Before DVDs, Blu-rays, videos-on-demand, and streaming services, the easiest way to watch a movie over and over again was to get it on a VHS tape. For this, there were two options; the first was to buy the movie from a place in the local mall (like Suncoast Video because Best Buy Amazon did not exist yet) or record it onto a blank VHS tape when it played on HBO or another cable channel. The VHS tapes could hold up to 6 hours of content, which allowed for a triple feature of action movies or comedies since those tend to clock in under two hours each. As I was starting high school in the early 1990s, a weekend pastime was watching my cobbled-together collection of VHS movies while falling asleep on the floor of our den. My adult self laments the terrible sleep-hygiene behaviors that I had during this time in my life!
(And really, I slept on the floor falling asleep to DVDs some nights well into graduate school years. The last gasp of this behavior was watching and listening to commentaries for A Knight’s Tale and Fellowship of the Ring. Good times!)
The triple feature VHS that got the most rotation during those years was the lineup of Predator, Action Jackson, and Blind Fury. I would throw this tape into the VCR and doze off as it played. As a result, it is safe to claim that I have seen the first 20-30 minutes of Predator at least 100 times in my life. The other movies on the tape were also favorites. Action Jackson was an effort by Carl Weathers to become an action star after his run as Apollo Creed in the Rocky films; it features Sharon Stone in one of her first performances, has Craig T. Nelson doing some heinously evil things, and climaxes with the hero driving a sports car through a house during a cocktail party and up a flight of stairs. It was fast and furious before that franchise existed! I also enjoyed that it featured “bad guy” actors that appeared in films like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, not to mention Mac and Billy from Predator. Meanwhile, Blind Fury was a Rutger Hauer vehicle with the featured him as a wounded soldier that is blinded in Vietnam during combat, trained by a small village to acquire fighting skills with a sword (even though he’s blind), and then returns home years later to help the son of John Locke from Lost. He’s basically Daredevil!
Movies like Action Jackson and Blind Fury are now cranked out by the likes of Jason Statham and other action stars. But I feel like action movies these days are missing what they had back then, and it’s why Deadpool was so successful. Deadpool – now that I think of it – reminds me of those late 80s/early 90s action flicks that had a simple premise, relied on humor, and did not take themselves seriously. If you have never seen Action Jackson or Blind Fury, find them and give them a view. They’re bad in all the good ways.
Getting back to Predator, watching it this week gave me the same thought as watching Jaws last year in the theater. This movie is outrageously flawless and well-executed. There isn’t a wasted moment. Every shot and line of dialogue accomplishes multiple things in terms of moving the plot and developing characters. And it does not rely on huge, 15-minute set-piece battles like the endless stream of superhero flicks (which I also enjoy); the majority of Predator is sneaking around in the jungle and planning ambushes.
It’s so good!
Below, I highlight three aspects of Predator that can apply to running roleplaying games in terms of character development, pacing, and conflict resolution.
Character Development – Everything Serves a Purpose
Predator opens with a shot of a star field; a spaceship zooms past camera and a smaller probe or craft launches from that ship and heads toward Earth. The message is that something from another world has arrived. After this quick shot of space, the booming score from Alan Silvestri rattles the seats as helicopters bring our heroes to the forefront. The choppers land on the beach and the cast piles out. Each cast member has a distinct look and appearance; the attire of each character gives clues about the type of person they are with the last person in the chopper being Arnold Schwarzenegger – perhaps at the absolute apex of his physical prowess as an action star in this film.
By the theatrical release of Predator in 1987, Arnold had three films as Conan in addition to Terminator and Commando (already an absurd run), and would follow Predator with films like Running Man, Total Recall, and Terminator 2 plus his comedy turn in Twins and Kindergarten Cop. The nine-year run from 1982 (Conan the Barbarian) to 1991 (Terminator 2: Judgement Day) is <expletive deleted> staggering!
It’s still unclear to me why the battle-hardened soldiers needed a jeep escort to traverse about 50 yards of beach to reach an office, but they nonetheless are greeted by a military official and Carl Weathers, dressed in business attire with a shirt and tie. The dialogue in the following few minutes makes it clear that Carl Weathers (Dillon) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Dutch) are long-time friends and somewhat rivals. It all starts with them grasping hands, resulting in a mid-air arm wrestling contest complete with a close-up shot of their flexed arms.
