Monday, April 1, 2013

Heavy Action: Commando

by Patrick Bromley
This movie changed my life.

Commando means a lot to me. It was the first R-rated movie I ever saw. I was desperate to watch it at nine years old -- something about the poster image of Schwarzenegger in his vest and greasepaint made it seem like the coolest thing EVER -- but my mom was skeptical. So, one Saturday morning, she asked my brother (who is five years older than me) to watch it and make sure it was ok. My brother, being a good and decent man, obliged, and sat through all of Commando's 90 blood-soaked minutes. And because the anticipation was more than I could handle, I sat in the kitchen (where I couldn't see the TV) and LISTENED to Commando before watching it. As soon as it was over and my brother deemed it ok, I rewound the tape and watched it beginning to end, possibly more than once.

An action movie fan was born.

I have never looked back since that first viewing of Commando, devouring as many action movies as I could over the next 25 years. It broke a seal for my parents, who would subsequently bypass pre-screening most R-rated action films and allow me to go see the new Schwarzenegger movies IN THEATERS. Because we were on our annual fishing excursion in northern Wisconsin (by which I mean by Dad and siblings would fish while I would stay back at the cabin and read my sister's Babysitters Club books, having blown through my own books and comics in the first two days) and missed the second-run showing of Predator near my house (a fact which I was SICK over and which ruined the back half of the trip), my dad drove me 45 minutes in an electrical storm to the only theater still showing it. I got to sneak away with a friend's family on Christmas night to see The Running Man. These are great memories -- formative movie-going memories -- and I owe it all to that first showing of Commando.
In the role that would define much of his career, Schwarzenegger plays the excellently-named John Matrix (!!), ex-special forces colonel who is retired and living in the mountains with his young daughter, Jenny (Alyssa Milano). Together, they chop wood, fix sandwiches, go for ice cream and feed deer. Normal daddy/daughter stuff. He's called back into action when all of the men from his unit are murdered by mercenaries, led by Bennett (Vernon Wells), a former member of Matrix's team who was kicked out excessive brutality. He's a little nutty, is the point, and he sports a Freddy Mercury mustache and wears a chain mail vest and S&M gear. Normal villain stuff.

Bennett and his men kidnap Jenny to blackmail Matrix into a political assassination in South America, to which Matrix agrees. He escapes his captors almost immediately, though, and begins his one-man mission to take out Bennett's guys (with the help of flight attendant Cindy, played by Rae Dawn Chong) before boarding a plane to Val Verde to take on an entire army and get his daughter back. Then maybe go out for ice cream. Or feed some deer.

Rambo: First Blood Part II is often held up as the paragon of '80s action. In a lot of ways, it is, as it features limited dialogue, massive destruction and basically brought the genre to the mainstream. John Rambo was a perfect symbol of Reagan America, but Commando is a much better representation of '80s action. Unlike Rambo, it has no real political bent. There is only the smallest thread of a plot. It's wall-to-wall one-liners. It has a colorful and memorable villain, as well as endless amounts of cannon fodder to go flying through the air every time there is an explosion -- and there are a LOT of explosions. It is as mindless and gratuitous as action movies come, and it is glorious. The movie is somehow at once both an entry point and a Master's Class in '80s action.

Everything about Commando feels kind of crude; while the movie pre-dates the DTV era, it feels a whole lot like a DTV movie with Schwarzenegger at the center. The action is very static, broken up into a series of cuts with lots of awkward insert shots. It feels cheap (comparatively speaking it is, costing less than half of Rambo), and we're not really used to Schwarzenegger movies that feel cheap. He's the guy that brought action movies to the A-list, eventually making movies in the same genre that cost 10 times as much as Commando. It's interesting to watch him find his footing here, developing the character that he would play many times over in the course of his career. His acting is only slightly less robotic than in The Terminator; the same way you don't notice that your dog or your kid is getting bigger (because you see them every day), many of us never really noticed how much better Schwarzenegger got as an actor between '85 and 2000. Hell, even by Total Recall (in 1990) he was way better than he is here.
Commando (and possibly Firestarter) is the most credible movie on the resume of director Mark L. Lester, though Heavy Action fans will always appreciate him for giving us the batshit crazy Showdown in Little Tokyo, and Extreme Justice is pretty good if you haven't seen it. The same cannot be said of screenwriter Steven E. DeSouza, because he wrote Die Hard. He also directed Street Fighter, so maybe that's a wash. For all its ridiculousness, his screenplay is really effective at times. I love the way it's set up that Matrix is a total badass. Sure, we get some of the generic dialogue where Major Kirby dumps a bunch of exposition about wanting Matrix back because he's awesome, because this is an action movie and that scene is in every action movie. The cool moment comes a few minutes later, when Matrix's house is attacked and he reminds a soldier that the bad guys are downwind. The guy is all "What, do you think I can smell them coming?" And Matrix says "I DID." HE SMELLED THEM COMING. This is not a guy to be messed with. In case you weren't sure, he goes to his secret weapons shed seconds later and reveals an arsenal capable of arming a small militia. He doesn't need a small militia. He IS a small militia.

