Tagline: Somewhere… Somehow… Someone’s going to pay.
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Chong, Dan Hedeya, Vernon Welles, Alyssa Milano, James Olsen, David Patrick Kelly, Bill Duke
Director: Mark L. Lester
18 | 90 min/ 92 min (director’s cut) | Action
Writers: Jeff Loeb (story) Matthew Weisman (story) Steven E. De Souza (screenplay)
Budget: $10,000,000 US
A year after he was launched to superstardom as a relentless cyborg assassin in James Cameron’s The Terminator, Arnie would return with a bigger profile, bigger budget and bigger expectations. It wouldn’t prove a problem. Arnie had faced bigger obstacles in his life, had achieved the kind of feats nobody could ever have imagined for him, leaving behind a small Austrian village of approximately 2000 people and earning the title of Mr. Universe by the time he was 20. This was the first of several bodybuilding awards that led him to star alongside Incredible Hulk actor Lou Ferrigno in documentary Pumping Iron, a movie from which the cocksure Austrian emerged as the real star.
Arnie’s next logical step was into the realms of acting, but as proven by cult monstrosity Hercules in New York, it wouldn’t prove easy. In fact, back before he broke into the mainstream as Conan the Barbarian, a casting agent had bluntly informed him that he would never be a great actor. For an ambitious kid who would one day govern the state of California, the solution to this assertion was simple: he would become the biggest movie star in the world instead. And boy, did he ever!
Forget your Seagals and your Van Dammes and even your Oscar nominated screenwriters like Stallone, the action genre was epitomised by one man, perhaps the biggest and most recognised phenomenon in all of movie history, and his legacy will never be matched. Sure, his delivery was awkward, his acting as wooden as the biggest oak in the forest, but Arnie was Box Office, plain and simple, and if you couldn’t drag a passable performance out of him then producers were sure to find someone who could.
His big break came as the inimitable Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 Series 800 Terminator, thanks to an inspired bit of casting by Cameron (Arnie actually wanted to play the hero and had to be convinced otherwise). Aware of Schwarzenegger’s limitations, the director would use the star’s larger-than-life physique and wooden demeanour to devastating effect. This would lead to the career-launching “I’ll be back”, and a whole host of witty one-liners prescribed by such action screenwriting royalty as Steven E. de Souza, who with Commando would pen one of Arnie’s most quotable screenplays.
Directed by Mark L. Lester, Commando is an exercise in tongue-in-cheek hypermasculinity which has little time for insight or logic. This is bulging biceps, spurious espionage and mustachioed gymnasts twirling and dancing to their laughable demise, as our hero bumbles his way through an entire army single-handed. In terms of errors in continuity, I could write a book, and protagonist John Matrix is so indestructible that he is able to take cover behind rose bushes without suffering so much as a scratch, utilising the kind of mindless gung-ho tactics that would have seen America conquered long ago if he were in fact the best in his field as so much exposition would have us believe.
When we first meet Matrix we find a fellow of simple pleasures, a retired woodsman who likes to share ice cream with his daughter Jenny (Milano) or hand-feed mountain deer so wild they causally eat from the giant’s hand and are obviously chained to a bush. But don’t let the bumbling dick-slap persona fool you, for when pushed Matrix is a one-man killing machine, an elite black-ops commando and not the listless, homoerotic dunderhead who appears onscreen.
While busy enjoying his self-imposed exile, Matrix has his lunch interrupted by General Kirby (Olsen), the man who taught him everything he knew until he inevitably grew to know more. So attuned is Matrix to the art of combat that he has the ability to smell choppers approaching from a mile away, while a simple change in wind direction is enough to alert him to a sniper’s presence. Kirby informs Matrix that the members of his old platoon are being bumped off and that he may be next. Before Kirby’s chopper is even out of sight—and I mean that quite literally—Matrix comes under fire, and after dialling the highly complex security code to his secret weapons storage unit (13) he is locked and loaded and out of retirement. Unfortunately for him, Jenny has already been kidnapped by sloppy S&M icon Bennett (Vernon Wells), a fat Freddy Mercury lookalike with a South African twang who never looks capable of taking on our hulking protagonist.
However, due to some quite astonishing tactical ineptitude, America’s best is soon at his gay adversary’s mercy. With a bit of back-to-basics exposition, we find out that Matrix had Bennett kicked out of the force, and ever since that day he has been waiting to pay him back. Thanks to exiled Latin American dictator, Arias, Bennett is finally given that opportunity. Arias wants to assassinate the president of his homeland and believes Matrix is the only man for the job, so much so that he has concocted the kind of elaborate plan that is doomed to fail when he simply could have hired a sniper.
