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Taste Test: First Blood (1982) vs. Predator (1987)

June 11th, 2009 · 7 Comments

First Blood, 1982, poster VS. Predator, 1987, poster

By Joe Valdez

What the *&#! Are They About?

In the Pacific Northwest, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) drifts into a small town in search of a buddy he served with in Vietnam. After receiving word that his friend has died, Rambo draws the attention of Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) who doesn’t care for the stranger’s dirty look or sullen attitude and shuttles him to the city limits. Rambo stubbornly tries to return to town, earning himself a trip to jail. There, Teasle’s deputies attempt to clean the prisoner up, triggering Rambo’s memory of being a prisoner of war.

Overpowering his captors, Rambo escapes into the chilly rain forest above town. The police learn that their fugitive is a decorated Green Beret, an expert in guerilla warfare tactics and survival. 200 National Guard troops are mobilized to help track him down and Rambo’s mentor Col. Traughtman (Richard Crenna) is sent in by the Pentagon to advise. Traughtman notifies the authorities that he’s not here to protect Rambo from them, but the other way around.

First Blood, 1982, Sylvester Stallone

When a chopper carrying a cabinet minister goes down in Central America, a seven-man Special Forces team is sent on a rescue mission. Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is reunited with Vietnam buddy Dillon (Carl Weathers) who’s gone to work for the CIA and insists on participating in the operation. Rappelling into the jungle, the team discovers the skinned bodies of a Green Beret team that appears to have been sent in before them.

After assaulting a rebel camp, the squad — which includes a macho gunner (Jesse Ventura) and Indian tracker (Sonny Landham) — realize the story of a captive cabinet minister was cooked up to get them to strike the guerillas, who Dillon believes shot down the chopper of Green Berets. Heading to the evacuation site with a prisoner (Elpidia Carrillo), things go from bad to worse when the squad falls prey to a seven-foot tall, heavily armed and camouflaged alien big game hunter.

Predator, 1987, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Bill Duke

Writing
First Blood and the character of Rambo had their genesis in a 1972 novel by David Morrell, a Canadian born professor of English at the University of Iowa who experienced the effects of what became known as post-traumatic stress through students who were returning from the Vietnam War. Morrell’s action thriller was optioned by Warner Bros., where the best of many, many drafts was written by the team of Michael Kozoll & William Sackheim in the mid-1970s, when it was ultimately decided by the studio that audiences didn’t care much about Vietnam anymore.

By 1981, Sylvester Stallone had accepted a $3.5 million offer from producers Mario Kassar & Andrew Vajna to play Rambo. To keep the star aboard the project when he got cold feet, the producers encouraged Stallone to rewrite the script to his particular sensibility. The resulting story tapped into the rooting interest of the underdog that Stallone had developed so well in the Rocky pictures. Despite its superb visceral elements — including a frenzied pursuit through the Pacific Northwest rain forest and a claustrophobic sequence where Rambo is trapped in a mine — the original First Blood never veers into comic book territory, revealing both Rambo and his adversary Sheriff Teasle to be men of duty. Both are seen bending under the stress of their ordeal.

First Blood, 1982, Brian Dennehy, Sylvester Stallone

Predator began as a spec script written by Jim Thomas & John Thomas. Titled Hunter, their concept was human beings being stalked by a dilettante from another world, like big game hunters stalking exotic animals and returning home with a trophy, I guess. The Thomas brothers completed their script in September 1983 and sold it in early 1984 to Fox, where producer Joel Silver ultimately developed it as a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

After an uncredited polish by David Peoples, Hunter would become The Predator during its production and ultimately, Predator. While the personalities of the badass Special Forces unit are allowed to bubble to the surface of a ceaselessly entertaining conceit, there’s not a terrific amount of suspense here, with Arnold’s triumph over the Predator never really in question. The inclusion of a female POW who comes along for the ride and a needlessly convoluted set-up do get in the way of the film’s roll licking factor.

Predator, 1987, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Duke

Writing edge: First Blood

Casting
Behind his image as a monosyllabic he-man, it’s often overlooked how good an actor Sylvester Stallone can be. The original First Blood is one of the best performances of his career. It’s easy to imagine Rambo as an orphan; yeah, he’s a trained killer, but instead of emphasizing invincibility, Stallone plays the character’s loneliness and disquiet beautifully. Kirk Douglas was eagerly pursued to play Col. Traughtman and reported for work before bowing out when director Ted Kotcheff and the producers demurred over Douglas’ script revisions, which included Rambo dying at the end. The late Richard Crenna is no Spartacus, but does a credible job.

