Sunday, July 31, 2016

At Flashbak: Mattel's Mad Scientist Toys (1987)



This week at Flashbak, I remembered an unusual toy line from the 1980s: Mattel’s “Mad Scientist” items.




“In 1987, Mattel introduced the world to a great, though messy toy line that encouraged children to take up science, or at least mad science. 

First in the line was my favorite of the line: The Mad Scientist Dissect-an-Alien Kit.  Here, burgeoning men and women of (mad) science would "yank out alien organs dripping in glowing ALIEN BLOOD!"  

The Mad Scientist Dissect-An-Alien Kit box also notes that inside the alien body there are "12 body organs" and "only one way they'll fit together."

So "it's the slimiest puzzle on Earth."

The bug-eyed scientist featured on the box also opines "Yeech! What an oozy operation! Can you make all the organs fit inside the alien?" 

The Mad Scientist Dissect-an-Alien Kit includes: "alien, 12 alien organs, Glow-in-the-dark Alien Blood compound, plastic scalpel, Operating Mat, Alien body bag, and a Journal of Mad Experiments with Instructions."

The interesting thing about the Operating Mat is that the colorful background names all twelve of the alien's unusual organs.  

There’s the "veinausea," "heartipus," "liverot," "spleenius," "mad bladder," "stumuckus," "blooblob," "fleshonius," "branium," "gutball" and "lungross." 

The toy also comes replete with a short comic-book describing the scientist's discovery of the alien creature…”


Please continue reading at Flashbak.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Arnold Schwarzenegger Day: True Lies (1994)


An elaborate and expensively-mounted remake of the French farce, La Totale! (1991), James Cameron's blockbuster True Lies reveals once more the director's absolute panache in staging and directing spectacular action sequences. 

Here, a climactic sequence involving a Harrier jet, a secret agent, a teenage girl, and a Middle-Eastern terrorist is so perfectly played, so vertiginous, that you may find yourself crawling out of your skin for the duration of its running time.   I've seen the scene at least three times but watching it last week, I again felt myself growing anxious in my seat...subconsciously wishing to seek safer ground.



Much of this beautifully-shot action film is similarly rousing, particularly the motorcycle vs. horse chase sequence that ends atop a Marriott Hotel roof, and a "war" scene set on the long, narrow bridges connecting Florida Keys.  Cameron knows how to expertly layer on unconventional elements in traditional shoot-outs or pursuits -- such as horses, bathroom urinals, elevators, etc. -- and makes the scenes play as both intense and funny.

Visually then, True Lies is unimpeachable. In fact, the imagery remains astounding some seventeen years later, an example of true cinematic "shock and awe."   More than anything, the film makes one wish that James Cameron would helm a James Bond film one of these days.  This is doubly so, actually, because True Lies knowingly opens with an homage to Goldfinger (1962).  There, in the pre-title sequence, Sean Connery rose from the water in a wetsuit.  When he took it off, 007 was wearing a pristine dinner jacket.  Schwarzenegger pulls the same stunt here after a dive through icy water, and it's a nice way of paying tribute to an action-hero legend and predecessor.

Yet beyond the astounding visual effects and breathtaking action, True Lies is a weird, quirky film with some very dramatic ups and downs. 

For instance, the 1994 film spends an inordinate amount of time on humorous scenes that actually play as mean-spirited, and the screenplay doesn't really delve into the film's main characters in very meaningful or deep fashion.   


Also some sequences -- while visually powerful -- have no contextual follow-up.  A nuclear bomb is detonated in the Florida Keys, and it hardly seems to move the nation -- or the main characters -- at all.  The horrifying moment almost seems to play as a (misplaced) romantic background during a passionate kiss.  

These concerns established, True Lies does feel very contemporary in the sense that it accurately forecasts the twenty-first century ascent of Middle-Eastern terrorism against the United States.   And it certainly predicts a powerful, unaccountable bureaucracy in the U.S. Government as the response to such terrorist attacks.  Here, that organization is "Omega Sector," the "last line of defense."   Leading Omega Sector is none other than Charlton Heston as "Spencer Trilby," and once more, his right-wing reputation carries a brand of symbolic power and weight.

Indeed, True Lies works primarily as a kind of time capsule of 1994's cultural concerns, echoing the conservative tide that swept Newt Gingrich into power as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Therefore, the next time a newspaper columnist or reviewer informs you how unduly liberal and seemingly slanted left filmmaker James Cameron is (see: Avatar), just bring up True Lies as counter-evidence. 

Seriously, it's funny how so many right-wingers wanted to beat-up and tar Cameron over Avatar even though he had already directed a huge, successful film that looks like it came straight from GOP talking points both in terms of foreign policy approach and culture warrior concerns.

"I Married Rambo..."


"Nuclear terrorists take on the nuclear family and live just long enough to rue the day in "True Lies," wrote Rita Kempley in The Washington Post. Her rhetorical flourish is an excellent way of introducing the film's storyline.

Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a secret agent working for Omega Sector, but he leads a double life. His bored but beautiful wife, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) believes Harry is a mild-mannered computer salesman, when in fact Harry is responsible for having saved the world on more than one occasion...with some much-needed help from his acerbic partner, Gib (Tom Arnold).

Because of his secret life, Harry has little time to spend at home with his family, and even forgets his daughter Dana's (Eliza Dushku’s) exact age. But Harry’s absence from home carries a heavy price. When Helen becomes entangled with a con man named Simon (Bill Paxton) pretending to be a secret agent, her boredom and feelings of emptiness are revealed to Harry.

Seeking to provide his wife a little taste of the adventure she seeks, Harry arranges to send Helen on a manufactured "mission."  Unfortunately, a nuclear terrorist named Aziz (Art Malik) and known as the "Sand Spider" abducts Helen and Harry and transports them to the Florida Keys, where the terrorist plots to detonate a nuclear weapon.  He wants Harry to confirm for the world, and on videotape, that he boasts the capacity to use the weapons of mass destruction.


Now aware of her husband’s real vocation, Helen teams up with Harry to stop the terrorists before they can detonate several other nukes in the United States.

Unfortunately, Aziz escapes and captures Dana.

Now -- atop a skyscraper in downtime Miami -- the terrorist threatens to destroy the metropolis unless his demands for American withdrawal from the Middle East are met. 

After rescuing Helen, Harry races to Miami flying a Harrier jet...


"You aren't her parents anymore. Her parents are Axl Rose and Madonna.  You can't compete with that kind of bombardment."


In terms of context, True Lies largely reflects the political and national zeitgeist of 1994.  First and foremost, this was the year of the reactionary white, male voter. 