Bennett is key to the movie’s endurable charm, and whether purposeful or a simple byproduct of the hypermasculine ’80s, it all derives from the suppressed homosexual attraction that seems to exist between our two adversaries, one that drips from every tensed muscle and quasi-impudent expression. In fact, so much sexual tension exists between the two that sexy female co-star Rae Dawn Chong seems almost peripheral as a love interest, aiding Matrix’s wooden warrior the way a sister would, with absolutely no sexual spark or hint of attraction. So awkward is Arnie’s delivery that he is sometimes heard speaking off-screen, while his interactions with Cindy are kept to a minimum, a fact made apparent by the later released Director’s Cut, which axed several extended interactions between he and Chong and wisely let the action do the talking.
Just as worthy of discussion is Commando‘s glorious illogicality. Matrix is the kind of seemingly invincible, pre-Die Hard musclehead that Arnie would become synonymous with, and the screenplay is in on the joke from the ground floor up, giving us some of the greatest one-liners ever committed to celluloid and helping to forge the actor’s decade’s long reign as the king of eyebrow-raising quips. Matrix’s one-man crusade to retrieve his daughter is so cack-handed he never should have made it out of LA. Not only should he have died several times (jumping off an air-bound passenger plane without a parachute is tantamount to suicide), it’s a miracle he wasn’t put in jail, and I don’t mean overnight.
Calling on his years of strategic experience, Matrix first abducts airhead civilian Cindy (Chong), who almost has him arrested in a mall until our straight-talking psycho’s multiple acts of battery see her have a change of heart. After then watching him graduate to multiple murder she even aids him in the armed robbery of a weapons store, firing a perfectly aimed rocket at the arresting officers and flipping their truck in such a manner that the door falls open and Matrix is able to exit unscathed. Pretty reckless stuff with his daughter’s life on the line. Lucky for Jenny the cops neglected to handcuff him!
Cindy then willingly escorts her kidnapper across a no-fly zone in a stolen plane to the South American hideout where Jenny is being held, and what follows is the most logic-defying action finale of all time in which, with no apparent tactical approach, Matrix disposes of an entire rogue army while enduring little more than a flesh wound. Slitting throats, sawing scalps and chopping off arms, Arnie is at his most ludicrously invincible as bullets zip past him and stuntmen are propelled off springboards to dazzling effect.
Much has been made of Commando‘s aforementioned gay subtext, and though this has since been disputed by those at the creative helm, that hasn’t stopped the movie’s legions of fans from suggesting otherwise. In fact, in many corners it has become a subject of almost scholastic proportions, and it’s easy to see why. The movie’s homoerotic overtones are explicit to say the least, and the sexual tension between Matrix and the ludicrously obsessive Bennett are palpable, with sweaty confrontations, macho titillation and phallic images such as the movie’s infamous and aptly climactic kill.
Were the makers of Commando producing this kind of senseless, big-budget claptrap with a knowing wink? You would certainly think so, although with the amount of Grade A cocaine available in ’80s Hollywood, you could perhaps forgive them for thinking that what they were making was legitimate.
Ripping a section of steel piping off the wall, Matrix uses it as a javelin, impaling the dastardly Bennett, who then begins to emit massive quantities of steam for some reason. Moments later, his watching 11 year-old daughter jumps for joy as her kidnapper chokes on his own blood.
Oh daddy, I knew you’d kill them in the end!
Most Absurd Moment
With Jenny at the mercy of the bad guys, Matrix agrees to the proposed assassination and is promptly escorted onto the plane by a no-nonsense thug. Immediately snapping his babysitter’s neck and complaining of air sickness, our burly hero leaps 500 feet from an airborne flight into a shallow puddle of water, only to emerge bone dry and ready for action.
Worst Editing Crime
When Matrix catches up with a cute little shit named Sully and dangles him by an ankle over the Hollywood Hills, you can clearly see the cable he is attached to his ankle for a good few seconds. Not once, but twice.
Remember when I said I was going to kill you last? I lied!
Most Blatant Fail in Continuity
After pursuing Sully at high speed and crashing into a telephone post without a sea belt, an unscathed Matrix flips his target’s car, totally destroying one side. In the next scene he and Cindy drive away in the same car, which is suddenly brand new without so much as a scratch.
Most Absurd Dialogue
I was going to go for the iconic, ‘Let off some steam, Bennett!’ but that’s just too obvious. So instead I’ll take you to a scene at the beginning of the movie when Matrix and Jenny are enjoying some of the youngster’s highly suspect sandwiches.
Casually reading one of his daughter’s pop music magazines, Matrix spots a picture of Boy George, and in his monotone drawl decides to make an observation.
Matrix: Why don’t they just call him Girl George? It would cut out all of the confusion I think.’