This muscle porn-tastic close-up produced the second biggest laugh from the crowd in the theater this week (with “Get to da choppa!” being the obvious winner. Dutch and Dillon discuss past jobs and several points are quickly established:
- Dutch – and his team – are the best
- Dutch does not see himself as a mercenary, but as a man of honor; he is not bloodthirsty
- Dillon is manipulative and has his own agenda
If I recall directly, the beginning of Commando revolves around someone trying to get Arnold out of retirement because he’s the best, and he declines. He doesn’t go on an epic killing rampage until a wannabe Freddie Mercury kidnaps Samantha from Who’s The Boss. As in Commando, Arnold plays Dutch as a thoughtful, reluctant hero. Predator establishes the characteristics of Dutch and Dillon in a remarkable amount of time. Between their posture, attire, and attitude, the audience knows where both men stand before Dutch’s team is loaded into the helicopters and head toward the drop zone.
The next three minutes in Predator might be my favorite of the entire film. As “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard blares from a radio, we get to meet everyone on Dutch’s team and learn more about the mission Dillon is attempting to complete.
We learn that Dillon has misled Dutch even more about the parameters of the mission, and get nice character-building moments from Poncho, Hawkins, Billy, Blain, and Mac. Billy and Mac do not utter any words here though we still learn about them just through their behaviors; they are the soulful members of the crew. Meanwhile, Blain – played by Jesse “The Body” Ventura – introduces his bombastic character by insulting the rest of his team and trying to antagonize Dillon. Hawkins is clearly the “brain” as he wears glasses and is reading; plus he is the clown of the group as he tells a crude joke to Billy, which Billy promptly ignores. Poncho appears to be a utility member of the team that adds to the overall chemistry, as he openly communicates with various members, gets Hawkins to look up from his paper, and is the only one to get a reaction out of Billy.
Dillon waxes nostalgic about a piece of military paraphilia while the other team members scoff at him. It reinforces the message that Dillon is unlike the rest of the team; while he sees military action and combat as glory, Dutch and the rest view it as a job that needs to be completed in certain circumstances. This culminates with the following exchange as they are about to jump from the helicopter:
Dillon: I never knew how much I missed this, Dutch.
Dutch: You never were that smart.
As an audience member, it feels like you are riding over the jungle with the characters. The helicopter ride is filmed in an intimate, up-close manner. The camera is tight and pans around to get various reaction shots. By the time the team reaches the floor of the jungle, each team member has been introduced, and the stark contrast between Dutch and Dillon has been hammered home.
Pacing – Stealth, Patience & Carnage
The next 10 minutes or so of the film feature various angles of the team exploring the jungle and closing in on the location of the hostages they are trying to rescue. Along the way, they discover the downed helicopter and a dead body, which has been skinned. It is clear that Billy is the tracker of the group, and even he – a seasoned warrior – is shocked when he discovers the skinned body; he has to compose himself to avoid vomiting. He’s a member of the best combat team on the planet and he responds to this carnage in an emotional way. It’s a small moment, but powerful. Dutch’s team members may be the best, but they are human. They are emotional and vulnerable; and it is such a contrast to the endless parade of superhero and action franchises that have followed in recent decades.
Dutch’s team is now fueled by sense of righteous purpose to avenge those that were butchered. They think it is the same people that kidnapped the hostages; they do not yet realize it is a third party from another planet. The audience is introduced to the Predator through a first-person perspective shot from the Predator’s point of view, which is colored by heat vision. Much like Jaws, the heroes do not see the villain until much later in the movie, but the audience sees through the villain’s eyes throughout the film. The audience has knowledge the heroes lack, and that builds additional suspense.
