker, and imagined that his periodic hunting trips to our planet were his overcompensating reaction to feelings of petit-bourgeois emasculation and ennui. In Predator 2, however, we learn (or at least see it strongly implied) that interplanetary big-game hunting is a central feature of the aliens’ culture, and that they’re an Honorable Warrior Race. You know— like post-“Star Trek: The Next Generation” Klingons, only with even bigger, even lumpier foreheads. I reiterate that it’s unfair for me to grumble about that, because there’s obviously no reason why anybody in Hollywood charged with writing a Predator sequel ought to have taken their marching orders from some teenaged weirdo on the other side of the country, whom they’d never even fucking heard of. But a little grumbling might start to seem justified after all if you turn that writing decision on its side, and look at it from a slightly different angle. That’s because by taking the interpretation of the alien culture that they did, screenwriters Jim and John Thomas (who penned both Predator and Predator 2) fell straight into one of the most irritating tropes in contemporary science fiction.

     I don’t mean the Honorable Warrior Race per se, although I certainly wouldn’t complain about a temporary moratorium on those. Rather, I’m talking about Orion Slave-Girl Syndrome. OSGS occurs whenever a given sci-fi franchise reintroduces an alien species previously exemplified by a single individual, in such a way as to reveal that whatever that one individual happened to be doing was stereotypical of his, her, or its entire civilization. The Star Wars Expanded Universe is probably the most egregious and persistent offender, but the most obvious single example I can think of (in honor of which I’ve named the phenomenon) is the green-skinned exotic dancer shown briefly in the original, unsuccessful “Star Trek” pilot. The females of her race, the Orions, were described at the time as savage, animalistic, and sexually insatiable, but there was nothing inherent in that gloss to require them all to be space harem girls. Yet every time the series introduced an Orion character after that, a space harem girl was exactly what she was, until “Star Trek: Enterpise” went so far as to posit that Orion society generally was set up along quasi-Gorean lines. (The subsequent revelation that the female Orions were topping from below does not absolve the writers of the underlying sin.) It’s lazy, cheesy, and lame, and it unnecessarily limits the range of stories that a given fictional culture can be used to tell, even beyond what comes naturally from the pressure toward endlessly reiterative sequels that affects all franchise media. So with OSGS in full effect, the brief glimpse into an extraterrestrial culture ends up being the least interesting thing about Predator 2, because it shows us nothing that we couldn’t have guessed with the bare minimum of mental effort. But although Orion Slave-Girl Syndrome is the aspect of Predator 2 that most irritates me, it isn’t the flaw that most seriously hurts the film. What hurts it most seriously is that the Thomases had three terrific premises for a Predator sequel, plus one sort-of-okay one, but instead of settling on any of those, they tired to use the whole lot at once.

     Three of Predator 2’s four premises— “What if the Predator went hunting in a city?” “What if the Predator intervened in a war between international drug cartels?” and “What if Predator had been a RoboCop-flavored near-future dystopian satire?”— crash headlong into one another during the very first scene. In 1997, Los Angeles is being torn apart by the ever-escalating war between Colombian drug gangs loyal to a man called El Scorpio (Henry Kingi, from Vampires and K-9000) and a newly arrived Jamaican mob known as the Voodoo Posse, led by the mysterious King Willie (Calvin Lockhart, of Cotton Comes to Harlem and The Beast Must Die). While loudmouthed populist media gadfly Tony Pope (loudmouthed populist media gadfly Morton Downey Jr.) and an assortment of comparatively legitimate TV reporters bloviate from the sidelines, a squad of cops under the command of Lieutenant Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover, from Day of the Mummy and Saw) are getting their asses handed to them by some of El Scorpio’s followers in a raid gone badly awry. Then suddenly, after the gangsters withdraw into their base of operations to regroup in response to a fresh sally by the police, persons unknown drop into the building through one of several huge skylights, and kill the lot of them with seemingly impossible speed. By the time Harrigan’s forces make their way inside, all the criminals’ curiously mutilated corpses are strung up by their ankles from the ceiling of the warehouse space on the top floor. The destroyed skylight is much too high up to have been usable as a means of ingress by anyone without climbing equipment, and none of the cops can figure out how enough men to do so much damage so quickly could have left the building without somebody seeing them. Yet they certainly are gone now. In point of fact, though, the lieutenant did see something; he just doesn’t know what it was. Up on the roof, while pursuing the one gangster who temporarily managed to escape the inexplicable massacre, Harrigan saw a sort of man-shaped shimmer, as if a ghost had coalesced out of heat haze. It was visible for only a moment, and the lieutenant can’t explain it any more than he can explain what happened to the Colombians. But he has an eerie feeling that the two mysteries are connected somehow.

