Released: 4 October 1985 (Hey! That’s my actual birthday!)
Director: Mark L. Lester
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $50 to 60 million
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Chong, Alyssa Milano, Vernon Wells, David Patrick Kelly, Bill Duke, and Dan Hedaya
Retired United States Special Forces Colonel John Matrix’s (Schwarzenegger) attempt to live a normal, quiet life with his young daughter, Jenny (Milano), are shattered when she is kidnapped by a former member of his unit, the psychotic Captain Bennett (Wells), on behalf of would-be-dictator President Arius (Hedaya). Defying Arius’ demands, Matrix is left with just eleven hours to track Jenny down and works his way through Arius’ henchmen using his untouchable military skills and abilities.
Thanks to the success of The Terminator (Cameron, 1984), Arnold Schwarzenegger was on the cusp of superstar greatness and about to enter the peak of his career as an action movie star. Writer Steven de Souza once explained that Commando came about when Barry Diller, then-head of 20th Century Fox, stated that he would greenlight any Schwarzenegger project that was under $12 million. The original draft, as penned by Joseph Loeb III, was actually very different and about an Israeli soldier who had turned his back on violence but de Souza revamped the story to suit Arnold’s larger-than-life persona and even performed the story for the Austrian Oak at his house! To oppose Schwarzenegger, the filmmakers had only one choice in mind: Vernon Wells, who brought an intense, psychopathic quality to the character, who was both enamoured by, and driven to kill, his former commander. With a worldwide gross of just over $57 million, Commando was a big success for Fox and was met with relatively positive reviews that veered towards highlighting the film’s more ridiculous aspects. Commando has always been a personal favourite of mine; when the Director’s Cut was released, I went out of my way to pick it up and, considering today is Arnold’s birthday, this seems like the perfect time to revisit this bombastic action classic.
I once made the bold claim that Predator (McTiernan, 1987) is probably the manliest film an action movie fan could ever ask for but, if we’re being brutally honest, Commando has it beat in that regard. This is the kind of over the top excess that I absolutely adore about action films and yet, amidst all the mindless action and over the top set pieces, it manages to tell a decently heartfelt story of betrayal and a father’s devotion to his child while also being incredibly amusing and entertaining throughout.
The stakes of the film are relayed to us before the opening credits even roll as three men are killed seemingly at random, with two of the murders perpetrated by Cooke (Duke). These assassinations are enough to convince Major General Franklin Kirby (James Olson) to seek out Matrix since the men killed were once part of John’s elite special unit back when he was a soldier under Kirby’s command. Matrix, however, has no interest in returning to war and is perfectly content living out in the woods with his daughter, Jenny. The Director’s Cut reveals that Jenny’s mother died during child birth and that Matrix has missed a great deal of his daughter’s life due to his years of travelling and black ops missions; as a result, he’s trying to make up for that lost time and the two have a very close and loving relationship and spend their days together swimming, adventuring, and playing in the wilds around their home and the nearby town. However, both Kirby and Matrix quickly surmise that the murders are most likely part of a co-ordinated effort to track him down and flush him out of hiding and Kirby posts guards at Matrix’s house to try and keep him safe.
However, the two are immediately killed in the ensuing firefight and, while Matrix busies himself picking off the intruders, Jenny is kidnapped and held as a bargaining chip by Arius, the vindictive former president of the fictional nation of Val Verde whom Matrix ousted from power back in his glory days. Eager for revenge, and to reclaim his vaulted position, Arius has hired former soldiers like Cooke, Sully (Kelly), and even Bennett to force Matrix into killing Val Verde’s current president or lose his daughter. Matrix is shocked to see Bennett alive (despite having only just learnt of his apparent demise…) and an intense rivalry is immediately stoked between the two since Bennett harbours a deep resentment after being kicked out of John’s unit and takes a perverse pleasure in having the opportunity to enact revenge on his former commander. Much more than just a sadistic thug, Bennett is a dangerous, unpredictable, and formidable foe since he was trained by Matrix and thus knows exactly how capable he is, what his play will be, and how to push his buttons. Furthermore, while Matrix dispatches his enemies with a cold, stoic efficiency in a single-minded quest to rescue his daughter, Bennett actually enjoys killing and is obsessed with proving himself Matrix’s physical and mental superior.