By the time Dutch’s team reaches the camp and discovers the hostages’ fate, the movie has been running for approximately 15-20 minutes, and nary a gun has been fired. The closest thing to a fight scene was the aforementioned bulging-muscle, arm-wrestling contest in the beginning of the film. How many action movies these days have this kind of patience and trust of the audience? When Dutch finally leads an attack against the outpost, the action is fierce. Dutch improvises to send a bomb into the middle of the camp to set events in motion; it shows that Dutch is a hero that uses his brain in addition to his biceps.
Each member of Dutch’s team gets their moment to shine in this skirmish; some with dialogue and other with their weapon of choice. Blain is the Barbarian of the group and uses a minigun to lay waste to enemies; he also has one of the best lines of the film, “I ain’t got time to bleed.” Poncho, who favors the grenade launcher, calmly responds, “Do you have time to duck?” The enemies in this sequence seem to pose little threat to Dutch’s team as numerous faceless bad guys are killed in spectacular fashion. Dutch has two “action hero” lines; the first is after throwing a large knife to stick an enemy to a post, he says with a smirk, “Stick around.” The second is after kicking open a door to fire on unsuspecting bad guys (didn’t they hear the commotion outside?) and saying, “Knock, knock.”
Enemies fall from bullets, throwing knives, and are launched over, under and around the camera from various explosions. The camera is once again right in the middle of the action; like the helicopter scene earlier in the film. The audience is immersed in the battle and some things are left out of view. The battle is quickly won and Dillon openly remarks that it was a successful mission as he rifles through paperwork. Dutch confronts Dillon about being lied to and their conflict continues to escalate. A lone woman survived the battle and she is taken into custody by Dillon as Dutch’s team plans to get back to a safe landing zone so they can get back to the base. This is the biggest action set piece in the movie, and it takes place during the first third of the film’s running time.
The audience once again sees through the Predator’s eyes as it surveys the aftermath of the battle. The only member of Dutch’s team that senses the Predator’s presence is Billy, who is clearly the Ranger/Druid/Shaman of the group. As Dutch’s team departs, the Predator follows and starts to pick off the members of Dutch’s team one at a time. The first is Hawkins, who earlier distinguishes himself as the Bard of the group by getting Billy to laugh uproariously with a second crude joke. The female hostage, Anna, taken by Dillon tries to escape and is caught by Hawkins, who is quickly dispatched by the Predator. The audience does not see the kill, but sees the resulting blood splatter across Anna’s face. Dutch’s and his team eventually find her covered in blood and attempt to find Hawkins’ body. The next to go is Blain, who is snipped by an otherworldly weapon. Mac unloads Blain’s minigun into the jungle and the rest of the team follow suit with their weapons. While wounding the Predator, the team did not kill it. The audience is shown the graphic wound through Blain’s chest, and at this point Dutch decides to make a stand against the Predator.
Conflict Resolution – Hide & Seek & No Happy Endings
The film slows down to allow the members of Dutch’s team to display grief for their fallen comrades; Mac takes the loss of Blain the hardest and his sorrow is punctuated by military trumpets playing while he eulogizes his friend. After Blain’s body is stolen, Dutch realizes that the Predator is using the trees for movement. The team cooperates to construct some “boy scout crap” traps in the jungle; Dutch’s plan succeeds in that the Predator is trapped in the net before shooting its way out. Mac goes after the Predator, and Dillon – who up until this point has demonstrated time and time again that he’s a man without a moral code or sense of honor – follows Mac instead of fleeing. Dillon tries to atone for his actions, and ultimately fails. Mac and Dillon try to outflank the Predator and Mac is sniped; the audience is treated to a gruesome headshot while Dillon has his arm amputated and is then gutted. The Predator is only shown in glimpses and mostly in its camouflaged state.
Dutch takes Anna and an injured Poncho to reach the safety of the incoming helicopter. Billy decides not to run; he disrobes, takes out a massive knife, cuts himself across the chest, and stands to confront the Predator. The audience does not see Billy die, though his death scream is heard throughout the jungle. Poncho receives a headshot from the Predator while in the arms of Dutch and the Anna runs while Dutch tries to hold off the Predator. The combination of action and horror events play out, setting up the primary confrontation – Dutch versus the Predator.
