Principal Cast : Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Chong, Alyssa Milano, Vernon Wells, James Olson, David Patrick Kelly, Bill Duke, Dan Hedaya.
Synopsis: When his daughter is kidnapped, retired US Special Forces Commando John Matrix must race against the clock to hunt down those who hold her and make them pay.
By the midway point of the 1980’s, Hollywood had established two new cinematic action superstars. One, spawned from the Oscar-winning underdog story of Rocky, was Sylvester Stallone. The other, off the back of runaway successes with Terminator, Conan The Barbarian, Conan The Destroyerand its sequel Red Sonja, was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the “Austrian Oak” and former My Olympia who parlayed his immense physical frame into a sizeable acting career. One of Arnold’s earliest roles was 1985’s Commando, a cheap-n-nasty actioner that gave the rising star ample opportunity to flex his considerable muscles and entrench his sly wit into popular culture – Commando came along at a point when “I’ll Be Back” was at its most popular, and audiences expected a level of comic-book humour to the generally explosive goings-on in Arnie’s movies.
Schwarzenegger plays John Matrix, a retired special forces commando whose old team is being killed off by covert operatives led by former associate Bennett (Vernon Wells), on the orders of a South American dictator, Arius (Dan Hedaya with an almighty tan!). Matrix’ daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano) is kidnapped and held hostage, a bargaining chip for Matrix to carry out a political assassination for Arius, something the steely-eyed commando will not do. Ostensibly on a flight to carry out his “mission”, Matrix escapes surveillance and begins to hunt down those who work for Arius and make his way to where they’re keeping his daughter, in order to kill everyone he possibly can.
If there’s an epicenter for subtlety and intelligence, then Commando is as far from that place as it’s possible for a movie to be. Violent, laughably sarcastic and jammed with as many one-liners as Arnie can mumble throughout a 90-minute romp like this, Commando’s thrills come from seeing the star gun down a virtual legion of inept South American paramilitary types in the name of vengeance, as America comes to town in the form of Schwarzenegger’s hulking frame and a small arsenal of weaponry, all of which would bring down a small town but in Arnie’s hands looks like tinker toys. It’s a slam-bang variety of stunts and brawls, gunplay and casual murder, as Arnie, together with Aussie screen villain Vernon Wells, Predator co-star Bill Duke, and David Patrick Kelly as a snivelling henchman, go head-to-head in a variety of increasingly banal encounters.
The screenplay is credited to 80’s action maestro Steven E de Souza, who adrenalizes the film with fetishistic appropriation of America’s gun culture, machismo, and raw, unbridled misogyny of a kind now only spotted in the Expendables films. It’s cheesy, concussive nonsense, as Arnie embodies the physical manifestation of American Vengeance, tearing through a city, a car, and a small island nation to get his daughter back. At one point he actually tears a car seat from its mooring and casts it aside like it’s cardboard – one suspects it was probably rigged but part of me kinda hopes it was done for real, because that would be awesome. The film’s villain is a sneering, lip-licking asshole, overplayed deliciously by then-hot Vernon Wells, who parlayed his minor success as a Mad Max villain into a temporary Hollywood career. He makes a great foil for Arnie’s behemoth-like John Matrix (has there ever been a more testicularly-named hero in all of cinema?) and turns a one-note character into… well, a one-note character with class.
Arnie is paired with Rae Dawn Chong, who plays an air hostess caught up in Matrix’ plan to rescue his daughter, and while the pair have a certain chemistry there’s a lot to be said for having a competent actor/actress alongside the monosyllabic action hero to generate not only exposition but emotional weight. Chong is competent but hardly assisted by the rancid dialogue and terrible characterisation the script gives her – she’s barely a fully developed character, and is used primarily to assist Matrix with his quest or appear vaguely vixen-like, and is the very essence of a Mary-Sue with regards to the plot. The fact she’s an air hostess means she automatically has to know how to fly a plane, right? Which happens to come in handy at a key moment in the film, right? Sure. Anyway, the pair seem to have a nice time together on the screen, and she even gets to one-up Arnie with the film’s best quote: “I’ve only known you five minutes and I want you dead, too.”
The direction from Mark Lester is, in a word, competent. It’s an easy enough film to make, really: just point the camera anywhere near Arnie or a stunt team and let them to the work, and that’s pretty much what happens. Some of the film’s visual effects are quite dated now, a bit of rear-projection stands out, but there’s a few moments here and there that still impress. A climactic explosion of a South American military base feels cheaply done (spot the mannequins standing in for real people!) and the slaughterhouse of victims to Arnie’s machine-gun carnage is absolutely insane for how little sense it all makes. That said, Arnie works his charm and towers over the screen, imbuing the role with all the sweaty manliness you can possibly handle, and then some. The fight sequences, especially the one between Arnie and Bill Duke in a motel room, do lift the tension considerably (both men appear to really be tearing into each other), although they’re too infrequent and generally too cheesy for me to really dig.
Commando is pure 80’s nostalgia action. Arnie at the height of his early powers, a plot that dovetails directly into his wheelhouse of performance and character style, and a simple, easy to digest aesthetic that asks little of its audience than just to sit back and enjoy (or, not). Violently playful and considerably more problematic against today’s standards of masculinity and femininity, Commando is a throwback delight that remains as laughably stupid, eminently enjoyable and ultimately classic as ever.
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