So what was the white man angry about back then? 

Many things, actually.  There was widespread displeasure with the Democratic-led Congress, particularly over corruption and waste, as evidenced by the Dan Rostenkowski House of Representatives post office scandal. 

Similarly, First Lady Hilary Rodham Clinton attempted to reform America's health care system with a plan for increased government involvement.  She met with fierce resistance, and the plan failed. 

More generally-speaking, many on America's right had grown increasingly angry about an increasingly toxic popular culture, and about what they viewed as "political correctness" and the "PC police" in the national discourse. 

Much of this anger and hostility was ginned up by a relatively new name in talk radio and on the national landscape -- Rush Limbaugh -- but it was also in evidence as early as 1992, when Pat Buchanan spoke at the Republic Convention about a newly engaged "culture war" (one to replace the ended Cold War.)  The year 1994 culminated with the historic overturning of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the dawn of Speaker Newt Gingrich and his "Contract with America." 

The reactionary white voter was heard.   After the staggering loss of both Houses of Congress, President Clinton modulated his approach to governing.  He announced his relevancy, declared the end of Big Government, and then proved once more the adage that only Nixon could go to China by reforming Welfare.


In some very obvious and very subtle ways, True Lies mirrors the conservative mind-set of the mid-1990s. 

In broad terms, the film is about a family man, Harry, re-asserting his dominant role as head of the nuclear family. 

To re-establish this role, he must eliminate sleazy competitors for his wife's affection such as Simon, re-capture the affection of his estranged daughter following her indoctrination by pop cultural influences (named above as "Madonna and Axl Rose...") and finally, outwit a "nuclear" competitor who has kidnapped his child.  It's not an easy assignment, but Harry proves up to it...especially with the full weight and might of U.S. secret ops behind him. 

In clever fashion, Cameron approaches "nuclear family life" in True Lies as a concern as grave and serious as nuclear terrorism.  When the smooth, suave Harry returns home from a mission at Lake Chapeau, Switzerland, for instance, Cameron opens the scene with a high-angle view of Tasker and Gib huddled in the car. 

The camera peers down through the open sun roof of Gib's ride, and the film grammar interpretation of this shot selection suggests Harry's doom and entrapment.  He looks small, and in jeopardy as he prepares to return home, to "normal life."  We get both a high angle shot and a box or frame (the sun roof window) surrounding the character.  It's a double-doozy, so-to-speak. 

Later in the film, the Tasker family house is shot from a menacing low angle during a heavy thunderstorm, no less  It looks like an imposing haunted house in a horror movie.  The choice of shot informs the audience that there's trouble brewing here, both in terms of the wife and the daughter.  It's trouble that Harry will need to correct.  And boy will he correct it!

Finally, I don't know if I've ever seen a better metaphor for the delicate dance between career and family than the nail-biting finale of this film, which finds Harry flying a Harrier over downtown Miami.  His daughter clings precariously to the nose cone of the plane, crying for help.  Meanwhile, on the tail fin of the plane, Aziz is on the attack, armed with a machine gun. 

With absolute precision Harry must "balance" both situations, or risk total disaster.   If he tips one way, his family is destroyed.  If he tips the other way, Aziz gets the jump on him.  This scene is beautifully vetted both for what it represents (the delicate dance of maintaining home life and career), and in the physical, cliffhanging details.  It's also a great, pulse-pounding finale to the film.


By re-engaging with both Helen and Dana, Harry does rescue his family both metaphorically and literally, and that's the movies thematic through-line, a comparison between domestic dangers and foreign ones.   

The family that fights terrorists together, stays together, or something like that.

Where this approach becomes a little dicey, I would submit, is in some of the specifics of Harry's methodology.  He approaches his family problems with the same take-no-prisoners attitude as he confronts foreign terrorists.  On one hand, this approach can be funny.  On the other hand, Harry's actions are wildly inappropriate and actually illegal, and Harry is never called on the carpet or made to account for his behavior.  Instead, he's rewarded for bending the rules to suit his personal cause.

For instance, without a second thought, Harry engages national security apparatus to trail, apprehend, hold and interrogate Helen and Simon.   Forecasting Bush Administration policies, he uses wiretaps -- without warrants -- to do so.

Then -- also forecasting some of the darker imagery of the 2000s, namely in association with Abu Ghraib -- Harry dangerously bullies Simon, his competitor for Helen's affections, throwing him under a black, eyeless hood and threatening to drop him from a precipice overlooking a dam.

But hey, what's a little abuse of power between friends and family?  

Actually, this line of "humor" regarding Harry's manipulation of U.S. government funds and resources doesn't get under my skin nearly so much as some of the other material that's associated with it.  And that's because -- essentially -- it works with the film's central joke: family life vs. secret agent life.  A bit of exaggeration is certainly acceptable here in the name of humor.  And again, the idea is to throw political incorrectness to the wind.  Nothing wrong with that.


What instead feels a little disturbing about True Lies is the mean-spirited or at least questionable nature of several key moments and sequences. 

For example, Gib (Arnold) continually refers to women characters in the film as bitches.   Feeling magnanimous,  I would give the movie the use of that term three or four times.  But the word "bitch" just keeps coming up, and one starts to realize after the umpteenth repetition that it's not just for humor...it's some kind of creepy pathology.  

And then Gib actually says "Women: can't live with 'em' can't kill 'em."  Funny?  Well, is it funny to say "Men, can't live with 'em, can't kill 'em?"   I report, you decide.

It's a little bit like watching a comedian who is funny at first, but then keeps repeating the same borderline offensive material until it's not so funny anymore.  You realize you're watching someone with a problem -- nay an obsession -- and not someone who is very funny.

On one hand, the frequent use of the word "bitch" may be Tom Arnold's method of attaining some kind of important personal catharsis or closure after his marriage to Roseanne Barr.  I certainly wouldn't deny him his right to express those feelings of hostility.  But on the other hand, in a movie in which a family man must thoroughly wrestle and wrangle the women in his life (namely his wife and daughter), the last image you want presented is one of rampant misogyny. 

In other words, I don't think the near-constant refrain of "bitch" is an example of misogyny on the part of Cameron or other filmmakers, but I do think that -- when coupled with the incredibly traditional plot line of a man wrangling his women -- it adds to the sneaking suspicion that this movie does not like women very much.  Which is unfortunate, given Cameron's excellent history with strong female characters.