The Stallone flicks that are worth revisiting are the ones where Sly was given a great adversary — like Nighthawks, or to a much lesser extent, Rocky III and Demolition Man — and First Blood is no exception. In addition to being a tremendous character actor, Brian Dennehy takes what in the sequels would have been just a brutal redneck sheriff and here, gives him the texture of a real man doing a job. Never entirely likable, he’s never unlikable either, much like a real sheriff. Lisa Freiberger did a yeoman’s job casting Jack Starrett, Chris Mulkey, David Caruso and Michael Talbott as deputies.

First Blood, 1982, Brian Dennehy

Arnold Schwarzenegger was still pretty much developing his chops as an actor when he was offered the lead in Predator, but his sense of self, his ability to toss out one liners (“Stick around” as he impales a rebel with a machete) and physique made him perfect for this type of flick. But personally, I find Predator 2 a much better take; even though Danny Glover is playing a tough cop, he’s much more vulnerable and the outcome is called into greater question than if you have the Terminator as your hero.

Casting director Jackie Burch had room to maneuver with the supporting cast and this is where Predator goes into another gear. Carl Weathers — who briefly played linebacker for the Oakland Raiders – brings as much charisma here as he does athletic prowess. Producer Joel Silver had previously worked with Bill Duke and Sonny Landham, two heavies you would not want to fuck with in a bar, and brought them aboard. Jesse Ventura — a former Navy SEAL, bodyguard and professional wrestler — adds even more color to the film, while 7 foot, 2 inch tall Kevin Peter Hall was both menacing and graceful as the title villain.

Predator, 1987, Kevin Peter Hall

Casting edge: Predator

Production value
One of the reasons First Blood is so fucking good is the approach taken by director Ted Kotcheff, best known for this film and the even more masculine North Dallas Forty, but who probably wouldn’t have been influenced by MTV even if it had been around a decade earlier. This is a classically mounted picture, with certain restraint taken to making things look and feel as real as possible, while delivering entertainment in the process. The cinematography by Andrew Laszlo — framed in anamorphic format — is nothing short of stunning, soaking up the mist covered rain forests of Hope, Canada.

John McTiernan had a B-movie called Nomads to his credit when he was hired to direct Predator. His energy and ideas are all over the picture — essentially a Tarzan flick with guns — but this is firmly a B-movie produced by a major studio. While makeup effects maestro Stan Winston saved the day by coming in near the end of production to redesign the creature, the shooting location is a slightly less than exotic Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and the optical effects dated. The film has some nice compositions, but the lighting by Donald McAlpine is nothing to rave over.

First Blood, 1982

Production value edge: First Blood

Music
No contest. Jerry Goldsmith is my favorite film composer/ conductor in modern Hollywood, and his score for First Blood — commissioned between Poltergeist and Psycho II — is as emotionally rousing as his best. Chords of Goldsmith’s theme for this film, which put Mario Kassar & Andrew Vajna on the map as Hollywood players, would later be heard over the logo of Carolco Pictures during the early 1990s.

Alan Silvestri then and now is probably best known as the composer of Back to the Future, but always struck me as someone you approached if John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith were unavailable. His work for Predator is pretty serviceable, rising to the level the production probably had to pay a good composer. It might still be one of the more recognizable themes of the genre, right up there with Brad Fiedel’s work on The Terminator. It does get the job done.

First Blood, 1982, Sylvester Stallone

Music edge: First Blood

Cultural impact
Opening in October 1982, First Blood was a huge hit with audiences, pulling down box office receipts of $47.2 million in the U.S. and $78 million overseas, back when tickets were three bucks. The decision not to kill Rambo off made somebody a billionaire; by the end of the decade, Rambo had spawned two cartoonish sequels and an actual cartoon titled Rambo: Force of Freedom. Rambo: First Blood Part II transformed David Morrell’s scarred war vet into a symbol of American military muscle, spawning bumper stickers, knives and bubble gum and name dropping into media addresses given by President Reagan, much to the chagrin of liberals.

Hitting theaters in June 1987, Predator also went over well at the box office, grossing $59.7 million in the U.S. and adding $38.5 million overseas. It helped Joel Silver on his way to becoming the Action King of Hollywood and for a brief spell, put John McTiernan at the top as well. An Arnold-less sequel attracted significantly less business in 1990, but the uber-equipped Predator seemed to resonate with genre fans, returning in 2004 (Alien vs. Predator) and 2007 (Alien vs. Predator: Requiem), sort of making him the Frankenstein Monster of the new millennium. A full “reboot” can’t be too far around the corner.

Cultural impact edge: Even

First Blood, 1982, Brian Dennehy, Sylvester Stallone

Winner: First Blood

Your thoughts?

Tags: Based on novel · Beasts and monsters · Crooked officer · Dreams and visions · Interrogation · Military · Small town

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 AR // Jun 11, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    Cool idea!

