Guns and Governors
Commando is like cinematic crack for guys. The mere mention of its title evokes an adolescent grin, if not outright exclamations and high-fives. Those of us who sneaked into this R-rated bonanza were thunderstruck, and will always remain loyal to its narcotic lure. F-bombs abound, and the killing is unrestrained. Among guy flicks, this is tops. Sure, Rocky might have a better story, and Die Hard is definitely slicker, but nothing trumps the Herculean firepower of John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger); a man who wields his M60 like it’s a Super soaker, while lighting up scores of enemy soldiers in bursts of blistering revenge. I still go out of my way to vamp the film’s title scene, where Matrix shoulders a felled log the size of a telephone pole, as if Paul Bunyan himself stepped out from the shadows of legend. Matrix is mythical, and Arnold makes him so.
If you’re reading this, it’s either because you drop the remote any time you come across this Reagan-era classic on one of the movie channels, or because you find the very thought of Commando so preposterous, that you had to stop and read (what you assumed would be) a scathing social critique. Sorry, geek. This one’s for the fans. Truth is, nobody cares if Matrix is a metaphor on America’s might, or a parody of its arrogance. Is it excessively violent? You bet. In fact, it’s a tall glass of testosterone that is, at times, racist, homophobic, and chauvinistic. With bad accents (both genuine and fake) as well as some terrible messages (Look, people, you can’t just fire shoulder-held rockets at cops.), it’s also one hell of a good time. Without its playful bombast, Commando would long have faded into obscurity, like dozens of other bullets and brawn action flicks. Producers knew what they had with this picture and it wasn’t Driving Miss Daisy.
For the handful of you who have made it this far, and don’t already know, John Matrix is a retired Army Special Ops Colonel, hidden safely in the California hills (presumably for his own protection) where he can live peacefully, eating bologna sandwiches with his spunky daughter, Jenny (played by Who’s the Boss-era Alyssa Milano). Schwarzenegger tells Boy George jokes, and plays a convincing softie for the first six minutes, before a visit from the impossibly dim General Kirby reignites the fires of old. “Someone’s killing your men,” deadpans the general. “It could be the Syrians, South Americans, Russians, or a terrorist group.” Wow, Kirby. Don’t hurt yourself. Quickly, one finds that bad acting (along with the unbearable steel drum & sax soundtrack) is a trademark here. The worse it gets, the more you’ll learn to love it.
Director Mark Lester (Firestarter) may not be a household name, but he’ll always be known for quarterbacking the big game, if only once. Lester keeps the talk lean, and the action mean, giving Commando a nearly breathless beginning. His cabin under siege, and Jenny en route to being abducted, Matrix shifts his Bronco into neutral, and rolls it downhill (brakeless), where it freefalls in one of the most deliriously kinetic chases ever filmed. This underrated sequence is a master class in filmmaking. It also serves to prepare us for the uncompromising slaughter, about to ensue.
His only child kidnapped, Matrix is forced by a nefarious (and hilarious) band of baddies, to assassinate the ruling leader of (fictional South American country) Valverde, thereby restoring deposed dictator, General Arius, to the throne. Much like Charles Bronson, who began his career painted up to play Indians, we get the passably ethnic Dan Hedaya (Nick Tortelli of Cheers), who’s really of Syrian descent, affecting a Hispanic accent in the film’s best one-note performance. If the whole thing sounds absurd, just crack open another beer and sit back. It all works out in the end.
Also not to be missed is lead heavy, Bennett, played with unhinged zeal by former (real-life) SAS commando Vernon Wells. The beefy Australian matches Arnold’s oversized persona, and has since been bronzed as one of Schwarzenegger’s goofiest adversaries. Clad, puzzlingly, in a chain mail vest, fingerless gloves, and knee-high boots, Bennett looks like he just got thrown out of a leather bar. What’s more, the mustached goon takes particular delight in talking to, or about, his old Special Forces teammate. “Your piss ant men make me laugh,” he tells Arius, sneeringly. “If Matrix were here, he’d laugh, too.” There’s a longing in Bennett’s eyes, anytime he mentions John, and fans have long suspected that something was awry. The filmmakers make great use of this innuendo in the extra feature. Wells himself even declares that Bennett is like “Freddie Mercury on steroids.” Sadly, his character is given little to do until the final boiler room showdown, when he reappears in his Mad Max costume, lunging and screaming at Matrix like a crazy old woman.
Rounding out the baddies are five-foot leprechaun Sully, played with scumbag authenticity by David Patrick Kelly (The Crow) and the hulking Cooke (a grim Bill Duke, later of Predator fame), who’d just as soon steal your Cadillac, as kick your ass. Side by side, this band of brothers looks more like a misfit circus troupe, than a cabal of terrorists.
But make no mistake this is the Arnold show. Before guys like The Rock, Schwarzenegger was king, and this film was a watershed moment in his nascent career. Having little verbal responsibility in earlier features (Conan the Barbarian, Terminator), it is in Commando that Arnold begins to emerge as a personality; lighting the torch he would carry for a decade. He doesn’t yet have (or is careful to disguise) the brio of a man who knows he’s on top of the world, and his delivery is, at times, laughably awkward. Still, we see for the first time, a mischievous side to the muscle man. At 38, Arnold is honing his chops before our eyes.
