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Commando
Tonight's Feature Presentation

COMMANDO (1985)

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vernon Wells, Rae Dawn Chong, Dan Hedaya, Alyssa Milano, Bill Duke

Written By: Steven E de Souza (also story), Jospeh Loeb III (story), Matthew Weisman (story)

Directed By: Mark L. Lester

The Short Version

Commando is really Arnold Schwarzenegger’s definitive standalone action opus.

It’s also utterly preposterous in the most awesomely entertaining sense.

Rae Dawn Chong with a rocket launcher = instant classic moment.

The bad guy got called “Freddie Mercury on steroids” by the actor playing him.  Wow.

Commando kicks ass and even delivers some laughs along the way; this one’s a true action classic.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

JALAPENO JACK.

A tasty classic with some kick.


Pairs Well With...

MILLER HIGH LIFE.

Cheap beer that’s still tasty enough to drink even if you’re not a drunk or a frat boy.  A twelve pack of this stuff plus Commando equals a party!

“Any sign of Matrix?”

“No, sir!  Just those bodies.  You think there’s more, sir?”

“If he’s still alive, I’d expect a lot more.”


As a matter of fact, the best guess is 81 bodies.  That’s not the total body count for Commando, mind you; that’s just the body count chalked up by Arnold Schwarzenegger himself.  A few of the dead aren’t his fault.

Oh, yes; things do go “boom” here.

Moreso than many of the big names from the Golden Age of Action Movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger had a knack for becoming involved with projects that became something bigger than what one could just call “an Ah-nold movie.”  Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Predator, Total Recall; these are movies that transcend any one person, however crucial to the results he may be, and exist as something more.  Nevertheless, Schwarzenegger still found his way into many standalone action films that are his and his alone, and of those, Commando stands out as the definitive Ah-nold classic.

[Pause for trivia: it almost wasn’t a standalone movie.  Someone wanted to make a sequel with Arnold’s character from Commando replacing some guy named Joe Leland in a screenplay being adapted from a novel by Roderick Thorp.  Schwarzenegger turned it down, so the character got turned into a dude named McClane, who would be played by Schwarzenegger’s friend Bruce Willis in a little movie called Die Hard.]

Without question, Commando is one of the most ridiculously overblown action movies of the 1980s, and it is all the more awesome for it.  “Preposterous” walks happily alongside “kickass” for this flick, and when it’s all done, they head to the bar and laugh it off with a beer while Power Station blasts from the jukebox.

We start off with some vaguely random violence.  A man walked up to a garbage truck, thinking that he’s missed the morning pickup; instead, the “garbage men” grab uzis and gun him down.  Another man gets on a boat while we see the same two guys from the garbage truck standing on a pier; a moment later, the boat blows up.  By this point, we’ve gotten the hint that someone is indeed up to no good.

As the credits start to roll over the course of the next few minutes, we are treated to one of the most preposterous jumbles of introductory footage in 80s action movie history.

Cue the close ups.  First, we see boots.  Then we see a chainsaw, casually held in a man’s right hand.  Next, check out those biceps; they’re hard to miss, since they’re taking up your whole screen, but don’t worry, the camera will keep cutting back to them.  Up next, the chiseled face of Arnold Schwarzenegger, sporting a crew cut that only he and Howie Long have ever been able to pull off successfully.  And if this wasn’t enough testosterone for you, check out that seven foot long log he’s got casually slung over his left shoulder.  Wait another minute, and you see him splitting said log with an axe.  It’s all so manly you’d swear it was a commercial for either beer or deodorant; frighteningly enough, the director admitted that it’s taken right out of 1930s German propaganda films as a depiction of the invincible superman emerging from the woods.

And after all of this manliness, who should sneak up on axe-wielding Ah-nold but… a young Alyssa Milano, still in the midst of her “Who the Boss?” gig!  Her pink canvas high tops and pink striped shirt are about as high contrast to the Schwarzeneggerian testosterone farm as you can get… until the very next set of sequences, which feature, among other things, the two going out for ice cream (which she playfully shoves at his nose) and – I still do double takes at this one – the two of them hand feeding a wild deer.  Apparently, we’ve now switched to selling life insurance or something.  Either that, or we’re supposed to be establishing that Ah-nold – here sporting the asskicking name of John Matrix – isn’t just manlier than an entire Pro Bowl football team, but he’s also a Very Loving Father.

Don’t tell me you can’t see what’s coming next after that kind of intro.

While father and daughter are enjoying a lunch of mystery meat sandwiches and discussing the merits of Boy George, a helicopter approaches their home.  Aboard is one General Kirby (James Olson, The Andromeda Strain), and he brings dire news.  From him we discover that Matrix used to be the leader of an elite commando unit, and that he and his team have since retired to live out quiet, anonymous lives with their families.  However, it turns out that the people we saw being killed before the credits rolled were members of Matrix’s old squad, and Kirby fears that Matrix could be next.  As such, he brings a couple of guards along “for protection” while he gets to the bottom of things, but meanwhile, he thought Matrix should be aware of the situation.  With that, Kirby takes off again.

