Welcome back to our newly revamped “Retro Reviews” column, where we explore both the movies you know and love, as well as the oft overlooked gems you should be spending more time with. Our second entry is the crazy, career re-defining Arnold Schwarzenegger action romp, Commando (1985)…
The restless feminist inside of me always cringes whenever I use the term “man movie”, but that is undoubtedly what Commando is. Buff, dumb and slathered in baby oil, Mark L. Lester (Class of 1984, Firestarter) made the ultimate “one man army” picture; a breakneck barrage of insanity whose brief moments of tenderness are simply a ploy to get you to start fist-pumping once Arnold starts dropping dudes off of cliffs and spouting one-liners. Filled with an assortment of BAMFs* (including Vernon Wells, who seems to have stolen and kept some unused post-apocalyptic garb from The Road Warrior) and a legion of indigenous peoples (from wherever) for Arnold Schwarzenegger to mow down in a wave of righteous anger, Commando might be the greatest meat-head film the ’80s ever produced. A marvel of economy and pacing, its brisk ninety minutes feel like five once John Matrix’s daughter (Alyssa Milano) is kidnapped by dictator hopeful Arius (Dan Hedaya, in full brown-face), thus sending the titular destroyer of small nations on his quest to kill as many human beings as possible. In short — Commando is a masterpiece of masculine moviemaking; an Adonis of action craft tailor-made to satiate the blood lust of teenage boys.
Mark L. Lester is an exploitation filmmaker. Even though he eventually evolved as an artist to take on more mainstream efforts such as Stephen King’s Firestarter (1984), the sleazy side of Lester’s filmography never seemed to leave his visual vernacular when directing. This is, after all, the man who helmed the Claudia Jennings sex and violence romp, Truck Stop Women (1974) and Class of 1984 (1982), the “fear the students” opus that is coated in a sheen of punk rock grime (complete with one of the more disturbing rape/revenge finales ever put to the screen). Despite the fact that future mega-producer Joel Silver, fresh off three Walter Hill films (including one personal favorite) and the teen hit Weird Science (1985), financed the film, Lester’s background in B-Movies is still very much felt in every frame. He was a man brought in to do a distinct job — guide the Austrian Oak to maximum kill mode while keeping his dialogue to an absolute minimum.
In the context of his early acting career, John Matrix is a complete departure for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Aside from murderous robots (The Terminator) and one continuous sword-and-sandal series (Conan the Barbarian), producers didn’t seem to think there was a character Arnie could play convincingly. Yet, however fearful money men were regarding the language barrier the Austrian immigrant faced (Lester was under strict orders to not let Arnold deliver any more than a few lines at a time — hence the zingers), the glistening, seemingly superhuman strength and physique he possessed was impossible to deny. What resulted was not only a complete re-jiggering of Arnold’s entire screen persona (look at his filmography post-Commando and tell me others didn’t try to replicate its massive success) but also a milestone in action movie history. Though John Milius and James Cameron obviously helped birth the icon’s career, it was Joel Silver and Mark Lester who took his big meaty paws and led him down the path of movie star maturity. Just imagine that silhouetted portrait on your bathroom wall.
Commando is one of the leanest motion pictures ever to grace the big screen, with a pace so breakneck that you can’t actually believe you’ve been sitting in the theater for an hour and a half once it’s finished. In fact, there’s barely a plot to the picture. It begins with Arius’ men taking out Matrix’s former team in a pre-credits bit of bloodshed before smash-cutting to Arnie hauling trees over his shoulder and then feeding deer and eating ice cream with his tiny daughter, Jenny (Milano). The duo’s (where’s Jenny’s mom?) idyllic life is interrupted by a visit via helicopter from Matrix’s former commander (James Olson), who informs him that all of his men have been mysteriously knocked off. As soon as the chopper carts his old army buddy off, Arius’ men lay waste to Matrix’s mountain cabin, kidnapping his daughter so that they can employ the titular war machine (whose actual role in the military is never truly defined) as their own personal assassin-for-hire, aiding Arius in his rise to power. Matrix obviously isn’t having it and once he’s able to slip away from his escort, he finds himself left with less than a full day to take down the ruthless tyrant.
To be fair, while the movie basically coasts on Arnold’s career redefining performance (or lack thereof), the cracker jack editing squad (who apparently cut the movie down from being a disastrous two hours) are the real MVPs of Commando. Glenn Farr had just come off of winning an Oscar for The Right Stuff the year before, while Mark Goldblatt had previously been an in-house editor for Roger Corman, cutting some of Joe Dante’s seminal horror pictures (Piranha, The Howling) on top of helping assemble The Terminator for Cameron. Last (but certainly not least), John F. Link became a regular action film cutter following his work on Commando, helping to piece together other genre staples such as Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988), and Hard to Kill (1990). It was a dream team down in the bays, their exacting touch leading to the leaden pace and immaculately constructed shoot ’em up scenes.
Unfortunately, most folks don’t care about the technical aspects of B-Movie creation. They’re more content to be wowed by the flavor on-screen than what fillings went into this blood sausage. With Commando, that’s certainly understandable, as you have not only Wells (wearing chain mail for the entire movie), but also Bill Duke (who would eventually be on Arnie’s side in Predator) and The Warriors’ David Patrick Kelly trying to contain the machine gun and grenade-wielding ox. But even that trio of 80s bad guy perfection is no match once Matrix begins his rampage, acting as mere speed bumps before the army of one takes on an actual squad of gun-toting goons, decimating a private compound in the process. Scoring it is a cacophony of steel drums and wailing sax that feels pulled from Silver’s previous hit, 48 Hrs. (1982), adding a weirdly paradisiacal vibe to the carnage.
There are certainly things to dislike about Commando. Rae Dawn Chong is essentially reduced to being comedic cannon fodder as the somewhat offensively stereotypical “helpless woman” Matrix kidnaps on his way to Revenge Island. And the entire mall sequence doesn’t make a lick of sense once you put any kind of thought into it (how long does it take for ANY police presence to make itself known?). Still, most who are going to sit down with Commando know just what brand of insanity to expect. This is peak ’80s schlock; the kind of movie most kids who grew up in the era had their dads bring home from the video store so that they could rewind the mind-blowing practical stunt work over and over again (seriously, those dudes do crazy aerial contortions whenever a grenade goes off next to them). Some will scoff at the very idea of re-watching Commando again, its dated aesthetic, never-ending torrent of one-liners (“He’s dead tired”) and bonkers-level corniness a complete turn-off. To those folks, I recommend Remains of the Day and a deep-probe colonoscopy to remove that massive stick from their ass. For the rest of us looking to have fun with a few beers and a whole lot of bullets, Commando is the only way to go.
*That’s “badass motherfuckers” to the layperson.
Special thanks to the Alamo Drafthouse and programmer Greg MacLennan for screening a beautiful 35mm print at the Ritz, with director Mark L. Lester on hand for a Q&A.