In praise of Jesse Ventura’s performance in Predator

The larger-than-life catchphrase machine epitomised the hyper-masculinity of ’80s action cinema.

Words

James Luxford

Released 30 years ago, John McTiernan’s action classic has, over time, become one of the signature films of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career. Contrary to many of the high-body-count, one-man-army extravaganzas the director made in the latter half of the 1980s, Predator is an ensemble affair that turns its heroes into the hunted. Among the film’s ragtag crew of tough-talking mercenaries, none is more memorable than Gunner Blain Cooper, played by Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, the former professional wrestler with a booming voice and seemingly inexhaustible confidence.

Blain is delightfully obnoxious from the get-go, declaring himself a “Sexual Tyrannosaurus” in his very first scene. It’s the key to his character – the bullish, unflappable killing machine who “doesn’t have time to bleed” and can flatten an insurgent base almost single handedly. Whereas others use standard issue artillery, Blain carries around ‘Old Painless’, a completely impractical mini-gun typically mounted on the side of a helicopter. He’s the cavalry you trust to come in and get the job done quickly. His brash, tobacco-spitting presence may not make him the ideal house guest, but in the jungle he’s exactly the kind of indomitable character you’d want on your side.

Blain makes arguably the biggest impression of any character, and yet is one of the first in Schwarzenegger’s team to be picked off by the Predator. Flummoxed by the beast’s cloaking device, Blain’s death is characteristically spectacular – a giant cauterised hole is blown straight through his stomach as he attempts to avenge his fallen comrade Hawkins (Shane Black). While on the surface it feels like a cheap end, Blain’s demise marks a crucial turning point in the film.

If a man so assured and so powerful could be picked off so easily by the Predator, then everyone is vulnerable – even Arnie. Added to this, Blain’s death makes the ensuing hunt personal, and allows for a rare moment of sentiment from best friend Mac (Bill Duke). If you didn’t get at least a small lump in your throat during his “Same kinda moon, same kinda jungle…” speech, you’re made of sterner stuff than us.

The story of the making of Predator is almost as renowned as the film itself, thanks in part to the documentaries which accompanied the film’s DVD release in the early 2000s. The cast would compete to look the best on camera, waking up early to squeeze in an extra work out. Ventura was particularly keen to prove his dominance, boasting about being the first to handle ‘Old Painless’ and placing bets with Schwarzenegger to see whose arms were bigger. Such off-camera antics are what cult heroes are made of, with the notion of an overlap between actor and character making the performance that much more fascinating.

Blain is the kind of character who could only exist in an ’80s action movie, and one who could only have been played by the type of outlandish star that existed around the same time. While Ventura has insisted that his experiences as a Vietnam veteran informed the character, his previous profession as a wrestler also played a big part. The larger-than-life presence that made him such a success in the WWE ring slots perfectly into the over-the-top world of ’80s action cinema, where anyone can succeed with the right amount of bravado. That same charisma would later see Ventura elected Governor of Minnesota four years before Schwarzenegger launched his own political career.

Predator is also a perfect time capsule of America under Ronald Reagan, and no one epitomises this more than Ventura (although the 40th POTUS was more of a Rambo fan). This was the decade of Hulk Hogan, Mr T and Sylvester Stallone, whose distinct brand of hyper-masculinity became ubiquitous on American cinema and TV screens. The MTV logo emblazoned on Blain’s t-shirt is another clear indicator that this character was absolutely a product of his time. None of the Predator sequels or Alien vs Predator cross-overs managed to recapture the brilliance of the original, and that’s partly because they forgot that the real star(s) of the show was not the hunter, but the hunted.

Published 9 Nov 2017

Tags: Arnold Schwarzenegger Jesse Ventura John McTiernan

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