There are so many other small touches that give Commando its special personality. The presence of Alyssa Milano is one, because I was very much in love with her during her '80s tomboy days (as soon as she grew out of that, so did I). Vernon Wells. Dan Hedaya. Bill Duke shows up as a bad guy, and he wears a suit just like he would two years later in Predator. In that movie, he's one of the good guys, though. The point is that no matter what side Bill Duke is fighting for, he's going to do it in style. David Patrick Kelly plays a good weasel, because of course he does. He also gets one of the best sign-offs in '80s action movie history. There's a great fight scene in a mall, where Schwarzenegger rips a phone booth out of the ground and throws it. James Horner's calypso-infused score sounds goofy at first, until you realize that it totally works and gives the movie a feel that's different from other action movies of the era.
Because the violence becomes white noise at a certain point, it's easy to forget just how hardcore Commando can be. Sure, there's a lot of bloodless, generic henchmen death, but Lester also squibs up a bunch of them so the blood starts splashing. At one point, Matrix picks up some buzz saw blades and starts scalping guys and chopping arms off. The entire last act of the movie is a nonstop orgy of gunfire and violence as Schwarzenegger single-handedly takes out an entire army, giving the movie one of the decade's highest body counts. Starting my action movie education with Commando was like learning to swim by being thrown in the deep end of the pool, and then blowing up the pool with a series of well-lobbed hand grenades.

What Commando has going for it over the Stallone and Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson movies of the time is a sense of humor. This is not a movie that takes itself seriously -- it knows that an action movie (even a shoot-'em-up one like this) can be a lot of fun. This is the movie that pretty much defined the Schwarzenegger persona for the next 15 years; to this point, he was known mostly for Conan and The Terminator, both movies that required him to be grim and serious. Commando lets him cut loose and is the first movie to give him the kind of one-liners for which he would forever come to be associated ("Don't disturb my friend -- he's DEAD tired!"). It is self-aware and kind of silly -- it would be hard to describe any movie in which Dan Hedaya plays a South American dictator (complete with ridiculous Spanish accent) as anything else.

A lot has been made about the homoerotic subtext of Commando. Some of that is to be expected -- any movie with a ton of super-masculine posturing tends to feel a little homoerotic. But Commando might feel a little gayer than most, probably thanks to Vernon Wells' performance as Bennett; beyond the costuming, the actor is way over the top, particularly at the end, when he's getting more and more excited at the prospect of getting his hands on Matrix. I have watched Commando dozens of times and never read the exchange between the two as being sexual, but once you become aware of that reading, it's pretty hard to miss. It feels like Schwarzenegger knows full well that Wells wants to fuck him, and actually uses that fact to win the fight -- he taunts and, dare I say, seduces Bennett into letting his guard down enough to get the drop on him. In this context, Bennett getting penetrated by a giant pipe takes on a whole new meaning. Maybe that's overthinking it. As Freud used to say, sometimes Bennett letting off some steam is just Bennett letting off some steam.
Over 20 years later, Commando would essentially be remade as Taken -- guy's daughter is kidnapped by bad guys, so he runs around killing everyone to get her back. The major difference between the two movies (besides things like the age of the daughter, the motivations for the bad guys, stuff like that) is that Taken tries to be gritty and realistic. Commando is happy to be a cartoon. I like them both. I like Commando better.

I have to thank my mom for  trusting me to handle the violence in Commando. She knew that even as a young kid, I could understand this was cartoon movie violence, with about as much connection to reality as the Road Runner dropping an anvil on the Coyote. A lot has been made about violence in movies contributing to gun deaths over the years; it's a sensitive topic that I don't really want to get into here (except to say that no study has ever proven a direct correlation between the two), but I have been watching violent action movies since age nine and I have zero interest in even SEEING a gun in real life, much less using one. It is possible to understand that movies are movies and enjoy them on that level.

So thanks, Mom. I dedicate this Heavy Action to you.

Two quick-but-fascinating Commando facts: First, the movie was originally designed as a starring vehicle for KISS frontman Gene Simmons. GENE SIMMONS. I can't help but hear "Let off some steam" in Simmons' trademark deadpan.

Second: A sequel to Commando was written by DeSouza and Frank Darabont (!), based on the book Nothing Lasts Forever. The movie never happened, but the same novel was eventually adapted into the screenplay for Die Hard 2. The Heavy Action Circle of Life!

Got an action movie you'd like to see discussed in a future Heavy Action column? Let us know in the comments below!


  1. That was beautiful Patrick, really well done.

    I always thought that the one-liners were an attempt by Arnold (or whoever was running the show for him) to capture some of the feeling of James Bond.

    1. I never looked at it that way! Interesting. I like that idea. Thanks, G-dubs.

    2. Really? That's interesting because I've always seen Arnold's whole career as a very studied view on what worked. Not cynical, but rather an intelligent man who wanted to be famous and adapted everything that worked for his own purposes.

      He took the quips from Bond, he took the masculine posing from some of the action stars from the 70s, and the disarming charm of the classic Hollywood leading men and turned it into this thing that just makes you want to watch him.

      It's actually brilliant and sort of blew my mind when I first stepped back and saw everything he was doing. Increased my appreciation of his work 10 fold.