Perhaps the most memorable scene in True Lies involves Helen's strip-tease in a hotel room.  Jamie Lee Curtis looks absolutely phenomenal here, and the scene is certainly amusing on some level.  At the very least, Ms. Curtis proves she is quite adept with physical comedy.  But the scene is also extremely controversial, and many critics have made note of the unsavory quality beneath it.

Again, when coupled with the sort of male-fantasy aspects of the film and the all-too-casual utterances of the word "bitch," the scene also takes on another shade of, well...ickiness. 

It's truly cruel to put Helen into the position of fearing she will have to act as a prostitute for a john, even if Harry's motive is pure; so that she "feels" she has done something adventurous with her life. 

Yes, the moment is perhaps funny for us, because we -- like Harry -- realize that Helen is in no danger.  But she is left to worry about exploitation, rape and even death.  At the very least, Harry's behavior is un-chivalrous.  It's as though he's paying her back for making him worry she was having an affair (which she wasn't...).  I'm sure someone will say I lack a sense of humor for quibbling with this scene, but that's not it.  Maybe I just possess a surfeit of empathy.

How would Harry feel, if he were made to perform sexually like this -- not knowing how far it would go -- for another man, for instance?  Then it wouldn't be quite so funny, would it?

Again, there's this kind of cloying adolescent male fantasy aspect to True Lies.  Harry never discusses with Helen, in any more than cursory terms, his lifetime of lies.  He never has to really deal meaningfully with the fact that he kidnapped, interrogated and manipulated her.  Because there is a crisis -- and because he's a hero -- he gets off pretty much scot free.  In fact, Helen likes the new Harry so much, she even ends up joining him as a secret agent.    Well, if you can't beat 'em...

One might be tempted to argue that Harry couldn't tell Helen the truth because of national security.  But just look at how easily Harry manipulates the tools of national security when he wishes to; when he believes he has been wronged.  Again, study this objectively.  When Helen is unhappy, she seeks adventure, but doesn't betray her principles.  She doesn't cheat on Harry.  When Harry is unhappy, he brings down the full force of the American government to bludgeon his wife!   Seem even-handed and principled to you?

Another mean-streak is evident in the treatment of the essentially comedic Simon character played by Bill Paxton.  He's a cad and a jerk and an exploiter of women, and deserves a comeuppance.  But again,  to be pushed to the edge of a precipice overlooking a huge fall?  To be made to wet his pants...twice? 

First of all, the idea of a frightened man peeing himself simply isn't so funny that it requires an encore in the film's conclusion, and secondly the set-up for the second gag is so ham-handed you want to wince. 

Simon just happens to be on location during a mission involving Helen and Harry, giving Helen the opportunity to make him piss his tuxedo? 

It's dumb, contrived, and again, more pathetic than funny.  Simon has suffered amply already, and it's just sadistic and pandering to bring him back to repeat the lame pants-wetting gag.  Again, I have to laugh when people complain about the Billy Zane character being two-dimensional in Titanic.  They object to that character, but not Simon in True Lies?  Really?

True Lies has also been accused of being anti-Arab, but I don't believe that's a fair attack on the film. One of Harry's associates, Faisil (Grant Hevlov) is also of Middle Eastern ethnicity, and he proves a valuable hero in the film.  On the contrary -- and I don't mean to rile anybody with this statement -- True Lies actually very clearly gets at some of the motivation behind Islamic radicalism against America. And that motivation is, simply, blowback over American policies regarding the Gulf States.  That was Bin Laden's reason for declaring war on America in 1998, and the self-same reason is spoken -- in detail -- by Aziz in this film.  True Lies is cannily accurate on this front, as much as we would prefer it were not.

In terms of the career of Cameron, we get many familiar ingredients in True Lies.  Helen is the fish-out-of-water character who is forced to take on a new role (that of covert agent).  She is also, in the tradition of Ripley or Sarah Connor, a character who -- after some trepidation -- proves herself up to the challenge of defeating a grave threat. Though the scene with Helen dropping an uzi and it falling down the stairs -- all while blasting terrorists -- is cringe-worthy and patronizing,  her confrontation with Juno (Tia Carrere) is pretty impressive.  Like every James Cameron film except Titanic, True Lies also features a nuclear weapon in some capacity.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Day: Last Action Hero (1993)


Last Action Hero -- directed by John McTiernan and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger -- was supposed to be the “big ticket” movie of the summer of 1993, but fate had other plans.

That title eventually went to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) instead, and today Last Action Hero is widely remembered as a misfire; a bomb. The film grossed little more than fifty million dollars at the American box office, and earned many negative reviews. I saw the film in the theater in 1993 (long-time Arnie fan, here…) and felt it was disappointing, if not downright awful.

But the purpose of this blog is (at least sometimes…) to re-examine those works of art that have been dismissed, overlooked, or forgotten.

So I wondered: is Last Action Hero worth a second look in 2015?  Has it aged well?


Or, conversely, have I changed as a viewer since 1993, and come to better see what the film was attempting to achieve?

First, let’s focus on the negative aspects of the film and get that out of the way.

More than twenty years later, one can detect the reasons why Last Action Hero so often fails.  At two-hours and eleven minutes in duration, it is simply too long for a film featuring, essentially, a lark as a premise: a real life boy ending up the sidekick of a movie world action hero. 

There’s just too much baggage -- to much detritus -- weighing down those light bones. 

This movie should be -- like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) -- no more than 105 minutes in running time. 

Why?

Any longer than that, and one is bound to start asking questions about the inconsistencies in the premise, and the universe the film creates.

Any longer than that, and the jokes start to repeat, and the performances begin to flat-line from the repetition.  Watching the film becomes a tiresome process by the third act because Last Action Hero doesn’t always seem to know where it is headed.

Secondly, the pace and tone of these two hours and eleven minutes might best be described as leaden. There are plenty of action sequences, certainly, but the plot moves at a snail’s place, and never settles on a consistent tone.

To wit: sometimes the film is a weird and wacky catch-all or satire; an Airplane (1980) type film. But then there are also those moments when viewers are supposed to feel invested in the details of the story, and in following the plot logically from point A to point B. The two approaches collide and the result is an unsatisfying mishmash.  If we are constantly being told that events don’t matter, or that this is all “just a movie,” it becomes ever-more difficult to invest in the plot details.

These facts established, Last Action Hero possesses many good ideas, and even a compelling thematic through-line that I hope to enumerate. That through-line ties into the jokes about Shakespeare’s Hamlet and a movie version of the play starring Schwarzenegger (perhaps the best scene in the film…).  It also ties into the characters of Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) and Jack Slater.  All three heroes contend with the same “to be or not to be” existential dilemma.