     Timeout now for some boring-ass departmental politics shit, which is enlivened very slightly by the irony that this time, it’s Danny Glover’s turn to be Mel Gibson. You know the drill— pissed-off captain (Kent McCord, from Doomsday Rock and Return of the Living Dead 3), equally pissed-off chief of police (Robert Davi, of Illicit Behavior and Maniac Cop 2), dumbass young hotshot just transferred from some other precinct (Bill Paxton, from Aliens and Club Dread), partner who has “this man is so fucked” written all over him (Reuben Blades). The whole 80’s Cop on the Edge package. The captain even gives Harrigan the unwelcome news that he’ll henceforth be beholden to some interloper from the hated Feds. There is one somewhat unusual wrinkle, though, insofar as Peter Keyes (Gary Busey, of Silver Bullet and Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms), the outsider in question, very obviously isn’t the DEA special agent he claims to be, and whatever he’s up to, it very obviously isn’t any mere probe into the activities of the Voodoo Posse.

     Meanwhile, King Willie sends a pack of his minions over to El Scorpio’s penthouse apartment (which is decorated in Aztec motifs, because somebody doesn’t know the difference between Colombia and Mexico). They catch the gang lord balls-deep in his girlfriend (Teri Weigel, from Cheerleader Camp and The Black Gloves), and murder him by means of a soul-stealing voodoo ritual intended to strike fear into the hearts of all who might be in line to take El Scorpio’s place (because somebody doesn’t know the difference between Jamaica and Haiti, either). This is not quite the triumph for King Willie that it initially seems, however, for El Scorpio has barely finished bleeding out before the Jamaican assassins come under attack by invisible assailants bearing weaponry that is at once primitive and futuristic. This, one assumes, is approximately what befell the Colombians the other day as well, because the aftermath left behind for Harrigan and his unit to investigate is essentially equivalent. There is one major difference, though, because the invisible killers left El Scorpio’s girl unmolested as they butchered the men sent to eliminate him. Alas, the statement she gives to detective Leona Cantrell (Maria Conchita Alonso, from The Lords of Salem and The Running Man) is neither coherent nor terribly helpful. She says the Devil slaughtered the Jamaicans. Harrigan and his team have just begun to ponder that when Keyes shows up, and throws them out of their own crime scene without a word of explanation.

     Obviously Harrigan isn’t going to stand for such treatment. Before he and his squad have even returned to the station, he assigns Jerry Lambert, the aforementioned dumbass hotshot, to put a tail on Keyes in the hope of discovering what game he’s really playing. Then, because Harrigan is in enough trouble already, his partner, Danny Archuleta, volunteers to break back into El Scorpio’s flat to see if he can find any clues that Keyes missed. What he finds is one of the actual perpetrators, which deactivates its refractive camouflage long enough to confirm what we already assumed: it’s another alien like the one that wreaked so much havoc in South America ten years ago (and it’s played again by Kevin Peter Hall). Archuleta goes the way of all partners to Cops on the Edge at that point. Not much later, Lambert and Cantrell have their own run-in with an alien huntsman, which happens to attack the subway car in which they were traveling. (The RoboCop-flavored satire resurfaces here, when it turns out that every single passenger on the train is packing heat.) Cantrell is allowed to escape, apparently thanks to an alien taboo against the killing of pregnant females, but Lambert, alas, enjoys no such exemption.

     With his allies falling left and right all around him, Harrigan takes matters into his own hands. A face-to-face interview with King Willie yields no actionable intelligence— only a cryptic warning that the unseen enemy of cops and gangsters alike comes from the Other Side. Nor do any of his repeated close-call almost-encounters with the creatures from space bring him any nearer to his actual goal. Eventually, though, Harrigan gets lucky, and manages to track one of the invaders to the meat-packing plant which Lambert had previously identified as Keyes’s least explicable hangout, where he falls into the hands of the mystery man himself. It turns out (and here at last comes Premise #4) that Keyes is working for some sort of Men in Black organization, which seeks to follow up on the rather astounding debriefing that Dutch must have given General Phillips after the events of Predator. The reason he picked the packing plant for his team’s base of operations is because the alien they’re tracking (they don’t seem to realize that there’s an entire pack of them running around LA) keeps visiting it, too, to feast on the refrigerated beef carcasses. Keyes is laying a trap for the creature— and now that Harrigan has blundered into the middle of the stakeout, he might as well help.

