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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Commando (1985) review


Arnold Schwarzenegger (John Matrix), Rae Dawn Chong (Cindy), Dan Hedaya (Arius), Vernon Wells (Bennett), James Olson (Major General Franklin Kirby), David Patrick Kelly (Sully), Alyssa Milano (Jenny), Bill Duke (Cooke)

Directed by Mark L. Lester

The Short Version: Arnold Schwarzenegger carries trees, has a sense of smell like a bloodhound, and eats Green Berets for breakfast in this 80s Action flick that could have been named after his 1970 non-classic HERCULES GOES BANANAS. Essentially a muscleman epic with guns and rocket launchers, Arnold's John Matrix is even more impervious than the Terminator. You'll see him hurl heavy objects with the greatest of ease, toss guys around like sacks of potatoes, and mow down scores of armed assailants without so much as a scratch. There's also a carelessly high level of continuity errors littering the screen like so many shell casings. Infectious, breezily paced entertainment, COMMANDO is RAMBO on steroids and comes highly recommended for 80s action aficionados.

John Matrix, a highly decorated former military Commando, is pushed into complying with a deposed dictator, General Arius, into assassinating President Velasquez, the new leader of a South American country. To ensure he does the job, Matrix's daughter is held hostage by the deranged Bennett, a former member of his team. Since Matrix and the new ruler are friends, no one would suspect him of the hit. But Matrix has no intentions of doing the job, instead turning into a one man war machine hellbent on getting his daughter back alive.

The director of FIRESTARTER (1984) followed up that fiery flick with this big ticket actioner that set the box office ablaze after RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985) blew it up several months earlier. It being the 1980s, this was an era of both American military and economic strength around the world and this was reflected in the cinema of the time. The Stallone sequel was a hard act to follow in terms of nonstop violence and explosions, but Lester shows he's up to the task in his cult copycat favorite COMMANDO. The two films share some things in common in that both are named John; and both are literal armies of one. The Schwarzenegger movie has its own version of Colonel Troutman in the form of James Olson as Major General Franklin Kirby. His dialog is even similar.

Elsewhere, Steven E. de Souza's script is doused in one liners and action set pieces fired off with such rapidity, it's akin to Schwarzenegger emptying a clip on his Valmet M78/83. The bulk of Schwarzenegger's dialog are witticisms, sometimes spouting more than one in the same scene. The action comes fast and furious, and always on the creative side. It's really something to behold. Easily one of the leanest 80s actioners, COMMANDO never once takes itself seriously. It's on the same cartoonish level of one of your finer Hong Kong kung fu epics, just from an American perspective.

Firepower is a big part of the COMMANDO arsenal. Arnold seemingly carries an entire guns and ammo shop over his shoulders and around his waist during the blow'em up finale. Having just come off THE TERMINATOR (1984), Schwarzenegger went from playing an indestructible cyborg to a virtually indestructible slab of beefcake. Possessing nothing less than Demi-godly levels of strength, Arnold slings, hurls, and rips sets, people, and props apart with equal abandon. This possibly explains why the waves of villains that fire at him never hit him a single time; the bullets likely just bounce off of Matrix.

Arnold is really good here, firing off quips left and right while making his way through one impossible scenario after another. The word 'impossible' suits COMMANDO like a glove. Part of the films charm is its devout adherence to unreality. Lester's film wallows in impracticability. Adding to this lack of realism is a laundry list of goofs and continuity errors. Cars receive damage that disappear and reappear between shots; rocket launchers have no rockets in them, but fire anyways; ammo belt never seems to deplete, etc, etc.

Aiding Arnold in getting his daughter back (WHO'S THE BOSS? star Alyssa Milano) is a flight attendant named Cindy (played by Rae Dawn Chong). The two have a lot of onscreen chemistry together. Her clumsiness in trying to help Matrix in his quest complements the absurdness of the whole thing. Without Chong's participation, COMMANDO would be a lot less intentionally fun. 

The villains are all memorable faces whose actions, while likewise on the outskirts of verisimilitude, are of the communist level of thuggery popular in all your finer 80s action hero flicks. This was back when communism was depicted for the evil it truly is; unlike the romanticized version in today's world. The made-up South American land of Val Verde is seemingly enjoying a free (or more free) society after Matrix helped the new President Velasquez overthrow Arius (Dan Hedaya, Nick Tortelli of CHEERS), the dictatorial main heavy who wishes to have all that power back. 

Vernon Wells, who gave Mad Max a hard time in THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981), got the part as Bennett when the original actor hired to play the role was fired (allegedly for failing to project the right amount of menace). Wells is psycho enough, and bears a resemblance to the more muscular William Smith. Now that would have been perfect casting--Arnold vs. William Smith. Of course, Smith didn't work with Arnie again after beating the Austrian muscleman at arm wrestling before production began on CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982).

He's remembered mostly as Luther, the leader of The Rogues who had a penchant for catch phrases and coke bottles in THE WARRIORS (1979), but David Patrick Kelly has a similar weaselly air about him here. He was just as creepy as the nightmare assassin in the underrated, SPX heavy SciFi film DREAMSCAPE (1984).

Then there's Bill Duke as Cooke, the blank-faced former Green Beret who has relatively few lines, but says more with his emotional vacancy acting style than most actors with lots of dialog. He turned up again with Schwarzenegger as one of the good guys against the PREDATOR (1987). 

James Horner orchestrates a score that sounds nothing like his boisterous, epic scores for STAR TREK 2 (1982) and KRULL (1983). Steel drums and saxophone driven cues might seem an odd choice for this sort of Heavy Metal & Muscles type action picture, but strangely enough, it works. There are a couple of Horner calling cards but for the most part there's not much familiarity with his other works.

Schwarzenegger was on a roll at this point. A sequel was planned for COMMANDO, but it never materialized. Around the same time, a sequel to THE TERMINATOR was announced, but it took several years to come to the screen. This was the first time you hear Arnold repeat his now famous line from TERMINATOR, "I'll be back"; from here on out, it became customary for Schwarzenegger to say it somewhere in his films. Ridiculously over the top, COMMANDO is not only required viewing for macho movie mavens, but it's an astute representation of the style of action movie that dominated the 1980s.

This review is representative of the 20th Century Fox blu-ray (R rated version). Extras and Specs: 1080p 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; theatrical trailer; English 5.1 DTS-HD; French Stereo; Spanish Mono.

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