In short, Last Action Hero is actually about Danny learning what it means to really live life, and to be the hero of his own lie.  First, he learns that lesson in a world with the training wheels on (the movie world) and then he learns it in the real world, where Jack Slater -- his role model and surrogate father -- must learn it beside him. 

And what does Danny learn in the real world?  That unlike the movie world, real world virtues include not expert gunplay, but compassion, loyalty, and love.

It is rewarding and admirable that Last Action Hero tells this story, but after twenty years, it is obvious that the film doesn’t tell it with anything approaching consistency or coherence. 

So what audiences end up with is a sweet, likable film that, despite those qualities, is also often dull and tiresome. 

It makes me sad too.  I want to like this movie more than I do.


“Here, in this world, the bad guys can win.”

Young Danny Madigan (O’Brien) avoids his real life problems (including an apartment in a bad neighborhood and the death of his father) by cutting school and hanging out at the movies with a kindly old projectionist, Nick (Robert Prosky).

His favorite movies are those involving a larger-than-life action hero named Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger) and his exploits as an L.A. cop.

With Slater IV due in theaters, Nick invites Danny to an advance screening of the sequel late one night. He also gives Danny a golden ticket given to him years earlier by Harry Houdini. 

As Danny discovers, that ticket possesses magic powers, and can open a bridge between the movie universe and the real universe.  Danny is swept across this bridge, and meets his hero, Jack Slater, in a movie-version of Los Angeles.

In the movie world, Jack is tangling with an evil hitman named Benedict (Charles Dance) and his mob boss, Tony Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn). Danny helps Slater defeat the bad guys, and also reckon with the fact that he is actually living inside a movie.

Later Benedict gets ahold of the magic ticket stub, and moves into the real world. There, the villain realizes that bad guys can win, and with the help of the villain of Slater III, The Ripper (Tom Noonan), decides to set off on a reign of terror at the world premiere of Slater IV, where star Arnold Schwarzenegger is schedule to appear…

Now Danny and Jack must stop Benedict and the Ripper, and Jack must come face-to-face with his celebrity alter-ego.


“You can’t die until the grosses go down.”

There’s an amusing moment of allusion in Last Action Hero involving Charles Dance’s character, Benedict.  This assassin has stolen the magical golden ticket, and discovered that it opens the doorway to another dimension; to the real world. 

As Benedict’s hand lightly brushes the portal to that universe, a TV on in the background plays the opening narration and theme to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). This detail is an intriguing point of connection between productions.  Like those visiting The Twilight Zone, Benedict can now travel to another dimension.

Yet, by the same token, The Twilight Zone signifies something else significant: economy of storytelling.

Each episode of the series (except for those airing in the fourth season) are just a half-hour in length. They vet their wild tales, offer a few surprises, and then finish with astonishing rapidity and grace…often before too many questions can be asked. 

Last Action Hero alludes to The Twilight Zone in this scene, but takes a faulty creative approach by comparison.  The film is too long, too big, and too byzantine, and it lingers on details of a whimsical story that, simply don’t stand up to scrutiny.

For instance, if Jack (and all movie heroes) are bullet-proof in the movie world, essentially, then from what source should the movie’s tension arise?  If bad guys literally can’t win in the movie world (as Benedict verbally indicates) then why and how are we supposed to feel anxiety when Jack or Danny is imperiled by them?

This criticism is not meant to indicate that the movie doesn’t have fun with this idea of the movie universe, at least at points.  “You know, tar actually sticks to some people,” Danny tells Slater after he falls into tar pits, unscathed.  His status as indestructible is appropriately funny, but it also eliminates some aspects of immediacy from the story.

Somewhere in Last Action Hero, a really good movie is buried, and it attempts to surface several times. 

For instance, the movie uses Hamlet as a kind of base-line for action heroes and action hero behavior.  A high school teacher describes Denmark’s prince as the first such action hero, actually.  Yet Hamlet is paralyzed and defined by his inability to act, to do something; to defeat his enemies.

Humorously, the McTiernan film proposes an alternative to this hesitating, melancholy prince: a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Chomping a cigar and blowing enemies away with automatic weapons, this Hamlet has no problems acting with terminal force, or intensity.  There is nothing diffident about him at all. 

The “Trailer” for the Schwarzenegger Hamlet is uproariously funny, and strikes the exact right note of absurdity.  But more to the point, it is used, thematically, to let us know that Danny is -- like Hamlet -- unable to act forcefully, which is the very reason he looks up to substitute father-figure Jack Slater.


When a burglar breaks into Danny’s apartment, he gives Danny every opportunity to take his weapon, a knife, and fight him.  But Danny -- like Hamlet -- does nothing. He can’t will himself to act. And while watching Hamlet on TV in school, Danny becomes invested in the action (or lack of action). He urges Olivier’s Hamlet to “stop talking” and “do something.” Clearly, this is something personal for Danny. Although he aspires to be a Jack Slater, we learn that he sees himself as a Hamlet.  He is paralyzed over his father’s death (a death he shares in common with the prince from Denmark), and does not yet know how to act, or how to survive in this dangerous “real” world.

Danny then travels into the movie world, where Slater -- an action hero -- acts without thinking, without hesitation, and without deadly consequence. Slater can’t lose, and apparently can’t feel fear, so he always wins the day.  But the universe itself is stacked in his favor. Danny takes baby steps towards growth and survival in this universe, attempting a game of chicken against a speeding car, and learning to operate a dangerous crane.  In other words, he begins “acting” the role of hero. He emulates Jack, but does so in a safe environment; one where the good guys always win and he is no physical danger.

Then, in the movie’s final act, Danny and Slater pursue Benedict to the real world, a place with absolutely real danger, and where the bad guys can win. In this world, Slater is the child, playing by a set of rules he doesn’t understand, and therefore Danny learns the necessity of pro-active behaviors or action.  He must save his friend, who is badly wounded after a confrontation with Benedict. When Slater is shot, Danny realizes that the qualities he always had inside -- compassion, loyalty, and love -- are the very things that impel him to act decisively; to be a hero. He overcomes his Hamlet dilemma and becomes the hero of his own life.

All of this material fits together in Last Action Hero, and Slater even comments at one point that “the world is what you make of it, Danny.”  This is simply another way of expressing the idea that we can re-shape the world in a way to our liking if only we act, and act intelligently.  That’s the film’s dedicated leitmotif, and Last Action Hero is sweet because it is about a boy who thinks he needs a father figure but then -- through his interactions with that “idol” -- realizes that he can be the person he wants to be, and needs to be, all under his own steam.