      I think that's actually the problem he's having now, there isn't really a template for all those elements to work together for a guy in his 60s. The only pattern to follow is John Wayne and I don't think the other elements work as well with the way John Wayne aged as an actor.

    3. You're absolutely right. He pretty much says as much in his autobiography. Great observation.

  2. "Commando" was among the first batch of 'R' rated movies that I ever saw (and taped on VHS to take back home and show my friends, with me doing half-assed translations on the fly) when I came visit my father in the United States in the mid-80's during my mid-year school break. He had HBO so I watched as much 'R' stuff as I could before going back to El Salvador and their neutered/censored/not 'R' movies. "Sleepaway Camp," "The Omen," "Friday the 13th 1-4," "Nightmare on Elm Street," "The Exorcist" "The Terminator" and "Commando" were gloriously sampled by yours truly at that early age.

    I only sneaked into a theater to see an 'R' rated movie once, when "The Fly II" came out and my mother flat-out refused to take me to see it. God, I was such a goodie two shoes back then.

    Back to the Matrix. I remember "Commando" as being the funniest of the violent 'R' rate bunch I saw because, contrasted with how dour and serious "Terminator" seemed, it was fun to watch Arnold mow down bad guys by the hundreds by his lonesome self because he seemed to be in on how silly all of it was. It would take until "Hot Shots: Part Deux" for a 'bloodier' movie to topple "Commando's" body count, even though technically both are cartoons. I saw "Commando" a couple of years ago and it still holds up, especially the see-it-once-knowing-and-it-stays-forever homoerotic subtext between Matrix and Bennett. I mean, Bennett looks like a beefy Freddie Mercury with that 'stache and jacket, not to mention the suggestive dialogue. It's all in good, clean fun. :-)

    My new-to-me movies for the weekend:

    3/30/13: He saved the best for last. Jean Vigo's final film before his untimely death, L'ATALANTE (1934) on Blu-ray.

    3/31/13: George Lucas' ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH: THX 1138 4EB (1967) on DVD
    , i.e., the "Star Wars" gravy train begins here.

    10 unseen-by-yours-truly franchises, 30-new-to-me movies, a new installment every day of the month. The fun begins this Wednesday with my reviews of the new-to-me "Back to The Future" trilogy.

  3. Hey, I was so glad to see this article - I just watched Commando a month or so ago as part of my pledge to watch more action movies (not going so great as I haven't been watching a lot of movies lately but I did enjoy the Fast and Furious franchise over the past few weeks - 1, 2 and 5 in particular). I had seen it on TV as a young kid but it was the first time since and I really enjoyed it. I totally get and agree with most everything you said about it - great essay.

    And best deer-feeding scene ever! ALL the daddy-daughter stuff - he fuckin' commando-loves the shit out of that girl. John Matrix makes you look like a pussy and a shitty father but you gotta love him anyway.

    I did not pick up on the homosexual subtext at all but I did snort a LOT of cocaine pre-movie to really get into that 80s vibe and everything was a little gay back then anyway so I guess I didn't notice. I'm sure I will next time - thanks for the tip (that's what HE said)!

    Feel free to ignore this next bit, but since I can't resist a bit of socio-political discussion and because YOU brought it up, I have to say I have a hard time believing that the glorification of violence, gun violence in particular, by the entertainment industry in general, has no influence on the culture of guns and violence in America. Not a cause, certainly, but a contributing factor - to what degree is the question. As much as I can see the difference between fantasy and reality, and as much as I abhor both guns and violence in real life, I can't really be sure what effect all of the violence and death I've seen has had on my subconscious. And we've all felt something because of a movie - chemical reactions are being involuntarily triggered in our brains as we witness these fake but very real-looking acts of violence, so we're potentially being influenced on both a psychological and physiological level without even knowing it. And then there are the stupids who are affected at a conscious level - the ones that think guns and violence seem pretty cool (because, to be fair, Hollywood does make it look pretty cool) and actually try to emulate what they see. A minority to be sure, but a minority in a country of 300 million is still a lot of people.

    Anyway, I would never BLAME "Hollywood" for the real-life violence of the world, I'm not sure I can let them (and us) completely off the hook...

    That being said, I love Commando (and have yet to commit a murder since I watched it)!

  4. My terrible confession is that Commando is one of the few Arnold movies I've never seen. I want to, it just hasn't happened.

    But I LOVE how personal this column is. I can relate, especially to the part about parents finally trusting us to know the difference between real violence and movie violence.

    Thanks for taking us back in time.

    *plays "Back in Time" by Huey Lewis"*

    1. It's currently available on Netflix Instant. I am POSITIVE you will enjoy it.

  5. Great read. I always wondered why the deliciously horrid calypso soundtrack sound like the outtakes from 1982's 48 HRS score. Its because Since Horner scored that movie as well, he probobly just pulled out the 120min/EP cassette tape containing the unused take, sold it to the Commando producers, and went back to bed.

    1. It's super weird, right? And yet I remember that score more than almost any '80s action score, so maybe it's doing something right. I never made the 48 Hrs. connection.