Should I Watch..? Commando
What's the big deal?
Commando is an action thriller film released in 1985 and was written for the screen by Steven E. de Souza. The film sees a pre-superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger play a retired Delta Force operative forced into action after his daughter is kidnapped. Capitalising on the success of The Terminator (1) the year before as well as the likes of First Blood (2), the film introduces a previously unseen comedic side of Schwarzenegger which has helped the film become a cult hit in the years since its release. A commercial and critical success upon release, it went on to gross a respectable $57 million against a $10 million budget. It would also spawn a Russian remake in 2008 as well as a reported Hollywood remake with Sam Worthington, presently in development at the time of writing.
What's it about?
Retired Delta Force operative John Matrix is living a quiet life in a remote mountainside cabin with his young daughter Jenny. Informed by his former superior officer Major General Kirby that all members of John's unit have been murdered by an unknown group of mercenaries, John quickly prepares to disappear with Jenny before he's next. Sadly, he's too late - the mercenaries arrive led by John's former colleague Bennett who destroy his house, kidnap Jenny and overpower John.
John is told that he must conduct one final mission on behalf of Bennett's paymaster, deposed South American general Arius. By assassinating his political rival, Arius can return to power in the country of Val Verde and John begrudgingly accepts, knowing that his daughter's life is on the line. Boarding a plane to Val Verde, John quickly manages to escape his handlers and exits the plane before it takes off - leaving John with just eleven hours to rescue his daughter and take every one of the baddies down...
Rae Dawn Chong
David Patrick Kelly
Mark L. Lester
Steven E. de Souza *
Release Date (UK)
21st February, 1986
Action, Adventure, Thriller
What's to like?
Arnie's action films usually combine elements of different genres together - sci-fi elements in The Terminator franchise, comedy in films like True Lies (3) or a fantasy setting in the two Conan movies. Commando is the first outright, old-school action film that throws the audience head-first into a world where the only way to combat violence is to be more violent than the other guys. Out-dated philosophy aside, it allows Schwarzenegger full scope to look every inch the badass we know he is. I lost count of the number of different ways he dispatches the villains with a glib one-liner, many of which do raise a smile. There is a charisma to John Matrix that you might not have expected from the famously monotone Austrian.
Alongside the leading man, Wells proves a surprisingly memorable foil as the oddly camp Bennett. Chong looks the part as the female sidekick woefully out of her comfort zone and a young Milano also does well as the young damsel-in-distress. And while the plot may have all the depth of a boyband cover version, the action more that makes up for it with a stunning escape from a moving aircraft, a midnight car chase and the explosive final showdown. Commando doesn't disappoint, even giving the ultra-violent Rambo: First Blood - Part 2 (4) a run for its money - more so when you compare Matrix to Stallone's charmless Rambo.
- Vernon Wells later admitted that before shooting, he had never even heard of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nevertheless, both men enjoyed working with each other and have remained good friends ever since.
- Alyssa Milano recalls that Schwarzenegger was very protective of her on set, even helping her out with her algebra homework. After working with Schwarzenegger, Milano's friends started calling her Conan (5).
- The enemy complex featured in the film's finale was actually a number of beach properties belonging to the Hearst Castle Estate, once owned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst who died in 1951. It saw visits from the likes of Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Franklin Roosevelt.
What's not to like?
Much like Schwarzenegger's political career, the film feels very much a product of its time with its flag-waving patriotism and muddled back-story involving dodgy politics in South America. If anything, it feels like a precursor to cheesy throwbacks like The Expendables (6) but without the ever-bulging roster of fading action stars (ironically, like Arnie himself). It also feels somewhat disposable like a cheap novel you pick up at the airport. The short running time doesn't help but there isn't much in the film you haven't seen already and there is a strong sense of following a formula.
Although it is enjoyable, Commando doesn't do much to stay in the memory afterwards. Despite Schwarzenegger having fun and loads of quotable dialogue to remember, the film feels like a one-trick pony that blasts from one explosive sequence to the other with little to link it all together. For example, put yourself in the role of Cindy - the unfortunate flight attendant somehow caught up in the carnage. Personally I'd have got the hell out of there and informed the police but no, she hangs around in spite of the very real danger to her life and even has the gumption to try and fire a rocket launcher! In no way is this a film to take seriously, the lightness and comic touches destroy any attempt by the film to develop any real sense of tension.
Should I watch it?
Anyone desperate for a fix of old-school Arnie-flavoured violence won't find much better than this. It may be short and light but it packs one hell of a punch, thanks to Schwarzenegger's undeniable charisma shining through the material and the film throwing in more action sequences than it needs to. Commando might lack some of the high quality production values associated with Arnie's later career but it's still worth checking out if you're in the mood.
Great For: boys nights in, spree killers, lovers of cheesy B-movies
Not So Great For: poets, female viewers, Democrats
What else should I watch?
Actually, now that I think about it, there are a couple of Arnie's early films that I prefer to this movie. It goes without saying that The Terminator (1) is a terrific film with the role that would become forever associated with the actor but it remains a genuinely gripping thriller as poor Linda Hamilton is chased by an unstoppable killing machine from the future. The other film I prefer is Predator (7), an old-school action shooter like Commando but with the added bonuses of having an invisible alien hunter picking off the good guys one-by-one and Jesse Ventura armed with a mini-gun.
The reason I brought up Rambo: First Blood - Part 2 (4) was because there is a great deal of similarity between the two. They were both released in 1985 and had their muscular leading men dealing death to America's enemies, mostly by themselves. But whereas Stallone's damaged war veteran isn't exactly a bundle of laughs, Schwarzenegger's John Matrix has both the skills and the personality to get us on side. By contrast, Rambo himself feels like a grim examination of the futility of war whereas we have fun with Matrix. We'd go for a beer together afterwards (possibly) whereas I wouldn't want to be stuck in a lift with Rambo...
© 2016 Benjamin Cox