Without being disrespectful, I would assert merely that Last Action Hero could tell this story -- and make this point -- more efficiently, and with greater discipline. The celebrity cameos are fun, the knocks-against movies are funny, and the explorations of tropes (like the wrong-headed, screaming police superior) are on target, but in some sense they are all but noise that ultimately takes away from the through-line I mentioned above.

I’m a huge admirer of McTiernan’s work in film, and his serious, grounded, approach to action but he doesn’t boast a very good “light” or “whimsical” touch on this project. This feels like a film tailor made for Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis, and I feel that McTiernan expends too much time and energy on the bells and whistles -- the fights, the chases, and the pyrotechnics -- when what he really needs to focus on, front and center, is the shifting relationship between Danny and Slater, and the way the Hamlet story illuminates Danny’s story.

Tar doesn’t stick to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he was back in 1994 in the triumphant True Lies, but one can see why he was drawn to this script and this project. Somewhere, deep down, Last Action Hero is all about the way young children build-up “heroes” of the silver screen, but fail to take into account the fact that they thrive in a world unlike our own; one of different rules.

Schwarzenegger is terrific as Slater, a man who starts to realize that all his success may not be due to his own skills, but the nature of reality itself. There’s a great scene here in which Slater questions his life, and he reasons that it has gotten so weird lately.  Danny sympathizes and tells him it’s a matter of the rules.  “These are the sequels. They gotta get hard…”

The fickle Gods of film, right?


They give, and they take away. Even Slater’s boy was taken away from him so that he could have a “tragic past” to overcome.

Watching Last Action Hero again twenty-one years later, I knew what to expect, and so didn’t feel the same disappointment that I did in 1993. 

But, oppositely, I feel that this film has so much of value to say, but is lazy and disjointed in the expression of its valid and intriguing messages.  Last Action Hero demanded a light touch -- a director who would fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee -- but instead the film is played with the seriousness of a project like Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988) or Hunt for Red October (1988).

The result?  “No sequel” for action hero Slater.

And honestly, that makes me a bit sad. The character is great, and deserved a better vehicle for his movie debut. At the very least, Last Action Hero’s heart is in the right spot.

It’s just too bad the rest of the movie is all over the place.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Day: The Running Man (1987)


"This is television, that's all it is. It has nothing to do with people, it's to do with ratings! For fifty years, we've told them what to eat, what to drink, what to wear. For Christ's sake, Ben, don't you understand? Americans love television. They wean their kids on it. Listen. They love game shows, they love wrestling, they love sports and violence. So what do we do? We give 'em what they want! We're number one, Ben, that's all that counts, believe me."

-Damon Killian, in The Running Man (1987) 

Based on a 1982 sci-fi novel by Richard Bachman (Stephen King, actually), the motion picture version of The Running Man (1987) arrived in theaters during the Great Year of Arnold Schwarzenegger; the very season that also brought audiences John McTiernan's spectacular Predator. 

Although viewers typically and rightly associate Schwarzenegger with action and s.f. films, The Running Man ably -- and rather surprisingly -- functions best as a pointed satire of American television and politics.  

While the writing and performances in this dystopian film tend towards the razor sharp, the action sequences in the film don't always hold up as well in terms of 21st century expectations. They feel episodic and repetitive.  To be certain, the film is a highly entertaining experience from start to finish, but never, precisely, the adrenalin-inducing thrill ride that some action fans might hope for or expect.

Still, it seems the film's trademark action scenes did inspire a real life competition TV series titled American Gladiators (1989 - 1996), right down to the spandex costumes. Also, one might argue that the episodic nature of the action sequences in the film in some way mirrors the episodic nature of television programming, which adheres strictly to formula, as unalterable as death or taxes.

Bachman/King's literary version of The Running Man remains far more grim, serious and spectacular in approach than the Schwarzenegger film, a fact which makes the possibility of a more source-faithful movie adaptation a possibility, especially in this age of remakes. The novel is set in a totalitarian America in 2025 and involves a man, Ben Richards, "running" on a popular TV program so as to pay for expensive medicine for his ailing daughter. 

The movie version eliminates this important character background and motivation, as well as the novel's incendiary, unforgettable ending; one which transforms Richards from a game show contestant to a bona-fide enemy of the state, martyr and so-called "terrorist." 

The 1987 movie version is less interested in creating real, identifiable characters and building a believable dystopian future world than it is in commenting humorously (if accurately) on aspects of our own  culture.  Not there's anything wrong with that.

Like I wrote above, it's the biting satire of American media and politics that makes The Running Man such a rewarding film to watch over twenty five years after it was released. If anything, the film's observations about our entertainment seems only more apt in 2015, after we've all endured more than a decade of reality television programming.

The movie version of The Running Man actually has much more in common with Roger Corman and Paul Bartel's trail-blazing Death Race 2000 (1975) than it does with King's literary portrait of a totalitarian future America.

In both Death Race 2000 and The Running Man, the media and the government have joined forces -- through a popular TV show -- to divert  the attention of the poverty-stricken masses. While the country fails, these "bread and circuses" successfully keep the populace distracted from real problems, namely the class warfare between the haves and the have-nots.  In both films, the popular TV show also overtly focuses on bloodshed and violence, either in the form of a cross-country race or a pedestrian chase.

Directed by Paul Michael Glaser, The Running Man also shares much in common with another great 1987 science fiction movie: Verhoeven's RoboCop (which I'll be reviewing next Tuesday).

Both cinematic endeavors feature short, satirical commercials and imagery that reveal, at length, how crass and stupid network television can really be. Ironically, considering Schwarzenegger's presence, The Running Man also shares RoboCop's  anti-establishment suspicion of the ascendant right wing in America during the eighties. 

Where RoboCop humorously depicted the end result of privatizing anything and everything in America, including the police force, The Running Man gazes more directly at the cult of celebrity in America and the ever-increasing blending of politics and entertainment. 

Lest we forget it, a Hollywood actor was President of the United States in 1987 and, because of his advanced age, some folks considered him more a showman by many than an actual leader in terms of policy and administration. The Running Man takes that premise further, envisioning a wholesale blending of entertainment and politics at every level of government. 

For instance, at one point in the film, Killian (game show host Richard Dawson) barks "Get me the Justice Department...Entertainment Division."  In the same scene, he orders an underling to "get me the President's agent."  In another sequence, "court-appointed talent agents" are discussed.

The idea here is that Hollywood and politics are a match made in Heaven (or is it Hell?).  Both Hollywood and Washington D.C. focus on the same important task: selling imagery and fantasy, not reality, to an American populace desperately seeking hope, truth and justice.