Younger audiences might only know Schwarzenegger as patron (or parody) of the American dream: A man whose success as a bodybuilder (seven-time Mr. Olympia), helped propel an acting career (43 films), which in turn generated enough national appeal, to elevate the Austrian-American to one of this country’s highest offices (Governor of California). Not bad, considering Fitzgerald’s insistence that there “are no second acts in American life”. But Schwarzenegger’s dominant succession of first acts is unparalleled, each career worth revisiting. Much as Pumping Iron informed my generation of Arnold’s previously unseen athleticism (and competitiveness), so will Commando inform a new generation of his total mastery of the action genre.
Lester frames the action around Arnold, admitting in the film’s documentary that, “packaging is more important than script”. And he’s right; Schwarzenegger is a specimen sui generis. Imagine if the Hulk had modest acting skills, and could unerringly fire a Valmet M78 assault rifle. And yet, Arnold’s charisma may just be his greatest strength. There is a distinct sense of humor in Commando, best illustrated when Matrix dangles Sully over a cliff, while pontificating on the effects of gravity: “I have to remind you, Sully, that this is my weak arm!” A natural showman, Arnold shines when he mixes comedy and violence so effectively. It’s almost graceful.
Where the film sputters is, unsurprisingly, in its contrived inclusion of female comic relief. While pursuing Sully, and gang, Matrix coerces a passerby (Cindy, played, wincingly, by 80s enigma Rae Dawn Chong) to assist in the chase. As the Laurel to Arnold’s Hardy, the not unattractive Chong banters at a screeching pitch, incessantly, as if by sheer volume, she’ll subdue the violence. Her sass curdles rather quickly, and serves as the film’s central irritation, only worsening over years of repeat viewing. Ironically, it is a present-day Chong who offers the most comical (and grounded) commentary throughout the DVD’s extra features. She calls Bill Duke “the blackest man I’ve ever seen… with the pinkest lips,” and theorizes that Bennett’s “confusing sexuality manifests in violence”. Too bad she didn’t use this stuff in the film.
Mercifully, Commando’s payoff comes at the 69-minute mark, when our hero ditches Cindy, and gears up for battle in a beachhead scene right out of every kid’s G.I. Joe fantasy. Camouflage paint? Check. Combat knife? Check. Claymores? Check. Zip, clip, lock, and load. It is the film’s surging apex, when Arnold transcends his role as Matrix, to become an all out badass.
Finally within reach of his daughter, Matrix unleashes a hurricane of death on Arius’ island stronghold (actually California’s famous Hearst castle); torching barracks like they were made of balsa wood (ahem), and gunning down every living creature on God’s once-green Earth. What does the Almighty think of Matrix? It’s pretty clear, since the guy moves about implausibly unscathed, like Perseus with hand grenades. Also clear, is that everyone, including the production crew, has been waiting for this sequence, above all others. There is an unmistakable change in rhythm, as if a new team was brought in to supercharge the fourth quarter. With more weapons wranglers than acting coaches on set, we get explosive acrobatics, machete beat downs, and best of all, the gunshot boogie: When Matrix turns to fire on the enemy; Lester slows the camera for every bullet-shake and shimmy. It’s enough to make a grown man giddy. In the end, Matrix lays waste to 81 “little brown men” (Chong’s words), their bodies strewn about like anonymous rag dolls.
In an era of action sequels, it’s striking that Hollywood never built a franchise around Commando. It’s also one of the things that will secure its place in the realm of cult favorites, as if the filmmakers knew they’d achieved a rare synergy, and were content with their surprising success. Half the fun of watching Commando is spotting gaffes; like the car bumper that falls off, then reappears, only to vanish again; or, the life-size mannequins, posted at mathematically perfect intervals, in front of the exploding buildings. Vigilance rewards even first-time viewers (especially now that you know Bennett’s got a crush), so enjoy yourselves.
Unfortunately, the DVD’s uninspired, cheap packaging is a disappointment (at least Total Recall came in a Mars-shaped case); as is the reality that the “Director’s Cut” includes only 96 seconds of uncut footage, and two minor, previously unreleased scenes of note. Only the most enthusiastic fan will notice when the narrative includes Matrix detailing his tours in Laos, Angola, and Pakistan. It’s pointless exposition.
Despite breaking the documentaries into two episodes (combined, they would’ve only run 20 minutes), there are some great anecdotes, like an extemporaneous Arnold bragging about his man-tackle: “I’m equipped”; a few Gene Simmons glares from Bill Duke; and acting lessons from a still-batty Vernon Wells, who tips us off that “No villain thinks he’s a villain.” We also learn that screenwriters Steven de Souza and Joseph Loeb had to pitch Schwarzenegger the script, personally. In all his excitement, de Souza slipped into a dodgy Arnold imitation, delivering the famous one-liner: “I like you Sully, you’re a funny guy. That’s why I’m going to kill you last.” The bodybuilder was reportedly so eager for a role where he could “wear clothes and be a normal person”, that he leaped at the opportunity.
Commando is a movie guys can love unreservedly. Even if the film isn’t quite as good as I’d remembered, its climactic island assault deserves to be canonized as the greatest throw down since Kong climbed a skyscraper. And while Schwarzenegger now kisses babies and wear suits for a living, never forget that this is the same guy who helped make the Hummer street legal. The man eats Green Berets for breakfast, and he’s everybody’s first pick when it comes to the American badass… even if he is Austrian.