     Truth be told, I’m not sure we’re supposed to know that there’s more than one Predator on the loose this time, either. Director Stephen Hopkins certainly acts like it’s meant for a surprise when the rest of the hunting party decloaks after Harrigan finally defeats the alien that killed Archuleta. It seemed obvious to me, though, that at least three or four of the things were involved in the massacre of the Voodoo Posse, just based on the way the scene was blocked and edited. Granted, it can be hard to follow a fast-paced action sequence, and doubly so when one side in the fight can’t be properly seen, but the camouflaged combatants’ individual strikes and thrusts seemed to come from too many directions, with too little time in between, for a single Predator to account for them all. In the grand scheme of things, this lack of clarity about what the audience has and has not been shown isn’t one of Predator 2’s bigger problems, but it’s a disproportionately important one. By treating the presence of multiple aliens as a surprise when it isn’t, the filmmakers undercut themselves twice— first by blowing the twist, and then by depriving themselves of options that a forthright admission would have offered.

     That brings us back to Predator 2’s surplus of premises, because most of them would have been markedly better served by openly treating the aliens as one faction in a multi-sided conflict. I prefer my Cop-on-the-Edge movies to pit their lone-wolf lawmen against a criminal organization rather than just a single psycho, so I’d have been happier if Harrigan had caught on not much later than I did that he was facing a whole band of Predators. Similarly, it would have done wonders for the gang-war plot thread to present the Predators as effectively a third gang, opening a new front in the struggle for the streets of Los Angeles. The only aspect of this story that benefits from springing the additional aliens on the audience as a Shocking Twist! is the Peter Keyes subplot— and even there, they’d have more impact as a complication going into the third act than they do as a surprise ending, even if Hopkins had succeeded in keeping them under his hat until the final scene.

     Mind you, none of the four premises were being handled as well as they might to begin with. The Verhoevenesque satire, always the weakest element, suffers from both intermittency and lack of focus. It disappears completely for long stretches of the film, and whenever it is in play, it has the crucial defect of not really being a satire of anything. The result is that Predator 2 plays less like RoboCop, and more like Double Dragon. The gang war aspect is compromised by the egregiously and incoherently racist portrayal of both factions— although to give Hopkins and the Thomases their due, the indiscriminate conflation of Haitian and Jamaican stereotypes was reportedly done at the insistence of the studio; maybe the equally indiscriminate conflation of Mexican and Colombian stereotypes was, too. Peter Keyes and the Men in Black are quite simply never afforded enough screen time to become interesting. By the time their agenda is revealed, the pointlessly protracted climax is upon us, and their role ends up being limited to reenacting the massacre of the Colonial Marines in Aliens. (Note, by the way, that one of Predator’s points of distinction was that it stood among the few sci-fi monster movies of the 1980’s that never resorted to ripping off either of the then-extent entries in the Alien franchise.) Even the shift to an urban setting comes up short, because the filmmakers never gave any serious thought to how the Predators would be forced to alter their behavior in order to operate among three and a half million people without attracting more attention than they can handle.

     Finally, Predator 2 exhibits what would become a defining feature of Hollywood sequels in the 1990’s, witless and counterproductive callbacks to moments from the previous film. There’s nary a memorable moment in Predator that doesn’t have some crude and clumsy analog in Predator 2, and most of the latter are delivered with a self-impressed smirk that underscores the duplication. An exhaustive catalogue would be tiresome, so let me bring up just one example, and describe how it works— or more properly, how it fails to work. Think back to the scene in Predator following Blain’s and Hawkins’s deaths, when Anna tells the surviving men what she saw, and what the old folks in her village have to say about the special hazards of living in that particular jungle. “She says the jungle came alive and took him,” Poncho translates (which is about what we saw as well in our first clear look at the cloaked alien) before Anna herself goes on to connect the mercenaries’ mysterious assailant with legends from her home village about a demon that makes trophies of men. Now consider El Scorpio’s girlfriend telling Cantrell that the Devil slew the Voodoo Posse assassins. It’s the same scene, right down to the use of an interpreter to relay the witness’s words. There’s one vital difference, however, which is that this time, we already know perfectly well what’s going on. We gain nothing from hearing an “ignorant” Latina hint darkly and in superstitious terms about what Harrigan and his team are facing, because everyone watching Predator 2 is perfectly well aware from the get-go that it’s the same thing Dutch and his team faced the last time around. Anna’s testimony conveyed information we didn’t already possess, at a time when a bit of mystery about the details was nevertheless still both appropriate and desirable. La Scorpia’s testimony ticks a box on a checklist of ritualistic gestures. This early in the franchise’s development, there’s still enough goodwill left over from the first film that Predator 2 can afford to coast a bit on just giving the audience more of what they liked three years before, but it bodes ill for the future that this first sequel has so little of its own to offer.



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