Thanks to Bennett and Arius spiriting Jenny away to Arius’ secret island base, Matrix has to work his way up the food chain before he can complete his mission. The first victim of his reprisals is Henriques (Charles Meshack), who is dispatching in one smooth, sudden movement by Matrix before he escapes from his plane during take-off. With just eleven hours before the plane lands and his ruse is discovered, Matrix tracks down Sully, a creepy little weasel whose arrogant taunting of Matrix soon turns to abject terror when he sees the titular commando tracking him down in the local shopping mall. Although Sully makes a valiant escape attempt, he’s left begging and bargaining for his life after Matrix runs him off the road and is ultimately dropped to his death after underestimating Matrix’s detective skills. Thanks to a key in Sully’s car, Matrix tracks down Cooke at a seedy motel and a brutal fist fight breaks out between the two big men that sees Cooke beaten senseless and impaled on a piece of wood. From there, Matrix is finally able to track Jenny to the island and gear up for his spectacular final assault on Arius’ main base.
Of course, Matrix isn’t alone in his mission; while tailing Sully, he crosses paths with Cindy (Chong), an off-duty flight attendant who attracts Sully’s unwanted attention and who he coerces into helping him. Though feisty, Cindy is also initially terrified and driven to near hysteria by the chaotic events surrounding her and smartly takes the first opportunity to try and rid herself of the crazy hulk who has effectively kidnapped her but, after seeing Matrix fight off the mall’s security single-handedly and saving him from being shot, she becomes invested in his mission after learning about his plight. A lively and adaptable young woman, Cindy ends up being invaluable to Matrix’s cause when she rescues him from the back of a police van using a rocket launcher (once she turns it the right way around…) and then successfully pilots him to Arius’ island. Though she lacks confidence and is clearly in over her head, Matrix’s stoic assurances and pragmatic demeanour push her into going out of her comfort zone and to break the law in order to assist him. Once Matrix is on the island and laying waste to Arius’ private army, Cindy again helps by sending a distress call to Kirby, who is basically the Colonel Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna) of the film. Like Trautman, Kirby is Matrix’s former commander officer and mentor; he goes out of his way to bend the rules and clear Matrix’s actions with the local authorities but is laughably ineffectual. In the end, Kirby is pretty much useless as Matrix simply takes the most direct and blunt approach to his goal and Kirby is left trailing behind and cleaning up the mess (and bodies) in his wake (something he does willingly considering the righteousness of Matrix’s mission and how highly Kirby regards him).
In addition to the hard-hitting action and massive explosions that permeate the film, Commando is bolstered by a rousing score composed by James Horner that adds an extra punch to the film but also knows when to cut out to let the sound of punches and explosions tell the story. Another aspect that really helps Commando stand out from the competition is its tongue-in-cheek humour; Matrix is a surprisingly complex character in that, while he’s clearly affected by his military days, he’s not haunted by them and is a doting and loving father who reacts so well to pressure that he’s able to drop dry witticisms all over the place. Instantly adaptable, Matrix goes right to his gun shed to arm up against the intruders and is smart enough to play along with his captors until he’s on the plane. Once he gets off, he immediately switches to “mission mode” and sets out tracking down his one lead, Sully, to begin tracking Jenny down. However, as he works his way through Arius’ goons, he always has time for a quip, catchphrase, and other “macho bullshit” to showcase his supreme confidence. Indeed, I feel Commando often gets overlooked in Arnold’s filmography as it was basically the first chance he got to showcase that he was much more than just a stoic muscleman; he’s got great comedic timing and his delivery of Matrix’s dry quips makes for a film full of amusing quotes and one-liners (“This is my weak arm!”, “I eat Green Beret’s for breakfast!”, “I let him go”, and “Let off some steam, Bennett!” are all classic Arnold-isms).