The film is even more cynical than that description suggests. The Running Man posits that concepts such as justice are all just a game, anyway...a spin of the wheel of fortune.

And in the world of The Running Man, freedom isn't even on the board.  You can win such great prizes (if you're lucky...) as "trial by jury," "suspended sentence" and even "a full pardon," but real liberty is absent.  

"I'm not into politics.  I'm into survival."


The Running Man is set in the year 2019. The World Economy has collapsed and food, oil and natural resources are in short supply all over the United States. 

Because of these crises, a police state has arisen in America.  No dissent is tolerated, and television is controlled and created entirely by the State.

Helicopter pilot Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is arrested by his fellow officers when he refuses to open fire on unarmed civilians during an urban food riot.  But the State manipulates video footage of this event and thus transforms the innocent Richards into "The Butcher of Bakersfield." 

This is another example of government's manipulation of media, and media imagery in the film; the transformation of a real-life hero into a hiss-able villain for wide-scale public consumption.  An easily digestible image or sound-bite is packaged and sold, rather than a possibly-damaging, harder-to-countenance reality.

Richards is sent to a work camp and spends the next eighteen months there.  After an escape from the labor camp, Ben Richards is apprehended by authorities thanks to lovely, Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso), a citizen who believes the lies about "The Butcher."

When Damon Killian (Dawson), host of the number one TV show, The Running Man, sees news footage of Richards in action, the ratings-hungry showman realizes he's discovered the next great star.  He quickly negotiates to have Ben Richards turned over to him.

Richards reluctantly appears on The Running Man, a game show in which contestants run for their lives...against terrible odds. There, he is pitted against government "heroes" -- really bloodthirsty killers --with names such as Sub-Zero, Bloodlust, Buzzsaw, Dynamite and Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura). 

However, if Richards can hook up with the People's Network, a growing resistance movement, and gain control of the Running Man transmission, Killian may have a few surprises coming his way...


"Mr. Richards, I'm your court-appointed theatrical agent."


The Running Man works overtime, and with more than a modicum of cleverness, to create a world in which image and reality don't match up. 

Again, this is what I have often termed the Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid/Don't Worry Be Happy duality of the decade. 

Americans were asked in the eighties s to believe that they could spend (much) more on national defense and pay lower taxes and shrink government all at the same time. 

This was the essence of  the argument in 1980, but by 1988, government had grown considerably, adding 61,000 Federal jobs to Washington. Also, taxes were raised three times, in 1983 (gas tax), in 1984, and in the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Finally, America piled on 2.7 trillion dollars to the national debt in those eight years.  The people were sold the very appealing mantra of lower taxes, smaller government and affordable defense, but that was not the reality that was delivered by Washington D.C.

The Running Man reflects the huge gap between reality and fantasy that we saw in real life during those years.  Damon Killian -- whose name always makes me think of Simon Cowell --  is a character who puts on a face of love and kindness for audiences. He kisses old ladies, and hand-holds nervous contestants. But he is actually a mean-spirited, power-mad, control-freak. In one scene, Killian nearly trips on a newly waxed floor in his office building. An employee apologizes to him, and Killian graciously accepts the apology to the employee's face. As soon as the custodian is gone, Killian orders him to be fired. The face of the establishment is affable, but the actions are destructive to those not in power.

This is just one small example of the reality/imagery gap. As mentioned above, Killian has the Bakersfield food riot videotape edited so that it presents a lie, the very opposite of the truth. A man who should be lauded as a hero, Richards, is instead despised as a villain...all so Killian can get better ratings. Similarly, Killian makes another attempt to deceive audiences late in the film, utilizing "traveling mattes" and other state-of-the-art special effects techniques to make it appear as though Richards is killed in the contest when, in fact, he has escaped unharmed.  The message: make people live in a constructed reality, rather than face real life.  Today we call this an ideological bubble.

Another of Killian's lies: last season's winners on The Running Man are not celebrating on a tropical beach somewhere, they've been murdered by Killian. 

Described succinctly, everything Killian does in public and for the TV show is a show. It bears no resemblance to reality. It's just show business...but this behavior is especially sinister in the film because lives are on the line, and the movie has explicitly connected show business to politics and government.

The people of America aren't exactly spared harsh criticism by this satire either. Although Killian repeatedly discusses "traditional morality" and such on The Running Man, the people in America are actually nourished on a steady diet of violence, avarice and perversion. 

We see this fact exemplified in one of the commercials made for the film, Climbing for Dollars, which shows hungry dogs nipping at the feet of contestants as they climb a rope, scrambling to collect money.

At another point, we see a poster for a television series titled "The Hate Boat."   Again, this is not traditional morality, it's sex and violence as governmental distraction or sleight-of-hand.  As long as we're watching the telly, we're not watching the actions of our overlords as they dismantle democracy.

The audience members watching The Running Man are particularly fickle too.  At first they mourn when their gladiators die in battle.  But soon enough, they are hooting and hollering in favor of Richards, the very man who killed their "favorites."

Again, the projected image is one of decency and traditional values, but it's not real.  "Words can't express" how sad the audience feels at the loss of their heroes says Killian. But then he cuts to commercials, and sells more "Cadre Cola."

Apparently mourning can't get in the way of making a few bucks. And the audience can't even remember who they were rooting for before the commercial break.  

The Running Man works efficiently as a satire because it reveals so well how films and TV can, in the wrong hands, be utterly manipulated and manipulative. The film's master-stroke regarding this leitmotif involves the casting of Richard Dawson, former host of Family Feud. Hiring Dawson was a real coup, because he very ably mocks his familiar game show persona but then layers on the screen character's private, caustic face.  Dawson makes for an extraordinary villain by playing on our expectations and then totally subverting them. 

In The New York Times, Vincent Canby noted: "Mr. Dawson, who was the host of television's long-running ''Family Feud'' game show, is wonderfully comic as a fellow who'd star his own beloved dad as the ''running man'' if it would buy him a few points. His hair always perfectly blow-dried, his haberdashery immaculate, Mr. Dawson steals the movie as a personality composed of equal parts of Phil Donahue, Merv Griffin and Maximilien Francois Marie Isidore (Mickey) Robespierre."

More than the imposing Schwarzenegger, Dawson is the fuel that drives The Running Man, making it so very wicked, so much fun, and seemingly so real.

