Ordinarily, I’d refrain from kicking off a review with a cliché, but, in all seriousness, they really don’t make action movies like they used to. Nowadays, instead of the straight-up fare of the 1980s, audiences must settle for unsatisfying, muddled-up fare consisting of not-so-clever twist endings and character studies of brooding, almost emo heroes. Directors of these movies have dropped their collective balls by transforming action into an afterthought and prioritizing it well after stylish camerawork, showy CGI mastery, and a painstaking wallowing within the minds of heroes, antiheroes, and villains alike. Hell, these days, action flicks usually don’t even take the R-rated route. Faced with skyrocketing budgets, fearful studios must maximize their potential audience, so filmmakers will willingly perform multiple acts of fellatio upon the MPAA to achieve the all-important PG-13 rating. As a result, what really occurs is an effective castration of the action hero, which has, essentially, driven him into extinction.
In a sense, Commando (1985) was made during a much more innocent period of cinema, in which cartoonish acts of violence weren’t assumed to immediately corrupt audiences. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, this movie is fondly remembered by audiences as a rather mindless, ultra-violent guilty pleasure. The film unrelentingly builds up to its very hard-core and graphic climax, in which Schwarzenegger uses a variety of weapons — machine gun, shotgun, handgun, rocket launchers, grenades, knives, pitchfork, circular saw, machete, ax (to the crotch!) — to take out an entire fucking army. In short, this is 90 minutes of cliché-embracing, sheer fun accessorized by one-liner wisecracks, countless bullets and a much-disputed body count. And, despite the absence of gimmickry, CGI, and a whiny male lead who refuses to do his own stunts, audiences (including many impressionable youths) fucking love it.
Not a moment within Commando is spared by either director Mark L. Lester or screenwriter Steven de Souza. Apart from the opening credits, which pretty much give us all that we need to know about the nature of John Matrix, the rest of the film defies its own spatial boundaries by solidly packing itself with vigorous action. The premise itself is as uncomplicated as possible: Bad guys kidnap the daughter of a dude, who kicks ass and kills all of them for the duration of the film. During the first few minutes of Commando and even before the opening credits, two ominous looking men assassinate three former members of an elite U.S. Special Operations unit. Meanwhile, their retired Colonel, John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is happily enjoying his idyllic existence with his preteen daughter, Jenny (Alyssa Milano), at their mountain home. Matrix, who casually carries an entire fucking tree on one shoulder, presents himself to the audience without any complicated backstory or political subtext (as in the Rambo films). We only get the information necessary to set up the plot, that is, that our hero is a devoted father who will, quite literally and in plentiful supply, kill for his daughter. He and Jenny do lots of fuzzy things together like practice karate, feed deer, and she even smashes an ice cream cone into his laughing face. Unfortunately, Matrix also made a lot of enemies during his former career, and, after the baddies track him down and kidnap Jenny, he must race against the clock to save his daughter.
Along the way, Matrix gathers an unwitting sidekick Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), whose comedic touches confirm the ridiculousness of the action she witnesses. As Cindy grows to trust Matrix, a bit of a sexual undercurrent runs between them, but the filmmakers wisely never dwell on romance or some ridiculous sex act (i.e., Fair Game’s train-ride fucking between Cindy Crawford and Billy Baldwin) that would waste precious time. Instead, Commando’s moments are well-invested when its hero rips a phone booth out of the floor and swings from the rafters like Tarzan. Schwarzenegger, in a performance that is unashamed, unapologetic, and self-aware (without approaching obnoxiousness), leads his audience through an entirely campy romp through his bloody battlefields. Overall, the film’s tongue-in-cheek tone sets Commando apart from the usual stereotypes associated with muscle-bound heros and oh-so-helpless damsels. After all, Cindy teaches herself to operate a rocket launcher merely by reading the instructions, and she didn’t need any Special Ops training for that. Yes, Commando is an utterly unrepentant and wholly absurd film, but who doesn’t love a hero that rips a building open rather than sneaking in the front door?
Even the villains of Commando are vividly and wonderfully drawn. These include Arius (Dan Hedaya), the instigator of the kidnapping plot; Sully (David Patrick Kelly), the shifty Scrappy Doo-like henchman who meets his demise after a classic one-liner; and Cooke (Bill Duke), the green beret that fights rough and talks dirty. The showiest of them all, Captain Bennett (Vernon Wells), is a disgraced former subordinate of Matrix. Bennett, who sports leather pants, chain mail vest, leather gloves, and a villainous push-broom moustache, is basically a psychopathic version of Freddy Mercury. In fact, Bennett couldn’t be gayer, really, and he’s got it bad for the boss who once rejected him. He’s bloody fucking obsessed with Matrix to the point where, during their much-awaited final battle, Matrix easily convinces Bennet to settle their score by dropping the gun for a knife and hopeful, uh, penetration:
You want to put a knife in me. Look me in the eyes. See what’s going on in there while you turn it. That’s what you want to do to me, right? Come on, let the girl go. You and me. Don’t deprive yourself of some pleasure. Come on Bennett, let’s party.
As it turns out, Bennett doesn’t really want the girl after all, for his needs are much less complicated. Innuendo aside, this simplicity embodies the whole of Commando’s essence — a rather pulpy and totally absurd, adult-oriented cartoon for those who don’t prefer their violence to be implied or stylized into inoffensiveness. And, most assuredly, there is no way in hell a film like Commando could ever be made today.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.