80s action cinema ruled, and here's the King of the Ring
Ah, the 80's. Jeans and jackets fused in seamless denim harmony, progressive synth pop, the New Romantics, women who wore one tube of lipstick every day, and most importantly from our point of view, Ronald Reagan. His administration saw the birth of action movies that were action movies. No flashy editing or bullet time here; just guys with pecs the size of Keanu Reeves' whole body wearing baby oil and waving belt-fed M60 machine guns around in one hand like anybody else would hold a handgun. Crackpot dictator? Eat this! Private army? Cannon fodder. Armoured vehicles? Smell my rocket launcher. Oh, the endless hours of exploding squibs and turf-covered air ramps tossing extras about like ragdolls whenever a grenade went off within half a click. Where have those halcyon days gone?
Two men in particular embody the bold spirit and weapons-grade power of that era more than any others, their careers dancing nimbly around each other as both behemoths strove to outdo the other with successively higher body counts and proportionately dissipating levels of plot motivation. Arguably the highpoint for messrs Stallone and Schwarzenegger, for it is them of whom I speak, was 1985. Band Aid may still have been extolling the virtues of preserving human life at No.1 in the UK pop charts, but our two meaty chums had different plans when it came to the suggestion they "feed the world". They were going to feed it hot lead.
Stallone took the momentum of First Blood, the film that introduced us to John Rambo, and didn't so much shift things up a gear as install a new V8 engine, lower the chassis and let rip with the nitro cannisters for Rambo: First Blood Part 2. Not to be outdone by his foil's Afghan located anti-Commie rhetoric, Arnie teamed up with director Mark L. Lester for arguably his most violent, pacy and downright entertaining movie; Commando. Stallone waves huge machine guns around? Arnie robs an army surplus store of every damn weapon it has. Stallone shoots some crap exploding arrows from a makeshift bow? Arnie bags himself a quad-barreled rocket launcher. The testosterone was mounting up and in this little baby The Big S let it rip.
Commando is without doubt my favourite Arnie movie by quite some margin. So many unexpected elements come together to compliment the OTT action that the film works on a plethora of levels, most of them entertaining as individual facets, but absolute dynamite when combined. The least inspiring thing about the movie is appropriately enough the least important; the plot. The 80's saw a huge swell in movies where directors decided 90 minutes was not enough to accommodate both tens of deaths and a delicately crafted explanation for their occurrence, and so the vast majority opted for the crowd-pleasing body count option. Commando does nothing to break this rule, and in actual fact it's perhaps the most efficient preacher of such a school of thought as you're likely to find.
Such as it matters, Arnold plays the ridiculously named John Matrix, former leader of an elite army covert ops team who have since been disbanded and given new identities. Living a simple life in a huge log cabin up in the woods with his daughter, Matrix is quite happy keeping himself to himself. An overly-cutesy opening credit sequence montage takes great pleasure in telling us this by showing John and Jenny feeding deer, chopping wood and shoving ice cream in each other's faces. Now that we have established John is a Good And Peaceful Man Who Only Kills When He Has To (™ Action Clich?), we can get on with the rough stuff.
The peaceful serenity of John's homely world is shattered by the whirring blades of an approaching chopper that carries his old commander General Franklin Kirby (James Olson in a role designed not so much to ape Richard Crenna as Col. Samuel Trautman in the Rambo films as facsimile it wholesale). It seems someone has been killing of the members of John's old unit, and Kirby is here to warn Matrix of the impending danger. No sooner has he flown off again, leaving behind an expendable two-man guard, than hostile gunfire starts turning John's home into matchsticks. There follows a scramble for cover as John heads for hid shed-cum-arsenal, with some dialogue thrown in to show us how elite he really is. "Remember and stay downwind or the scent could tip them off" he tells one unfortunate soul. "You think I can smell 'em coming?" he asks. "I did" replies John with the kind of self-assuredness we have no rational reason to doubt.
He returns to find his daughter has been kidnapped by the assailants who are making their getaway in a 4x4. One has remained behind to rather stupidly suggest Arnie "mellow out" while his people make him a business proposition. Unfortunately for the stooge, Matrix's idea of relaxation is firing assault rifles at peoples foreheads, and it's something he does tremendously well. Setting off in pursuit of the escaping kidnappers, John is eventually captured and the antagonist of the scheme revealed; Bennett (Vernon Wells). An old member of John's unit, Bennett has a chip on his shoulder from a time when Matrix had him turfed out of his squad, and now an exiled dictator has offered him a chance to get even. Arius (Dan Hedaya) is the former ruler of fictional country Val Verde, and he wants Matrix to help put him back in power. Apparently the nation's people see John as the hero of their revolution, and Arius wants him to use his influence to visit the President and kill him. It's classic 'do it or the kid dies' plot exposition, and all the excuse we shallow action fans need for a minor war.
Placed in the charge of Bennett's squad (which seems to be an advert for the US Army as equal opportunities employers), Matrix is bundled onto a plane for Val Verde from which he duly escapes and sets about the task of rescuing his daughter before anyone finds out what's happened. Along the way he teams up with the requisite female sidekick Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), whose only purpose is to act comedically and disbelievingly among all the "macho bullshit" and give girlfriends someone to emphasise with as their boyfriends chow down on the carnage, thus making Commando truly one of the great date movies of our time.
That Cindy has coincidentally been hassled by Sully (David Patrick Kelly), one of Bennett's men, is a bit of a bonus, as it gives Matrix a means of tracing the squad back to his daughter's whereabouts. He does this by killing Sully and his contact Cooke (the ever-imposing Bill Duke) as one would expect, then sets about robbing an army surplus store like no other in preparation for a jaunt to Arius' island hideout. It's perhaps more accurately a Movie Surplus store, since a hidden switch reveals a secret back room housing the likes of chain guns, bazookas and grenades; an altogether more enticing array of firepower than that available to the general public. That Arnie knew about the switch is never explained, since me must now steal a seaplane and head for Arius and a rendezvous with pain.