Indeed, Matrix is the ultimate super soldier; he’s “silent and smooth”, able to sneak up on even a veteran like Kirby without being detected, and his senses and spatial awareness are especially keen (he hears Kirby’s helicopter long before it actually comes into range, can detect approaching enemies using the “downwind”, and is constantly aware of what’s happening around him at all times). Of course, in addition to his unmatched proficiency with all kinds of weapons (from pistols to machine guns to rocket launchers and remote explosives), his greatest strength is the fact that he’s a walking mountain of a man! Easily handling tree trunks, manually pushing and flipping cars and trucks, and fully capable of beating a man to death, Matrix rips a telephone booth from its mooring, tears the passenger side seat from Cindy’s car, and easily hefts around heavy ordinance like it was nothing. Yet, at the same time, Matrix isn’t invulnerable; he takes a great deal of punishment throughout the film, especially in the many car crashes he survives and in his fist fight with Cooke and Bennett, leaving him a sweaty, bloodied mess by the end of the film.
And let’s talk about the finale, where Matrix loads himself up from head to toe with guns, ammo, and weaponry and storms Arius’ private army single-handedly; once again, Arnold rarely if ever, reloads and Matrix instead simply casts aside his weapons once his ammo is spent and switches to another on his person (he even slices up a few unfortunate souls with saw blades, an axe, and a machete after briefly being cornered in a tool shed). If you’re looking for bombastic excess, this is where you’ll find it as Arius’ soldiers literally run into Matrix’s bullets while he’s standing still, cannot seem to hit him despite having the numbers advantage, high ground, and several hundred guns firing at him, and Matrix blows barracks and buildings (and dummies…) apart from the inside using explosives placed on the outside! After laying waste to an untold number of nameless, faceless soldiers and coming out of it with just a few cuts, Matrix makes short work of Arius as he searches the would-be-dictator’s mansion for his daughter. This leads him into a final confrontation with Bennett; while Bennett is much shorter and smaller than Matrix, he is more than able to hold his own thanks to taking Matrix by surprise, Matrix’s obvious fatigue, and the fact that Matrix is distracted by his daughter’s plight. However, Bennett is psychotic and his mental state only becomes more unhinged as the fight progresses; Matrix easily take advantage of this, goading and taunting Bennett into giving up his advantages (Jenny and his gun) and coming for him with a knife. Ultimately, despite taking a severe beating and a bullet in the arm, Matrix’s will proves too strong for his former protégé and he’s able to skewer Bennett with a pipe he wrenches off the wall! Having left a trail of bodies and wreckage in his wake, Matrix has more than proved that he remains the best of the best but, despite Kirby’s insistence that he has to return to the fight, Matrix is concerned only with returning to his peaceful life with his daughter (and, presumably, Cindy).
Commando may very well be the quintessential action film of the 1980s; a perfect balance of action and humour, the film is just mindless, unapologetic fun from start to finish. It’s paced beautifully, with very few lulls in the action and, even when the film is going a little slower, it’s all used to great effect to build tension regarding Matrix’s ticking clock, the relationship between him and Cindy, and even showing how Bennett is mentally preparing for Matrix’s inevitable counterattack. This film is Arnold at his action best, showcasing all of his strengths and giving him the rare opportunity to show his range as an actor and to turn even the most mundane lines into memorable one-liners. And the action! Jesus! Like I said, this film is excess to the nines and features a car chase, a massive brawl in a shopping mall, a brutal bare-knuckle fight between two beefy guys, and a one-man ground assault against an entire army filled with disposable goons getting wrecked by blood squibs! Rambo III (MacDonald, 1988) wishes it could be this film, which is probably the last great action film of the eighties before things started skewing towards science-fiction and superheroes. Obviously, I’m biased but I just find this film tremendous fun and one of Arnold’s very best; it’s dumb and stupid at times but that’s not a negative and just adds to the entertainment value, and it’s a definite must-watch for fans of the genre.
What are your thoughts on Commando? How do you think the film holds up to others in the same genre and what would you rank it against Arnold’s other films? What did you think to Schwarzenegger’s dry wit and portrayal of an untouchable super soldier? Which of the underlings, one-liners, and action scenes was your favourite? What did you think to his rivalry with Bennett and who do you think made for the better mentor, Trautman or Kirby? Would you have liked to see a sequel to this film back in the day? How are you celebrating Schwarzenegger’s birthday today and what is your favourite Schwarzenegger film? Whatever your thoughts, go ahead and leave a comment down below or on my social media.