By Matt Fleming. This is Retrograding, where sometimes we wanna watch a movie just to let off some steam.
THE FILM: Commando
THE TIME: 1985, specifically the time when the CIA was pretty adept at deposing leaders, inserting dictators and running drugs. Predator, a film with a similar zeal and released just two years later, could be seen as a spiritual sequel to Commando.
RECOLLECTIONS: Ah, the Eighties… a time in America where straight-forward action films became the over-the-top spectacles made to be lampooned by more sensible minds for decades to come. With Commando, we get a prime example of the genre’s bona fides, a true trendsetter for violence and camp and one that firmly established Arnold Schwarzenegger as the king of unloading clips and quips. The film was also an early feather in the cap of super-producer Joel Silver, whose hand guided the Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and Matrix franchises. To put it another way, if Jaws created the blockbuster, then Commando gave the blockbuster steroids and unlimited ammo.
Seriously, the number of degrees of influence this film had directly and indirectly is a bit overwhelming. After turning down the opportunity to direct Commando, and then seeing it make a 400% profit, John McTiernan immediately said “yes, please” to helming Predator. A sequel to Commando was commissioned, based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever, but Arnold wasn’t feeling it. So Silver and McTiernan took the guy from TV’s Moonlighting and made freakin’ Die Hard. Without Commando, we might have dodged a stinker like the sad-satire Last Action Hero, but it also laid the groundwork for the sometimes-great Expendables films, as well as any movie featuring a shootout at a drug-lord’s mansion (I’m looking at you, Beverly Hills Cop and Crocodile Dundee 2).
Also, Commando never takes itself too seriously, which is best evidenced in Arnold’s performance as the brilliantly-named Col. John Matrix. Look up any of those supercuts of classic Schwarzenegger lines and you’re likely to find a handful come from this riotous flick, including the iconic “Let off some steam, Bennett.” In fact, the entirety of his interactions with David Patrick Kelly’s Sully could have made a hilarious spin-off. Suffice it to say, Commando is some of the most fun you can have with excessive violence and explosions.
THE DIRECTOR: Mark Lester’s career took off after the cult film Class of 1984 generated just the right amount of controversy, and it didn’t hurt that his adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter wasn’t a total flop. Unfortunately for Lester, Commando would be the peak of his career. The filmmaker soon found himself gelled into a permanent role as helmer of lower fare that was strictly B-grade. He expanded his repertoire from action into “vaguely martial arts” and “starring Scott Glenn” in the ‘90s, although his most notable follow-up was the oft-overlooked Armed and Dangerous, the John Candy/Eugene Levy action comedy that was just fine.
Lester’s best attribute was clearly his ability to do whatever Joel Silver needed to be done, and in the case of Commando, what Silver wanted was Lester to merely point the camera at Schwarzenegger while he commited wholesale murder. Much like with today’s journeymen directors of TV, it used to be a pretty decent gig being the guy producers could trust to just shoot the action. Mark Lester is one of those guys, which explains why he made so many Nick Mancuso movies, and also why his latest flick is the DVD-release Dragons Of Camelot.
THE CAST: The cast here is anchored by the big Austrian guy in the tank top, of course, but his supporting cast is an ensemble for the ages. If Commando were a videogame, then Bennett would be the big boss you’d have to kill before you switched off the set, and Australian nightmare-generator Vernon Wells played him straight into the annals of villainous history. Wells is perhaps best known as Wez, the psychotic biker sidekick to Lord Humongous in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, a look he later brought into Weird Science as well. Commando plays with some weird homosexual subtext between Matrix and Bennett, most exemplified by Bennett’s desire to poke Arnie to death with his knife. If the rest of the movie wasn’t already a blast, the climactic fight between the two would still stand out as the definitive boiler-room brawl, and that’s totally thanks to Wells’ level of psychotic.
The other supporting roles are filled by plenty of recognizable faces. Bill Duke makes his first appearance alongside Schwarzenegger as Cooke, the man responsible for one of Arnie’s most iconic exchanges of dialogue and party to the hotel dust-up that must have inspired every cinematic lodging fight that followed. Character actor Dan Hedaya pulled the strings as deposed dictator Arius, who is far creepier here than his turn in Clueless, surprisingly. David Patrick Kelly’s Sully gets the honor of being killed last (unfortunately, Matrix lied), and TV’s Alyssa Milano gets the privilege of playing John Matrix’s daughter, Jenny.
One big surprise is the chemistry between Arnold and his accidental love-interest Cindy, played by Rae Dawn Chong (yep, Tommy’s daughter). It’s hard to believe there was a time when Rae Dawn Chong seemed like Hollywood’s next “it girl,” a title she promptly lost when she followed this schlocky masterpiece with the abysmal Soul Man. Despite her winning charm, it’s Arnie’s charisma that carries this movie. It’s fully possible the man simultaneously created and lampooned every ‘80’s action cliché in a single movie. His career has seen him careen all over the spectrum, but here (as also in Predator) he is made immortal.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE: If a violent action-romp is what you seek, why not go for the granddaddy of modern might? Together with the jungle/alien slaughterhouse that Arnold made two years later, you’ve got yourself one hell of an Eighties double feature. Watch with a friend and dare yourselves not to quote the whole damn thing for years afterwards.
RETROGRADE: 7 out of 10