That established, this is also one of the Governator's most impressive film performances. The Washington Post wrote: "Pumped and primed for self-parody, the burly star proves as funny as he is ferocious in this tough guy's commentary on America's preoccupation with violence and game shows."  I agree with that review as well.  If Dawson is willing to mock his public image here (and he is), Schwarzenegger courageously goes down that same path with his co-star, even mimicking his most famous screen line, "I'll be back," and opening himself up for Dawson's great comeback.

"Only in reruns..."

There's something very post-modern happening here. The Running Man tackles the unholy juncture of television and politics at the same time that it playfully pivots off our intimate knowledge and affection for Dawson's and Schwarzenneger's familiar screen personas.  It's a very, very...meta equation, for lack of a better term.

I only wish that the action scenes in The Running Man were a little more varied, a little less predictable  A killer is called on stage, and then he goes in to hunt Richards.  Richard is victorious and it's time for another hunter.  Rinse and repeat. Watching the film, you get the distinct sense that all of the talent was energized by the film's witty ideas, but that the action scenes were sort of left to fend for themselves.  Of course, as I noted above, the repetitive nature of the fight scenes could be a deliberate allusion to the repetitive nature of game shows.  We tune in every week to see the same thing, don't we?

Still, The Running Man isn't out of steam, even today. It gets a lot of the "future" detail just right.  From fears of an economic collapse to fuel shortages, the film makes some pretty accurate guesses about the 2010s.  At one point, Ben Richards books his escape route/travel itinerary on an interactive television set, a precursor to something we do on the Internet now all the time. 

And also, of course, this 1987 film seems to understand that our television and politics were headed towards a generation of ingrained and unimaginable cruelty.

It's not a pretty picture, but I bet that with just a few tweaks here and there, Killian's The Running Man would be a pretty big hit with some people these days....

Arnold Schwarzenegger Day: Predator (1987)


Back in 1987, the conventional wisdom about John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) was that it started out like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and ended up like Alien (1979) or, perhaps, James Cameron’s Aliens (1986).

By framing the film in this simplistic fashion, Predator could be viewed as a simple or derivative swipe at two separate genre inspirations. 

It was part action movie and part sci-fi/horror movie. 

And that, the critics declared, passed for originality in Hollywood.

That’s a left-handed compliment if I ever read one!

The truth about Predator, contrarily, is that it is all of a piece, and thematically consistent throughout. 

Indeed, the intense film forges a debate about warriors or soldiers, and asks, specifically, what the best soldiers are made of. 

Do soldiers succeed because of their technology? 

Or do the best soldiers succeed because of some combination of instinct, experience, and a tactical understanding of their enemy?

McTiernan’s film sets up this debate in the film's visualizations.

Specifically, a squad of American soldiers, led by Arnold Schwarzenegger's Dutch, rain down death and destruction on Third World, Central American soldiers, literally coming down to a village from a point on high to do so. 

This action occurs in the first act, and establishes, per the dialogue that Schwarzenegger’s team is “the best.” We see that adjective vividly demonstrated in a siege set-piece of extreme violence and bloodshed.

The next act of the film, however, deliberately reverses that equation. It positions Schwarzenegger’s team on the ground, and puts an alien hunter at an even higher position -- in the tree-tops -- to rain down death on his “primitive” Earthbound counter-parts. 

The soldiers who were the predators are now the prey.

In both cases, the technologically-superior force wins, and the perceived primitive or lesser opponent is knocked down and defeated. 

In both cases, McTiernan vividly and explicitly associates that sense of superiority with a sense of geographical height; a high physical vantage point, captured by the camera's position.

The winner can, literally, reach heights that the loser can’t, and this is one important reason for his victory.

However, in the third and final act of Predator, Arnold and the alien hunter go head to head -- on equal footing -- and it is only on that terrain, one not involving technology, but rather instincts and know-how, that the best soldier is identified, and a victor is crowned.

So where many 1987 critics choose to see a film that is half Rambo and half Alien, I see a film that develops logically and consistently act to act. You can’t get to that final, almost primordial reckoning in the jungle between the Predator and Dutch unless you frame the debate in precisely the way the screenplay does, and in the way McTiernan does. 

In short, the film depicts the best soldiers in the world demonstrating their ability to defeat all comers, only to be defeated by an enemy better than them; one not of this world.  

The first and second act are two sides of the same coin, the idea -- with apologies to Star Wars Episode I (1999) -- that there is always a bigger fish out there waiting to demonstrate superior technology.

Predator’s third act -- a glorious back-to-basics conflict that looks like it was authentically staged in a prehistoric setting -- makes the point that the greatest hunter or soldier is actually the one who understands his enemy, and trusts his instincts. 

Why make a movie in this fashion? 

Well, in a sense, Predator might be read as a subversive response to the militarization of action films in the mid-1980s, and the kind of shallow, rah-rah patriotism that gave rise to efforts like Heartbreak Ridge (1986), which celebrated an American military victory over…Grenada.

Grenada? 

Was Grenada really a challenge to American domination, given our military budget and might? 

Contrarily, Predator takes a group of tough-talking “ultimate warriors” and puts them in a situation where they aren’t merely shooting fish in a barrel. 

They are the fish in the barrel.

In reckoning with this sudden and total change in fortunes, we begin to glean a true idea of courage and heroism.

All of the Earthly politics in the movie -- illegal border crossings, a false cover story, documentation about a possible invasion, and so forth -- add up to precisely nothing here, and there's a reason why. Those details are immaterial to the real story of soldiers who reckon with an enemy that goes beyond the limits of Earthly knowledge.

Ironically, to be the best soldier in a situation like that, it isn’t the big Gatling gun that matters. It’s the ability to adapt to and understand the kind of menace encountered.

Predator features a lot of macho talk and clichés about war (“I ain’t got time to bleed,”) but it succeeds because it cuts right through this surface, hackneyed vision of military might and suggests a different truth underneath.

There’s always a bigger fish.



“You got us here to do your dirty work!”

An elite squad of American soldiers, led by Dutch Schaefer (Schwarzenegger), is dropped into a Central American jungle to rescue a cabinet minister being held by enemy rebels. 

Going along with Dutch’s team is the mission commander, the not-entirely trustworthy Dillon (Carl Weathers).

Once in the jungle, Dutch and his men launch an attack on a rebel village, and find that Dillon has manipulated his team so as to acquire military intelligence about a possible Russian invasion. The group soon takes a captive, Anna, (Elipidia Carillo).

But before the soldiers can be air-lifted out of the jungle, an extra-terrestrial hunter -- a Predator – sets his sights on the group, killing Dutch’s team one man at a time. 

Anna reports a local legend: about a demon who makes trophies of humans and is often reported in the hottest summers.

