12 September 2012

Movie Review: Commando

I feel like writing a movie review in the format of CHUD’s “Movie of the Day.” Since Expendables 2 put me into a mood to reminisce about the action days of yore (i.e. my adolescence), I’ve got a perfect Movie of the Day in mind. And the Blu-ray on hand.

Commando (1985)
Directed by Mark L. Lester. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Chong, Vernon Wells, Alyssa Milano, Dan Hedaya, Bill Duke, David Patrick Kelly, James Olson.

The Premise: Villains kidnap Arnold’s daughter. Arnold kills them all, gets daughter back.

Slightly longer version: Retired Delta Force butt-kicker Colonel John Matrix tries to make a peaceful living with his adorable daughter Jenny (future hottie Alyssa Milano). But someone starts picking off the former members of his team, and General Kirby (Amityville II: The Possesion’s James Olson) comes to warn Matrix and provide him protection. But… that’s what the bad guys were hoping for! They follow Kirby right to Matrix’s mountain paradise, where they make off with Alyssa. It turns out that Matrix’s former Delta Force buddy Captain Bennett (The Road Warrior’s Vernon Wells) has switched sides and made a deal with ousted dictator Arius (Dan Hedaya from, well, everything). If John Matrix goes to the fictional South American nation of Val Verde (future Predator hunting site) and kills the president who replaced Arius, they’ll let his daughter go free. But this plan is no bueno for Matrix, who head-snaps the poor sucker escorting him on the plane to Val Verde, slips off through the cargo hold, and goes on the hunt for Bennet and Co. before any of them realize he’s slipped the noose—which will happen in eleven hours when the plane lands in Val Verde and the crew discovers the dead guy slumped over in first class. Or until they hand out the complimentary champagne. Massive amounts of superhuman death and macho weaponry ensue, and Matrix gets an assist from an eager flight attendant and semi-pro pilot (Rae Dawn Chong, who also starred in The Color Purple that year).

Is It Good? What, are you insane? This has to be the quintessential mid-‘80s action film. There are far superior action films, even from this eon, but I don’t think any movie better sums up the B-movie turned A-movie action aesthetic of its decade. Even though Rambo: First Blood—Part II came out the same year, I’ll still give Commando the edge in “quintessence” because it seems to know how ludicrous it is, and that’s one of the great charms of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime period. Rambo II thinks it’s important (and for a short period it actually was, since it entered the daily political dialogue) while Commando knows the audience just wants to see Arnold wasting people in outrageous fashion and saying looney things with his never-duplicated accent. It proceeds to deliver exactly that. How seriously does a film expect you to take it when the hero can lug an occupied phone booth over his head with his bare hands, easily waste a hundred trained gunmen while standing in plain sight, survive a grenade explosion half a foot from him with only a mild cut on his head, and fix a malfunctioning plane just by punching the controls once?

I almost left the first paragraph of the premise “as is” and didn’t go into the longer synopsis, because that amount of description belies how simplistic the whole thing is. There’s only enough plot here to properly motivate Arnold to cause mass devastation. The literal ticking clock (shown on Matrix’s ‘80s digital watch) with the dead body on the plane is a good device to ratchet up the action—particularly Matrix’s desperate pursuit of Sully in the Sherman Oaks Galleria—and explain why the hero is doing nothing in a subtle fashion, but even that gets tossed away in the finale when the time limit abruptly makes no difference at all. Matrix’s background as a commando gets only the slightest exploration, and his relationship with Bennett is at the superficial level of “you went bad, now I kill you.” And that’s all fine: director Mark Lester isn’t James Cameron, John McTiernan, or John Milius. This straightforward macho-ness with flexed muscles, bare chests, and rocket launchers.
This is the median Arnold Schwarzenegger film. It’s far from his best work or the best movie he appeared in, but it arrives in the dead center of his golden era and captures everything about the man that made him such a celebrity. Listening to him say one of his classic quips, “I like you; that’s why I’m going to kill you last,” is Hollywood honey. And there’s plenty more where that came from. Arnold is large, in charge, and ridiculous, which is just the way I like him.

The rest of the cast is simply nuts. Crazy mohawk dude from The Road Warrior. Scenery-chewing Dan Hedaya with a South American accent. Weasly David Patrick Kelly as a false-macho yuppie jerk. Bill Duke, later to team up with Arnold against the Predator, as a total hardcore assassin. And a Bill Paxton bit part. I guess I can toss Alyssa Milano into the mix, even though this is before she hit puberty and had a devastating effect on the young male population. Yes, I tuned into Who’s the Boss as a teen just so I could watch her. And I feel no shame in telling you that.

Is It Worth a Look? If you’re interested in action movies, this is textbook stuff. You should have gotten a free copy in the mail. If you want to know more about the 1980s in general, it’s also a must-see. If you ever wanted to know where “I’ll kill you last” came from—well, answered now, but still, see it.

Blu-ray report: The 2008 disc sports a true-to-source look with some softness and grain. It won’t sell your friends on the glories of Blu-ray, but it will sell the film. The 5.1 Master Audio mix is serviceable, and the original Dolby Stereo mix is also available. As for extras, nada except for the movie’s trailer. (I don’t count including other movie’s trailers as “extras.” That’s advertising.)

Random Anecdote: Producer Joel Silver planned a sequel using the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp as the basis. Arnold turned it down, still smarting from the lesser reception of his Conan sequel. The idea got re-tooled into something called Die Hard two years later, the major step into the transition into the early ‘90s action film.

Cinematic Soulmates: Cobra. Rambo: First Blood—Part II. Red Scorpion. Missing in Action. Death Wish 3. Anything else Arnold did during the decade.