And here the movie once again slows down, not to mention that there are only a few lines of dialogue in the final 10-15 minutes of the film. Dutch figures out that the Predator cannot see his body him because of the mud covering his body, so he spend the next 5-10 minutes plotting out how to destroy a foe that is beyond anything he has ever faced before. He builds more traps and a bow with explosive arrows out of limited resources. While Dutch is preparing, the audience gets its first full look at the Predator, and discovers that the creature is indeed collecting hunting trophies. The villain does not detail a grand plan; it communicates only through its parkouring actions as the only words the villain ever speaks are the phrases it has recorded while watching Dutch’s team at work.
Dutch’s traps prove unsuccessful and after the mud is washed from his body, the audience is finally given the final one-on-one battle it’s been waiting for. The Predator takes off the mask and Dutch responds that the creature is “one ugly mother**ker.” Dutch has gained the Predator’s respect as a combatant, though the ensuing fight is over quickly as Dutch gets pummeled by the Predator, who is in every way a superior physical specimen. When it appears that Dutch has outsmarted the Predator, the Predator realizes it is being lured into a trap and changes course to deliver the killing blow. Dutch improvises to reverse the trap and the Predator is crushed by a falling log.
Log falls. Predator dies.
As Dutch comes in to end the Predator once and for all, he pauses. He also has respect for this creature even though it massacred his friends; as a warrior, he sees an equal, and understands that the wounds are already deadly. Dutch does not kill the Predator out of anger or hatred. In fact, he doesn’t kill the Predator at all. The Predator attempts to get the last laugh as he triggers a bomb; Dutch realizes this just in time and runs away as it detonates. The screen fades as a massive explosion fires, and we join Anna on the helicopter.
Another thing I appreciate about the movie is that it does not try to force a romance between Anna and Dutch; it seems like that would happen in any action movie these days. There are no romantic overtunes to their interactions and she does not greet him with a kiss. The helicopter simply rescues Dutch, and the closing scene has him looking wounded, weary and traumatized; it is the look of a broken man. It is far from a triumphant hero that just saved the day and got the girl.
By almost any metric, the Predator wins the central conflict in the movie. The Predator hunts down Dutch’s team, kills them one-by-one, brutally beats the hell out of Dutch, and is not killed by Dutch. Meanwhile, Dutch lost every member of his team and – while defeating the Predator (on a bit of a technicality) – will suffer physical and emotional wounds from the conflict for the rest of his life. How many action movies would allow this set of outcomes?
It’s so good!
Using Predator to Influence Games
Predator has many wonderful lessons for running roleplaying games. The first is to ensure that each non-playable character in the game has a unique something that makes him or her noteworthy and interesting. It could be their personality (Hawkin’s jokes), trinket (Billy’s necklace), weapon (Blain’s minigun), or behavior (Dutch’s moral code). It would have been easy for all of the actors to be overshadowed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in this film, but the casting, directing, and acting ensured that each member of the cast stood out in some way to the audience. Blain is larger than life, so his death hurts us that much more. Billy is a soulful warrior, and his stand (albeit offscreen) against the Predator is that much more powerful. Be sure to give each NPC in the campaign something that helps them stand out.
Second, the pacing of combat in Predator is interesting. There is truly only one huge action set piece, and that is when Dutch’s team rolls through the camp like a hot knife through butter. The rest of the movie has brief spurts of action followed by dialogue and exploration. It would be interesting to run a game with similar pacing, especially against a solitary foe. Predator demonstrates how an audience can be entertained with something other than more bodies, more explosions, and more punches.
Third, consider how to create epic villains such as the Predator in the campaign world. A fun element I look forward to in the Curse of Strahd adventure is having the primary villain interact with the players throughout the campaign. Instead of building up to a one-time confrontation with the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG), have the primary villain cross paths with the players multiple times. Build up the tension and intrigue, and that final confrontation will be that much more memorable.
Last, allow the villain to win – or mostly win. The Predator defeats all but one of the heroes in the story, and likely scarred the primary hero for the rest of his life. Consider how the BBEG can drastically change the world in his or her favor even if the heroes ultimately win. Remember, failure can be interesting!
And go watch Predator. It’s still an amazing ride!