Personally, I think those who consider Predator a sneaky sci-fi classic are out of their minds. The film lacks the imagination of other sci-fi/action franchises (Alien, Terminator) and, lest we forget, spends more than half of its runtime on the tedious ambush of a South American coke den before the Predator shows up. From there, it’s a relatively small-scale cat-and-mouse game that owes more to Alien than anyone involved would like to admit. Even the sequel owes a lot to the Alien franchise, in that writers Jim and John Thomas keep only the title character, switching up genres and actors and pretty much everything else.
This time around, the franchise takes a relatively insane, kitchen-sink approach to myth-making. In a dystopian Los Angeles of the not-too-distant future (1997, which you’ll note puts it exactly ten years after the events of the first film), Lieutenant Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) runs a small, loyal squad of homicide detectives in a precinct cartoonishly overrun with gang violence. The film opens with a lengthy battle on a small, filthy section of a Los Angeles street. Explosions, machine-gun chatter, and rampant cocaine abuse (one highlight: a gangster stopping to snort a hit of cocaine, then rubbing a bunch into his wounds) alternate with Predatorvision, showing his arrival in the middle of the melée and his focus on… Well, it’s not exactly clear what his agenda is. He sort of seems like a prankster version of The Invisible Man, not really doing much beyond inciting additional violence once the police finally seem to have things under control.
After focusing his finally honed, mechanically enhanced hearing onto various gangsters and police, the Predator inexplicably decides to provoke an all-out war between the histrionic Colombians and the manic Jamaicans. (What was 20th Century Fox’s obsession with Jamaican villains in 1990? This year also saw the release of Marked for Death, an almost indescribably bizarre take on Jamaican gangs.) This is when the movie really starts to take off, with Joel Silver trying to outdo not only other Fox films, but his own (Die Hard 2 and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane also came out that summer).
Unfortunately, every time the film threatens to veer toward a big-budget variation of a Cannon or Dino De Laurentiis film, the detectives hold it back. The ensemble is topnotch, with Glover leading Rubén Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso, and Bill Paxton on the hunt for a Predator. It’s just that the detective-procedural aspects of the film lack the fun and craziness of its many action sequences. The Thomases try to make it interesting by adding characters to get into Harrigan’s way. Silver regular Robert Davi shows up as a hateful police captain prone to fits of rage. He brings the Feds (led by an intense Gary Busey and a slightly unhinged Adam Baldwin) in on Harrigan’s investigation, forbidding him from continuing pursuit of the odd flayings that keep happening to gangsters in his precinct. Needless to say, Harrigan ignores that directive and continuously runs afoul of his superiors. Oh, Morton Downey, Jr., also shows up as a tabloid reporter doing a nonstop exposé on the violent streets of Los Angeles.
The film has a number of things going for it beyond craziness—a great ensemble, interesting (if dated) special effects, and a demented rendering of a future that’s already passed. It’s much grimmer and wilder than the reality turned out to be, but the film ably predicted the rise (and pathetic legitimizing) of tabloid journalism, the decay of the American city, and the ineffectiveness of underfunded urban police departments. It’s not exactly The Wire, but these problems that seemed small in 1990 have had quite a dramatic impact on the country. The fact that Predator 2 got it mostly right (even if it went way over-the-top with its ideas) helps keep its past-future-imperfect from seeming too dated.
Another big strength is the apparent verisimilitude. The film really did shoot in gang-controlled slums of Los Angeles, contending with gangsters pelting the cast and crew with debris and ruining takes by shouting obscenities. The squalor of the environs feels authentic, as does the Do the Right Thing-esque abuse of a Los Angeles heatwave to automatically make the proceedings sweatier and more intense. It’s a cheap device—especially after Do the Right Thing used it so masterfully—but it works.
My admiration for filmmakers who can vividly create a new world on the silver screen knows no bounds. Even though the procedural aspects of Predator 2 dulled what could have usurped Total Recall‘s title as the craziest big-budget action movie ever made, it’s a solidly constructed, wantonly violent film that betters its predecessor in every conceivable way. That doesn’t necessarily make it a masterpiece, but if you like your action movies with a heaping helping of goofiness, you’ll dig Predator 2.