PREDATOR: The Drug War & The Folly of American Empire
Predator isn't just an action film. It's also a ruthless satire of American imperialism.
Today we’re talking about the cult-classic film Predator.
Known for its explosive action and cheesy quips, the movie’s mockery of American intervention largely went unacknowledged.
Predator 2 took the anti-imperialist message even further but was once again ignored.
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As one of the most highly-regarded action movies of all time, Predator is far from unappreciated—but it is misunderstood. With the flashing lasers and blazing guns stealing the show, the film’s satirization of American intervention in South America, and the excessively macho and jingoistic Hollywood films that glorified it, has gone unrecognized. And while Predator derided the foreign impacts of American militarism, Predator 2 hits audiences over the head with the message by building a world where the violence comes home. Much like the works of Verhoeven, the Predator series simultaneously satirizes the very space it occupies, giving audiences heart-racing action while winking in mockery.
On the surface, Predator looks and feels like a standard Eighties action movie. A team of oiled-up American soldiers equipped with big guns and even bigger biceps is sent into the jungle of an unnamed South American country on a top-secret mission. Led by Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer—played by the iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger—it’s clear this team is the cream of the crop, the best special forces soldiers on America’s roster.
The justification for this invasion is so shaky it makes the Iraq War look like Normandy. According to the CIA, a politician has been captured by “insurgents” (it’s never clarified who these insurgents are), and Dutch’s team is being sent in for the rescue. A CIA officer named Dillion (played by Carl Weathers) joins the team at the last minute, much to Dutch’s chagrin.
The flimsy explanation for the military intervention is glossed over in a near-comical manner, only taking up the first five minutes of the film. If Predator had been made in a different time—one in which America wasn’t conducting unquestioned military operations south of its border—viewers would have seen this half-baked reasoning as lazy writing. But in 1987, with the drug war raging and the Iran-Contra scandal deemed irreproachable, the American Empire was the status quo. This absurd plot point was no stranger than what audiences heard from the Reagan administration on a daily basis—so they were primed to accept the storyline, no questions asked.
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When they locate the camp of “insurgents” (again, we still don’t know who or what this group is), the film delivers on its promise of exuberant Eighties action and gore. Fireballs erupt and grenades blast as the Americans shoot from the hip, killing an army of generic evil brown people without taking a single casualty.
It’s at this point, though, that Dutch learns there was never a politician in need of rescue: his team’s real mission was a second attempt at assassinating a Soviet agent embedded with the insurgents.The premise and execution of the film’s first portion not only mirrors but overtly satirizes Reagan-era American adventurism and proxy conflict. American soldiers, blindly following the erroneous orders of their superiors, invaded a foreign nation for the purpose of assassinating a Soviet officer who was living with an unnamed group of “South American insurgents” in a village reminiscent of a cocaine manufacturing plant. The War on Drugs, likely-leftist South American rebels, and the Soviets—it’s every reason Americans need to start shooting rolled into one.
But after the guns have been fired, the dame has been rescued, and the ostensible “bad” guys have been killed, things change: what started as an over-the-top depiction of American imperialism quickly transforms into a slasher flick where elite American commandos are as helpless as drunk and horny teenage camp counselors. Despite the cutting-edge training and state-of-the-art weaponry that led to their one-sided victory, the Americans are entirely ineffective at combating the Predator as it effortlessly hunts them for sport.
One-by-one, Dutch’s squad—the crème de la crème of America’s imperial spear—are slaughtered by shoulder-mounted lasers and blade gauntlets as the creature dances around their counterattacks. In a scene that’s almost too on-the-nose, the entire spec-ops squad form a firing line and empty their clips into the jungle in hopes of killing their foe. Spray and pray as they might, the Predator is long gone, and the Americans are left looking silly as they do little more than cut up the jungle with $500,000 worth of ammo (hint, hint).
Eventually, Dutch, the lone surviving American, stumbles upon the Predator’s weakness. Caking himself in mud, he hides from the Predator’s heat vision and lures it into a final battle. But only when the alien forfeits his high-tech weaponry and armor for an “honorable” fight is Dutch able to best the creature. Despite all the high-tech military weaponry flashed around in the film, Dutch beats the alien with no more than his cunning wit and a log. Caught in a booby trap, the Predator self-destructs in a mile-high mushroom cloud.
Take out the laser blasts, catchy one-liners, and its star-studded cast of iconic action men, and the satire of Predator is glaring—a fraudulent American military expedition in South America with the goal of killing vaguely defined “insurgents” and a single Soviet officer results in unnecessary American deaths and the detonation of a nuclear bomb. American soldiers died while the residents of said country were left to live in nuclear fallout, and all the Americans got was one dead Soviet officer, who Moscow replaced in a day. In the eyes of Predator, the cost-benefit analysis of American Empire doesn’t look so good.
