You’re a funny guy Sully, I like you. That’s why I’m going to kill you last.
Dir. Mark L. Lester
Runtime: 90 mins
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Ching, Dan Hedya, Vernon Wells
As the tagline says; “Let’s party”. This extremely quotable, 1985 action film, sees the bad guys pick on the wrong man. Released the same year as “Rambo II: First Blood Part 2” (1985), this was one of the films that fueled Hollywood’s “Stallone vs Schwarzenegger” feud which was invented to sell tickets rather than an actual feud between the two action film stars. For me, “Commando” lives up to it’s tagline really well, it’s a mindless action film that I can happily watch alone or with friends; with a beer, or just plenty of fizzy-pop.
John Matrix used to be an elite Delta Force Commando Colonel, but he has retired and lives a quiet life with his daughter Jenny. One day Matrix gets a visit from his old commanding officer, General Franklin Kirby, who tells him that his former team have been killed. Kirby leaves two armed guards to protect Matrix and his daughter, but no sooner has he left when thugs attack the house. Despite trying to fight them off Matrix and his daughter are kidnapped, and to make matters worse, Matrix knows the brains behind the operation – it’s Bennett, one of his former commandos who was thought dead. Bennett faked his own death but is back with a Marxist dictator called Arias in his pocket. Matrix previously thwarted Arias, but now Bennett wants to get Arias installed as a crooked puppet leader under his rule. Bennett is going to force Matrix to do the dirty work, thinking that having Jenny kidnapped will motivate his former commander. Before the plan can commence though, Matrix escapes. He then has 17 hours to save his daughter and make sure the bad guys don’t win. He gets help when forces an off-duty pilot called Cindy to help, but don’t worry, with his charisma Matrix will be able to persuade her to join the cause. Together they set off to stop the bad guys, to make sure the bad guys don’t win, to get revenge, and to get Matrix’s daughter back.
… or… here’s a summary in 180 characters or less…
Discharged commando fakes his death but returns to use his former Colonel to do his dirty work and install a Marxist dictator. He’s messed with the wrong commando though.
Can you imagine this film with Gene Simmons from the band Kiss in it? Well (apparently) he passed up on this after being offered it first. Can you imaging Nick Nolte in the lead roll? Nor me, but that almost happened too. I can’t imagine anyone other than Arnie racking up a body count of 102 while cracking tongue in cheek lines like “Don’t disturb my friend, he’s dead tired” (when he kills the bad guy on the plane and tucks him in) or “Let off some steam, Bennett” (when he puts a pipe through Bennett). This film was a change in direction for the Austrian powerhouse. Previously he had excelled in sword and sorcery films, before playing an emotionless killing machine in “The Terminator” (1984), this film was the first chance to really flex some of the other muscles he’d been working on; his acting muscles. When starting to make a name for himself it was obvious that he had the physique, but he lacked the ability to deliver lines without sounding like a European trying to sound American – something which certain audiences didn’t take to. Other film roles worked on that and did their best to showcase what he could do rather than what he couldn’t do. It’s no shock that “Conan the Barbarian” (1982) didn’t allow him many lines of dialogue, and “ The Terminator” gave him next to no lines at all. “Commando” was his first real speaking part and to fans of the Austrian it showed how far he had come. What helped is that Arnie would sit down with the writers Jeph Loeb, Matthew Weisman, and particularly Steven E. de Souza to go over the script. If it was deemed that the lines didn’t sound right, they were rewritten. De Souza offered the same approach when he worked with Arnie on “The Running Man” (1987) – unrelated to this film, he offered the same approach to Jean-Claude Van Damme for “Street Fighter” (1994) but it was turned down. Look how well that turned out Jean-Claude!!
This is obviously not just a ‘talkie’ film though, it’s one hell of an action film too. The John Matrix character is a one-man army. He fights, he shoots, he likes to “eat green berets for breakfast”. As well as being a hard-as-nails, almost indestructible, bullet-proof, funny with a good sense of humour, he’s also an archetypal 80’s action hero. The performance laid the foundations for other action hero to come, all the way into present cinema. On the downside he doesn’t completely convince as the emotional lover, or the doting father – but there’s time to work on this in future films.
Fun Fact: The Sherman Oaks Galleria shopping mall that features in this film also appears in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” (1991) – but has since been remodeled so you won’t recognise it if you visit it today.
The cast that surround Arnie all do a good job and are perfect for the film. You aren’t likely to have heard of many of them unless you are a proper film buff, but if you do some research you are likely to find the cast littered amongst some great films before and after this film. They might not be box-office names in their own right, but they are credible in their professions and work well for this film. Some of them signed up just on the strength of Arnie – they knew he was box office and whatever film he was in would be gold-dust, they wanted in.
The plot and dialogue here aren’t master classes in film art or techniques, but let’s face it, you probably knew that before watching this film – and you probably didn’t come for that anyway. You wanted a mindless action film with enough spills and kills to keep you entertained for 90 minutes. If you haven’t sat down with a beer and some crisps (chips for any American’s reading this) to watch this, then next time you probably will do. Sure there may be continuity issues from time to time, and there might be slightly unbelievable features of physics occurring, but this film doesn’t claim to be the Mona Lisa; more of a cheap comic that anybody can just pick up and get a kick out of. Like one of those there is plenty of action, plenty of explosions, plenty of fun – all wrapped up in a colourful but entertaining story that stinks of the 1980’s. As well as entertaining; “Commando” doesn’t take itself too seriously at all, it almost self-satirizes itself throughout, making it’s suggested tagline on the poster of “Let’s Party”, a fun party to be at.
I enjoyed this as a child. I enjoyed this as a teen. I enjoyed this as an adult. For me this is in the top 10 list of Arnie films and marks the start of more talking in his films. It has action, adventure, tongue-in-cheek humour, and I am definitely happy to recommend this beauty.