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Film Review

Commando (1985)

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Running time: 1h 30min
Directed by Mark L. Lester
Written by Jeph Loeb (story), Matthew Weisman (story), Steven E. de Souza (story)
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Chong, Dan Heday

Arnold Schwarzenegger is the greatest action hero/muscular meme man to ever exist. Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis come close in the Hollywood action pantheon, but they just cannot measure up to Arnie in terms of sheer charisma, bicep size, distinct and hilarious accent, or the quality of his vast body of work. Commando from 1985 is not the film he is most known for, perhaps obviously, but it is something that many fans of Arnold will list among the films they love the most – at least in the genre of action. I am unashamedly a fan of this hilariously stupid, partly unintentionally comical action film that embodies everything great and everything so bad that it’s great of 1980s action films.

Everyone who enjoys action films should experience Commando at least once in their lives, but obviously come into it not expecting cinematic brilliance of the true classics of the action genre such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), or Aliens (1986), because let us be completely and brutally honest: Commando is objectively not a great movie. It is a film that is exceedingly stupid, but that is also extremely entertaining in both what it does well and what it does poorly. Arnold plays John Matrix (yes, that is the greatest name for an action hero ever invented, is it not?), a retired special forces colonel living his best life in the middle of nowhere with his daughter Jenny (played by a young Alyssa Milano). When John Matrix is not doing manly man things, such as chopping wood and carrying tree trunks on his shoulder, he spends quality time with Jenny, eating ice cream and feeding Bambi. This happy state of affairs does not last long, of course, as Jenny is kidnapped in order to force Matrix into doing the dirty work of a deposed dictator who seeks to undepose himself. It should be safe to spoil that by the end everyone who ever crossed John Matrix is a corpse. In Commando it truly is the journey and not the destination that matters.

John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a manly man of men
Jenny (Alyssa Milano) and John Matrix in their natural habitat

Commando is one of the funniest movies ever created. It is truly wonderful how much pleasure a grown man can get out of the many epic one-liners and ridiculous action scenes this 1.5-hour movie is packed with, even after multiple viewings. Arnold is known, among other things, for his quips and one-liners, and in Commando he delivers several of his best ones. I won’t spoil any, but I will note that my favourites involve a henchman named Sully (David Patrick Kelly) – those who have seen the movie will know what I mean. There is proper setup and payoff for the many one-liners of Commando, and they work perfectly in context. The humour is not only in the intentional factors, but also in the over-the-top nature and execution of everything. The acting, for example, is just wonderful: no one is particularly believable, per se, but they all fit into this caricature of machoism with their overacting. The script is bare-bones and cliched, but it works for what it is.

Arius (Dan Hedaya) wants to reclaim his throne, and he wants John Matrix to help him do it
Former green beret/henchman Cooke (Bill Duke) is one of the many obstacles John Matrix must overcome to get his daughter back

Before the absolutely bonkers massacre of a finale, the film can be described as almost a buddy cop movie; Arnold teams up with stewardess Cindy (played well by Rae Dawn Chong) to track down his kidnapped daughter, and they have to do it somewhat covertly for a while so as to not alert the kidnappers that he is not going along with their plans. Of course, in Commando the term covert involves some less than stealthy manoeuvres, such as blowing up a police van with a bazooka. But there were no cell phones or internet back then, so who cares, it’s perfectly acceptable. The plot and the details of Commando make just enough surface sense for what it is. Arnold’s nemesis a clearly out of shape (at least when compared to our hero) moustached bloke named Bennett, who is quite possibly harbouring repressed homosexual feelings of lust towards his former comrade-in-arms John Matrix. Vernon Wells is excellent as Bennett; he hams it up to the maximum. I should perhaps note, by the way, that he plays a post-apocalyptic homosexual biker in the aforementioned Mad Max 2 – one could perhaps say that he was typecast.

Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong) gets noticed by Sully (David Patrick Kelly) – who, by the way, is a very funny guy
Bennett (Vernon Wells) enjoys what he does

It should be obvious to the reader by now that realism is not Commando’s forte; it is pure escapism with minimal logic or sense. The daughter (or another loved one) being kidnapped and thus allowing the hero to kill endless villains as brutally as possibly without any qualms is a trope that has been utilized by many action films. For example, the quite successful Taken (2008), starring Liam Neeson (of Schindler’s List (1993) fame), is a film that on the surface does the same thing more intelligently that Commando does; the daughter gets kidnapped, and the father kills loads of people to get her back. The audience will not have a problem with this, as it is all for a noble cause. Taken moves so fast that it does not give the viewer much time to notice the stupidity of it, but trust me, it is there. Note that I am not saying that Taken is a bad movie – my point is that Commando is honest about what it is; it does not try to masquerade as something more than it is – it is just dumb, extremely enjoyable action schlock.

A real soldier shoots from the hip

I rarely enjoy stupid films that are made just to entertain, so maybe I should clarify why Commando gets such a glowing review from me. I first saw it at an impressionable age, so do I have some nostalgia for it. I enjoy action, usually, and I am a fan of Arnold, or at least of his cinematic career until the mid-90s or so. I suppose Commando is just a perfect mix of the right kind of bad and the right kind of good, when it comes to action films. I do not believe I would enjoy it nearly as much without Arnold – he is perfectly cast in this. I cannot take Arnold completely seriously, and a real actor in the role would have been detrimental. In Commando everything is over the top just the right amount, but the stakes are, relatively speaking, low – the world is not about to be destroyed. This is very refreshing when compared to the recent 10+ years of superhero films, which essentially are the modern action films.

Commando is best enjoyed with an alcoholic beverage and good company. I will recommend it to everyone who enjoys action and/or comedy, but one should maybe avoid it if neither genre is up their alley, or they have an allergy to Schwarzenegger. Even my girlfriend, who is most certainly not a fan of action, enjoyed Commando, though she did find the endless ending massacre to be bit too much – this is high praise for a mindless action film from the 80s.

Objective rating: 6.0 / 10

Subjective rating: 9.5 / 10

Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: more than 5, less than 10

Would I want to rewatch this film? Absolutely, especially with someone who has not seen it yet

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