2 Fast 2 Predator
While Predator highlighted the deceitful reasoning and the disastrous foreign impact of the drug war, Predator 2 imagines a world where the turmoil comes home. Instead of the typical action movie setting of a far-away country, Predator 2 transports the chaos and violence of America’s war on drugs from foreign jungles to downtown Los Angeles. (The opening shot quite literally starts in a jungle before revealing the L.A. skyline.)
Los Angeles, depicted in the film as a run-down drug warren that’s as rife with narcotics and violence as the jungle of the first film, is a literal war zone. With a gun battle raging behind him, a reporter builds the world for the audience: the city is overcome with corruption, the politicians have shirked their civic duties, and the cops are “out-gunned” and “out-manned” in their fight against multiple drug cartels.
Most late 20th-century action flicks have Americans firing blindly as darker-skinned bad guys go flying from explosions, but Predator 2 flips the script. Colombian and Jamaican gangs, proxies for America’s two favorite drugs of cocaine and weed, have the cops outgunned and pinned down. Armed with machine guns, grenade launchers, and enough cocaine to kill a frat house, the Colombian cartel sprays the streets with automatic fire, making no distinction between civilian and police. As the drug lords send the cops flying with a well-placed grenade blast, they celebrate with taunts and fist pumps, just like the Americans did in the first film.
Blocked by the cartel’s overwhelming firepower, the police are unable to rescue a pair of wounded colleagues, stranded in no man’s land. Only the ingenuity of Detective Mike Harrigan (played by Danny Glover), can save them. The wise-cracking detective jury-rigs his rusty clunker into an armored car with some spare bulletproof vests, allowing the rescue team to pull the wounded cops to safety.
It’s notable that the cops never win the shootout, nor any other confrontation with the drug lords depicted in the film. Seeking to hunt the most lethal game in its area, the Predator descends from its perch and enters the fray, slaughtering the cartel soldiers in an offscreen massacre. The Predator sees the LAPD, who were entirely ineffective at combating the cartel, as unworthy of being hunted, and simply ignores them.
Here we see the trope of wisecracking cops battling crime syndicates (whether they be street gangs, cartels, or the mafia) taken to a cartoonish degree. While Eighties crime films typically portray cops as outgunned underdogs with their hands tied by wimpy bureaucrats, Predator 2 cranks it up a notch, setting a pitched military battle in one of America’s most populated urban centers.
While less-revered than the original, Predator 2 is worth reexamining thirty years after its release. Accustomed to Empire, American audiences didn’t flinch at the first film’s focus on an illegal invasion and extrajudicial killing in large part because it was in-step with American foreign policy. The flimsy logic that justified the invasion of an unnamed country didn’t need a thorough rationale, because no such standard existed in real life. But when the same chaos of indiscriminate machine-gun fire and earth-rumbling explosions are set in the familiar environment of the sunny city streets of L.A., it’s considered ludicrous pandemonium.
Predator 2 isn’t half as good as its predecessor, for more reasons than its setting. But what the film does exceptionally well is hit the audience over the head with the satire missed in the first film. By flipping the script and portraying Americans on the defensive, Jim and John Thomas (who wrote both movies) make their point — the never-ending drug war is absurd, and it’s going to backfire on the United States. Then, they throw in a bad-ass alien with a shoulder-mounted laser gun to keep us entertained.
Predator is such a superb film that audiences are too infatuated with the seven-foot-tall extraterrestrial hunter to reflect on the real-world absurdities: dubious explanations for unauthorized military interventions, CIA assassinations, the metaphorical (and literal) fallout of American adventurism that lays waste to other countries. And who could blame them? Who wants to spend ninety minutes ruminating about the consequences of the American Empire when they can awe at a hand-held minigun and repeat Arnold’s one-liners? (“I ain’t got time to bleed” is a pretty spot-on summation of American militarism.)
Only with Predator 2, where the consequences of the drug war are shown at home instead of hidden abroad, does the ludicrous nature of the drug war become apparent.
By creating arguably one of the best action flicks of all time, and a sequel that isn’t nearly as revered, but still appreciated, the brothers Thomas highlighted the glaring folly of America’s drug war for their audience, and even went so far as to hypothesize its consequences.
Perhaps if the Predator had been less awesome, we would have heard their warning.
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What do you think about the satire of Predator? Let me know in the comments below.
Note: This article originally appeared in Bloodknife Magazine
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