It's worth noting that up until this point Commando has been well paced yet lacking in the promised carnage. Arnie himself has only killed 4 people, whilst Bennett's men have managed 5 (I think this is accurate; anyone spotting inaccuracy please bear in mind it's from beer-laced memory). It's seemingly anybody's game at this point, but director Lester knows something we don't know. With about 20 minutes remaining on the clock Arnie is about to unleash a body count that probably went unbeaten until Die Hard 2 blew up a passenger plane full of holiday makers. His assault on Arius' compound is indeed a thing of beauty, and what a setting. An idyllic tropical island crawling with the kind of generic private army goons you just know can't shoot straight and are about to take it right in the ass.
It's in this section most of the film's notorious cuts were made by the censors of various countries, even here in Britain. Most notorious is the infamous 'woodshed' scene where inventive use is made of axes, pitchforks, circular saw blades and machetes, most of which was cut in this country for the film's video release. The bare-bones Fox DVD release still features a number of clumsy cuts, but I believe the Schwarzenegger boxset released a couple of years ago has the uncut version, although the machete may still be absent. Viewed in all it's uncensored glory it's an immensely gratifying scene even by today's standards, and the kind of thing you really could only have gotten away with in a mainstream action movie at that time.
Wielding a varied selection of armaments from shotguns, pistols, submachine guns and assault rifles to rocket launchers, the fearsome M60, knives, stupendously over-exaggerated claymore mines and a bizarre little tube thing that fires out of an unspecified device on the end of a wire, Arnie makes his way across the lawn to Arius' mansion in perhaps the best advert many of these weapons manufacturers will ever have.
Suffice to say Arius meets a suitably painful end, and Matrix must face off against Bennett, who is holding Jenny at knifepoint, in the most homo-erotic grapple yet committed to film. It's baby oil, rippling biceps, macho posturing and heavy beatings all round for this slippery meeting of two minds, and I can only imagine the esteem in which the gay action community must hold these five minutes. After nearly 20 years the debate still rages as to wether Vernon Wells' performance is intentionally camp, or wether he's just that bad an actor. Recent evidence in the form of Circuitry Man 2 suggests it may be the latter, but either way it's outrageously entertaining. In fact it's almost fair to say Wells is the movie's trump card, as he provides so much of the entertainment that removing him would probably render Commando nothing more than an efficient muscle movie. Here he is a seemingly demented dervish of blatant homosexual tendency and acting so over the top the whole movie borders just on the right side of farce.
His dialogue is wonderfully irreverent, his manner not so much a collection of nuances as an amalgamation of brightly lit neon camp-foolery. Sporting a highly impractical chainmail vest, fingerless gloves and a Freddy Mercury moustache of the first order, Wells is a Village People tour de force and how the pair of them got through this battle without laughing at least once in every take is beyond me. Culminating in a payoff line that has yet to be beaten 18 years later, the fight ends and Commando comes to a satisfying halt that leaves the audience wondering wether to gasp, laugh or cry at the imminent demise of social behaviour.
Much like Wells' performance, I still wonder to this day if Commando is intentionally tongue in cheek or just that silly, but I suspect it's perhaps an equal measure of both. Either way the point is not how seriously the movie was trying to present itself as a sympathetic and justified assault on the demise of family values or a meditation on how violence fuels violence, but rather how much fun you had watching it. Anyone with an ability to suspend disbelief for more than a fraction of a second must surely agree that this film represents perhaps the most value-packed 90 minutes of action cinema in history.
In summation, it's both an action movie and a farce, reinforcing the male macho posturing of the Reagan administration whilst simultaneously managing to be irredeemably and outrageously camp. Arnie fans in general are going to enjoy this as perhaps the pinnacle of both his physical fitness (there's no denying how spectacular the man looks in this film) and his desire to fill our screens with the screams of the righteously dying. On the other hand, anyone for whom the action may otherwise seem too gratuitous is going to find plenty here in the comic genius of Wells and the downright absurdity of it all to keep them both amused and supplied with ammo with which to shoot it all down in flames, thus validating the point of it's flag wavers who know any true action movie cannot be taken seriously. I'd love to have a chat with Lester and find out the definitive perspective, since he has so far not contributed to a commentary track for any of the DVD releases.
It's this dichotomy that makes Commando the cinematic enigma it has become. It's a pictorial oxymoron; simultaneously it's own best friend and it's own worst enemy, it provides all the right gratuitously violent evidence to worship it as a serious action legend before blowing it all away with the kind of inane, overblown and downright stupidly nonsensical counterpoints that would sink any other film. With the mixture equal parts of the two and the planets somehow in alignment however, director Mark L. Lester produced arguably the one movie that embodies an action generation. Utterly slick, ruthlessly efficient and stupendously funny, Commando is not only a damn fine action movie, but one of the best all-in entertainment packages you're ever likely to encounter. If you're looking to do as Bennett does and "let off some steam", you can't honestly do better than this. Bravo.
Craig Disko has awarded this film 5 out of 5 Arbitrary Disko Units.
*** STOP PRESS! *** STOP PRESS! *** STOP PRESS! ***
In our infinite wit and wisdom, we at theOneliner.com have recorded an audio commentary for this film. Click here to download the file (21Mb) and play it back on your pc. We advise you press play when the Fox "searchlights" logo has finished at the start of the movie. Please also bear in mind that the commentary is for the uncut version of the movie, and will run out of sync with most UK home versions of the film.
Vernon Wells (Bennett)
Rae Dawn Chong (Cindy)
John Patrick Kelly (Sully)