    It’s been so longer since I’ve seen either film that I don’t feel really qualified to weigh in. My stepfather is a big action movie fan, so I remember watching both films on cable growing up, but at some point in my teens, I grew incredibly sick of the genre. I’ve been considering revisiting both films, especially First Blood, as I hear it has somewhat more depth than is usually assumed.

  • 2 J.D. // Jun 12, 2009 at 6:25 am

    I like both films a lot but I would have to disagree with you on the point of PREDATOR 2 being better than the original. The cast of characters in the sequel are largely forgettable and the direction pedestrian. And don’t even get me started on the screenplay. It’s too bad that they couldn’t coax Arnold back for the film because Dark Horse comics actually penned a fantastic sequel over four issues. And even though it feature Dutch’s brother, they could’ve tweaked it. Anyways, the sequel was a wasted opportunity, IMO.

    What I also like about the first PREDATOR film is that it is probably the only Arnold film where I felt that his character might actually die. In everything else he’s done (COMMANDO, RAW DEAL, etc.) there is little to no threat and you pretty much know that Arnold’s gonna take everyone out but in PREDATOR he spends most of the movie being chased and getting the crap kicked out of him by the much superior opponent. It’s only at the very end that Arnold prevails but is almost blown up for his troubles.

  • 3 Moviezzz // Jun 12, 2009 at 7:06 am

    Great post!

    I will have to rewatch them both now. I just got the RAMBO box set on Blu-Ray. Haven’t seen FIRST BLOOD in 25 years so I’ve been waiting for a moment to watch it again.

    As for PREDATOR, I saw it opening night in the theatres with a group of friends, and all I remember about it was I was the only one of us who didn’t love it. I haven’t seen it since, even though I think I have a copy in an Arnold DVD box set somewhere.

    I never saw PREDATOR 2.

  • 4 Patrick // Jun 13, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    I think Predator was a better movie than you are giving it credit for, the first definitely better than the second, which had a somewhat cliched story line, with the whole secretive conspiratorial goverment angle. Also, the first entry in a series always has that newness thing going for it, while sequels have to come up with some sort of spin on an already familiar idea.

    Visually I thought Predator had some very impressive scenes in the jungle, mainly the night scenes where the Predator guy is firing off some rockets (whatever they were) from a tree limb.

    I like both movies, they are the sort of movies I can just jump into the middle of whenever they show up on tv. I probably lean a little to the Predator in a comparison.

  • 5 Megan // Jun 14, 2009 at 1:55 am

    I agree with you on giving the casting edge to Predator, in spite of Dennehy’s great job as the sheriff. (I love that man!)

    Funny about the music. I can’t remember the music from First Blood at all at the moment, but the Predator theme came right into my head. Maybe because of the sequels?

    I don’t know that I ever would have thought of comparing these two films in this way, but you’ve done an excellent job. I hope there are more of these. Do you accept suggestions?

  • 6 Joe Valdez // Jun 14, 2009 at 2:14 am

    Amanda: Thanks! This is the first of what might be many Taste Tests to come. As far as action films, I don’t think anything with the Predator would really be your cup of tea, if you’re sour on the genre. First Blood is obviously a movie I love and think you might really enjoy.

    J.D.: Trying to decide which movie is best — Predator or Predator 2 — may be above my pay grade. There were things I liked better in the sequel and things I missed. The bottom line is that Jim & John Thomas are hack writers that don’t have much to stand on except a neat concept. Thanks for commenting!

    Jim: I think I had pretty much the same reaction to Predator that you did. As for First Blood, after all the generic action movies that followed, watching it again in its original aspect ratio is like a sip of ice water in the desert. I hope you enjoy it.

    Patrick: I had a difficult time finding screenshots of Predator I thought looked interesting enough to even post. Maybe the DVD video transfer is to blame, but I am just not a fan of the way that movie looks at all. You are absolutely correct in that you can jump right into the middle of these flicks and be entertained, which is the bottom line for most moviegoers. Thanks for commenting!

    Megan: It was a close call on casting. Hard to believe that Brian Dennehy went from a fluffy bartender in 10 to a Sheriff Teasle, but that’s what a great character actor does. He’s one of the best.

    Yes, many more Taste Tests are on the way. You can submit your suggestions here in Comments. I’m curious to see what you have in mind.

  • 7 Louis // Feb 9, 2010 at 4:06 am

    I remember being 13 years old, trooping through the forest and river surrounding my neighborhood to a friend living about 3 kilometres from me. He had just put in the movie Predator and asked if a could postpone my further bushwacking to watch the movie with him.
    Can you imagine me walking back through the forest that evening- Predator has eversince been engraved in my mind.

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