And this year, it grows very, very hot…

Losing his men rapidly, Dutch must come to understand his enemy’s weaknesses and strengths, and makes a final stand in the jungle, using every resource available…



“Payback time!”

John McTiernan’s camera in Predator rarely stops moving. It tracks, it pans, and it tilts, but is seldom quiescent. 

The constantly-on-the-move camera conveys a few important qualities about the film. The first idea it transmits is that the soldiers inhabit a changing and changeable world, one that only instinct and experience can help them navigate.  

The always-in-motion camera reveals the soldiers -- sometimes violently -- intruding into new space, new frames, and new aspects of their world.  The camera’s movement -- a kind of visual aggression -- suggests the force that the soldiers carry with them.  

This movement, this force, is then balanced by McTiernan against the still-ness of the Predator’s vision or perspective. A contrast is quickly developed and then sustained.

Throughout the film, we see through the Predator’s eyes, or in Predator-vision. These shots, from high above the landscape (in the tree-tops) tend to be still, un-moving. They thereby capture a sense of the whole world unfolding before the Predator, a complete panorama or landscape.

This is an important conceit. The soldiers are  always moving through a changing, shifting world that they, through their actions, impact.  

But they don’t get the whole picture, so-to-speak.  

By contrast, the Predator vision gives us long-shots, and shows the entire jungle terrain around the soldiers.  This viewpoint suggests omnipotence and power.  

The Predator, quite simply, is able to see more of the world, and see it better. He is able to strike from the tree tops with his shoulder-mounted laser cannon, and target with laser sighting his distant foes.  

His sight is superior, until -- importantly -- Dutch manages to “see” through it; recognizing the flaw in the Predator’s infrared vision.


Again, this is an argument against relying too heavily on technology. Dutch’s soldiers rely on big guns, and get decimated.  

The Predator relies on his mask’s vision system (infrared), and Dutch -- smearing himself in mud -- negates the advantage it provides.  

But again, what’s important is the way that all this material is visualized.

The soldiers, on ground level, cut through and move through the frame, violently interacting with the world on a tactile, aggressive level.  

The Predator, like some great vulture, sits still in the trees (until he strikes), silently hanging back and taking in the lay of the land. He has the luxury to operate from a distance, from up on high, unobserved.

The film sets up a battle between these two perspectives, and one might even argue that the Predator ultimately loses because he abandons his best perspective -- the tree tops -- in order to get down to (and enjoy combat on…) Dutch’s level.


Over and over again, however, McTiernan’s gorgeous, moving compositions suggest that the soldiers don’t have the full picture. Not only is the Predator cloaked, but he has access to the world above the soldiers, the world that they can’t see. A brilliantly-orchestrated shot mid-way through the film sees Dutch hunting for Hawkin’s missing body. He can’t find it. After capturing imagery of Dutch trudging through the brush, McTiernan’s camera suddenly moves upwards, and keeps doing so.

It goes up and up, past a bloody fern frond, and then continues its ascent, until we see Hawkins’ naked, bloodied corpse dangling from the tree top.  The Predator is operating in, metaphorically a more fully three dimensional environment, this shot reveals. 

Dwight and the other soldiers can’t compete on that level. They literally can't even see to that level. 


Those who don’t appreciate Predator tend to watch the film, listen to the macho tough talk, and consider the film a kind of stupid, macho action/horror movie. 

Yet in its own way, Predator glides right past such clichéd dialogue and situations. In doing so, it comments on them.  These cliches are not points of strength, the movie informs us, but points of weakness.  When the Predator uses his duck call device, for example, he apes the men at their most verbally simplistic.  “Any time…”  Or “Over here.”  

Then he is able to trick them using their own words. Their mode of expression becomes a tool to use against them.

As a whole, Predator sort of tricks the audience with its appearance too -- as a macho war movie -- and then treads deeper to examine our conceits about the military, and military might. 

When Arnold finally defeats the Predator, he does so not as a twentieth century soldier with high-tech weapons, but as a mud-camouflaged cave-man, relying on his instinct, his knowledge of the land, and hard-gleaned information about his enemy.


Even then, Arnold barely wins.  

The Predator sacrifices his superior technology, comes to the ground, and takes off his mask because he wants to fight like Arnie; he wants to experience battle like a human would. That desire proves to be the alien's undoing, a sense of vanity about himself, and an unearned sense of superiority to his nemesis.  

And again, this quality reflects dynamically on the first act of the film. Everyone keeps calling Dutch's team "the best,: and the team itself wipes out the Central American rebels while hardly breaking a sweat.

The bigger they are, the harder they fall, right?

Dutch, by contrast, demonstrates qualities that our culture doesn’t always value, especially in terms of our military men. He shows compassion and decency with Anna, a prisoner.  He trusts her when the situation changes instead of continuing to treat her like a foe.  

He also rejects Dillon’s approach to war (that the ends justify the means), and does his best to get his men out of a situation in which they are not really fighting for their country, but acting as pawns in someone’s illegal agenda.  

Finally, Dutch is curious -- intensely curious -- and flexible enough to understand that he is being hunted by something inhuman. He doesn’t reject the possibility that this could be true, and instead contends with the facts. 

 “If it bleeds, we can kill it” Dutch concludes, and that is a perfectly logical and sensible argument in the face of what seems an irrational conflict: a battle with an invisible alien.

Dutch is lucky, of course, too. He discovers the secret of defeating Predator-vision by accident, by ending up in the mud. But he also makes the most of his opportunities by demonstrating flexibility rather than rigidity. He changes his very identity to win.  He goes from 20th century high-tech soldier to primitive cave man, to carry the day.


Predator still dazzles, in part because of McTiernan’s often-moving camera and approach to visuals, but also because of that incredible final sequence in the jungle.  

Arnold and the colossal, frightening alien duke it out on a little parcel of land, surrounded by water.  The setting is picturesque, but more than that, it seems to evoke some kind of genetic memory, a feeling for the day when humans didn’t understand the world and were prey to saber tooth tigers or bears, or anything else that might find us when we ventured out of our caves. 

The film’s final battle -- shorn of high-tech military hardware -- gets down to the bloody basics and is incredibly satisfying on a human level.

Today, we have military drones, smart-bombs, and other incredible technology to help us win when we wage war, but Predator is a remarkable reminder from another movie age that the biggest, best guns don’t necessarily make great soldiers.   

If they did, the Predator would have won his battle with Arnie, right?

Blackstar: "The Mermaid of the Serpent Sea."

In "The Mermaid of the Serpent Sea," the Trobbits gather together a shipment of " power fruits " and " knowledge nu...