Needless to say, the bad guys, who before didn’t know where Matrix was, followed Kirby, and launch an assault on his house as soon as the General leaves.  Matrix manages to kill most of the attackers, but not before they get away with his daughter.  He soon learns that the attack was orchestrated by a dictator he once deposed by the name of Arius (Dan Hedaya, Alien Resurrection) with the help of one of Matrix’s own former squad mates turned traitor, Bennett (Vernon Wells, Fortress).  Now Matrix has a choice: either assassinate the current President of Val Verde so that Arius can reclaim power, or Arius will kill his daughter.

Of course, Arius isn’t counting on the third option: that Matrix will kill him, and everyone else around him…

To call Commando farfetched and even preposterous is an understatement.  In an era defined by ridiculous, over the top action plots, Commando jumps more sharks than most.  However, as demonstrated by shamelessness already described during the film’s first fifteen minutes, everyone involved is very much aware of this, and has chosen to wink and have fun with it.  That doesn’t mean that Commando is played out as a comedy – not many of those have this kind of body count – but it means that it does have a sense of humor about itself that makes the ridiculousness easy to swallow.  It’s a testosterone party, and everyone just wants to share the beer.

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first: if there’s an ass to be found, Commando kicks it.  Stuff goes boom on a regular basis, bullets fly in all directions, blades follow suit, and fists get a workout.  A guy gets scalped by a circular saw blade that’s tossed like a Frisbee.  No spear handy?  Just yank a pipe down from the ceiling and use that.  I lost count of the number of grenades that go off here.  There’s a reason that Commando is considered one of the definitive action flicks of the 1980s, folks, so if action is what you’re after, don’t let the cute kid wearing pink high tops and charm-affixed overalls worry you.  You will definitely get what you came for, and then some.

You also get some of the better one-liners and humor bits that are a staple of these films.  Again, it never takes away from the action, but it certainly does lighten the load enough to make for an atmosphere that’s more fun than intense.  This is illustrated nowhere better than in a scene that has since come to be regarded as one of the classic action movie humor moments of all time.  After crashing into a gun and surplus shop with a bulldozer and stealing what he needs to kick some ass, Matrix goes back for one last load when the cops show up and arrest him.  Meanwhile, the friendly if way-over-her-head stewardess he’s picked up along the way played by Rae Dawn Chong (why yes, she is Tommy Chong’s daughter) is left back at the car with all of the weapons he already stole.  Thinking quickly, she drives the car up behind the police wagon, pulls out a rocket launcher, and hilarity ensues.  No written description will ever do this scene justice; you simply have to see it to understand, but once you do, you’ll also see why the scene has become legendary.

Even more legendary, however, is our evil henchman, Bennett, who spends the movie looking and sounding more like he wants to tie Matrix up and spank him rather than kill him.  The costume doesn’t do anything to dispel such notions, either (it’s way too tight and features netting made to look like fake chain mail), and even Wells himself called Bennett “Freddie Mercury on steroids” (complete with signature mustache).  Add to that a vocal style that sounds an awful lot like a guy perpetually trying to rush negotiations with a hooker (or a gigolo) just so he can get on with it, and, well…  You’re free to draw your own conclusions, but regardless, all of this makes for one of the most memorable – and perhaps unintentionally hilarious – action movie henchmen of all time.

Beyond the overall over the top nature of Commando and all of its signature moments, though, what struck me most while watching it this time around were the number of anachronisms to be found here.  It’s sometimes easy to forget that the world of 1985 was so much different than it is today, but that really stands out in Commando moreso than it does in many other films of the time.  For example, one of the movie’s major fight and chase sequences hinges on the fact that a character needs to use a public phone booth to make a call.  That’s right: no cel phone.  And as it turns out, there are phone booths everywhere; how often do you even see those anymore?  Certainly not in the massive numbers you find them here, if at all in most places.  Just a few more years, and that scene would have needed a total rewrite.  And then there’s the airport, which is a whole lot easier to get around in during a pre-2001 world… and a whole lot easier to escape from without tripping alarms by going places one shouldn’t be.  Even the fact that a guy not actually travelling on the plane is allowed to walk all the way to the departure gate – again, a pivotal point in the story – wouldn’t have worked today.  If only some gas prices were visible, Commando might look like something straight off of Mars compared to how things are today.  It’s just interesting to think about.

At the end of the day, though, “thinking” isn’t exactly the watch word that comes to mind with regard to Commando, but “fun,” “boom,” and “asskicking” definitely make the list of qualifiers.  It truly is one of the signature movies of its day, and easily ranks as the best of the standalone “Ah-nold” flicks.  If you dig action – especially over the top action – then there’s just no reason to pass up on Commando.

Bottom line, just pick this flick up and watch it already, preferably with some beers at the ready.  Besides, if you watch Commando, John Matrix will really like you, and if he likes you, he kills you last.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2012


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