Commando / 1985
dir: Mark L. Lester
screenplay: Stephen E. de Souza, Jeph Loeb
starring: Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Rae Dawn Chong, Alyssa Milano, Dan Hedaya, Vernon Wells
Is Commando too easy a choice? Probably. Yes. Absolutely. This and Quiet Cool were sort of what this site was made for. Unfortunately, there comes a point where there’s not much more you can say about insane freakshow action movies; there are clichés and motifs that I’ll always be amused by, but sometimes just aren’t really worth thinking about.
Fortunately, that point definitely cannot be reached without first talking about Commando, one of the most blowingupingest films I’ve ever seen. The unreasonable death toll it racks up over its hour-and-a-half running time is distinctly aided by the fact that someone is killed by knife, gun, explosion, or the mere force of Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s rippling brow in nearly every scene. And perhaps even more unreasonable is this shot of Arnold feeding a baby deer with a pre-teen Alyssa Milano from the opening credits.
Preceding the credits, though, is a sequence in which three guys bite it by the hand of Cooke (played by Bill Duke, a recognizable character actor, Arnold’s co-star in Predator and director of Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit), but the first two murders don’t matter at all and we soon learn that the third was a sham. That the leathery, mustachioéd, and erotically chainmailéd Bennett is not only still alive but involved in the kidnapping of Alyssa Milano in order to coerce Arnold’s character John Matrix to do EVIL DEEDS provides no particular shock to the viewer. What does it matter that Bennett is still alive? Why does he look like a living cartoon? Is he really supposed to be the villain? That’s insane!
It’s pretty much impossible to distinguish what’s going on in the beginning of Commando, even as the first ten minutes are explained away with about thirty seconds of dialogue: three men from retired Colonel Matrix’s unit have been killed, and John may be next! But it’s also pretty much impossible to care. The first deaths are meant to provide credibility to the idea that Matrix is in danger, but obviously he isn’t. So you gloss over that shit, and continue to marvel at the shameless violence. Little Jenny’s been abducted by terrorist mercenaries working for a Latin American warlord? Whatever man, I am not worried, Arnold just broke that weird-looking bad guy’s neck on an airplane, jumped out of the moving plane’s wheel well into a swamp, then set his watch so he knows just how much time he has to kick ass.
In his quest to discover where Jenny has been taken, he kidnaps Rae Dawn Chong, beats up a bunch of cops, throws squirrely henchman Sully off a cliff, impales Cooke – in a scene that includes boobs for some reason – and breaks into an army surplus store and steals a frightening amount of heavy weaponry and ammunition. Then he jacks a sea plane that Rae Dawn Chong can fly for some reason, and she takes them to Dan Hedaya’s Island Stronghold, everyone’s favorite family-friendly terrorist encampment theme park. Hedaya’s dictator character had expected Matrix to be in Val Verde – a vaguely Latin American country that links Commando with Die Hard 2 and Predator; all the movies were produced by Joel Silver, and Die Hard and its first sequel were also written by Stephen E. de Souza – where he was supposed to assassinate its U.S.-installed democratic leader in return for Jenny’s freedom, so obviously he’s totally pissed when Matrix shows up and annihilates his scenic resort getaway in an incredible ten-minute sequence that results in the demise of about 150 nameless drones.
You should know that this last bit, the part in which waves and waves of ethnic-looking evildoers are wasted at the hands of John Matrix, one-man army, is the best scene in the movie, the one you’re most likely to remember afterwards because it’s so beautifully senseless and excessive, a classic display of Arnold-in-action. The second best is Matrix’s sexy final showdown with a visibly aroused Bennett, which includes some great knife-fighting/wrestling/foreplay and a rather spectacular death-by-pipe-through-the-chest.
You should also know that those political aspects of the plot are an absolute failure. Again, it’s supposed to help us believe what an honorable soldier and upstanding human being Matrix is, but that was a forgone conclusion as soon as you saw Arnold’s face on the poster. Besides, there’s no way that the shooting script of Commando was more than thirty pages, unless every gun sound, explosion, and groaning death had its own line on the page:
It’s the thinnest strand of plot that connects those big-action setpieces. This is a movie I’ve seen at least twenty times, and I still had to look up why Matrix was involved with all these bad dudes in the first place. While Commando is the action movie, the one people are talking about, whether they know it or not, when they complain that action movies are mindless and too violent, it lacks the hook that pushed the other best 1980s-era examples of the genre to franchise territory. I’m thinking Lethal Weapon, First Blood, The Terminator, Die Hard, RoboCop, Predator – movies that weren’t just big, but big three or four times over through two more decades.
You don’t need to see what happens with Murtaugh and Riggs after they sit down for Christmas dinner, but you kinda want to. John Matrix, however, is a blank slate, and Commando just sort of happens, and it happens fast, which is a good thing. If it lasted even four or five minutes more, it’d be too long – and that’s said with the knowledge that that extra time would likely just allow Matrix to add to the death toll and maybe cause a cool explosion. Really, there’s an entire look-how-stealthy-Arnold-can-be scene that could be cut out; it’d shave off four minutes, and no one dies in it, anyway.
A sequel to Commando was written by de Souza (and, supposedly, Frank Darabont), but was turned down by Schwarzeneggar. Commando 2 eventually became Die Hard, and lo, all was right with the world. Where Colonel John Matrix and Adorable Daughter Jenny and Rae Dawn Chong go after they fly away from the homicidal slaughter (not to mention mindfuck of a diplomatic catastrophe) wrought by the vengeful soldier should be of no concern. And with his horrifically grand and devastating mission accomplished, it’s actually pretty easy to say goodbye.