For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.
Watched: 6 October 2019
Format: A DVD I bought many years ago.
Seen before? Oh fuck yes.
I first saw Commando soon after it was released on VHS. I was only about eight years old and was absolutely enraptured: it felt like the perfect film. I’ve rewatched it many times in the three decades or more since, always thoroughly enjoying it, so here are 10 reasons why this 80s action classic is so entertaining. Spoilers ahead…
1. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Commando presents Arnie in such a way that all the aspects of his carefully moulded Hollywood persona are contained in one character. The plot features plenty of action and violence, for example, which utilise his enormous muscular body and towering presence. (His first shot is a mission statement: he’s carrying a fucking tree.) The script also uses the kind of comedy that Schwarzenegger was developing film by film in the 1980s. His dialogue around this time often favoured deadpan, James Bond-style quips and puns, which pepper and enliven Commando, adding a self-aware edge to the macho storyline (‘Where’s Sully?’/‘I had to let him go…’). But there’s also a big change going on here too, one that’s very important in the context of Schwarzenegger’s career. John Matrix is arguably the actor’s first *normal* character. (Well, relatively speaking.) He’s not a Greek god, a prehistoric warrior or a cyborg from the future – the roles that had made Schwarzenegger’s name but which didn’t call for much emotional depth. Here, when we meet Matrix during the film’s opening credits, he’s a kindly single father living a life of pleasurable retirement. He takes daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano, spirited) for ice cream and teaches her self-defence. We soon learn that he has a past as a stealthy military assassin, but – give him his due – Schwarzenegger never forgets that Matrix is a reluctant hero who just wants a quiet life…
2. The script
In fact, the only reason Matrix leaves his idyllic rural cabin and gets involved in the wider world is because Jenny is kidnapped by mercenaries. They then attempt to blackmail John into killing a Central American politician, which they hope will incite a fascist coup. But of course our hero is smarter than the bad guys. He gives his handlers the slip (by, you know, killing them) then ignores his mission and heads off to rescue his daughter… The fictional country at the centre of the plot, Val Verde, was later referenced in 1990’s Die Hard 2, which like Commando was written by Steven E de Souza. A writer whose style is full of attitude and momentum, de Souza was brought onto the project to rejig an existing script after Arnold Schwarzenegger had been cast. Commando might not be Shakespeare, but it’s not trying to be. It’s a sugar-rush, action-driven thriller, with stunts and spectacle as well as humour and humanity. It’s full-on and full-throttle, but the closer you look the more you also see a sense of playfulness. Far from spoof, it nevertheless has its tongue in its cheek.
3. Rae Dawn Chong
John Matrix is on a mad dash to find Jenny before the bad guys realise he’s free, and he soon crosses paths with a woman called Cindy, played by Rae Dawn Chong. She’s an air stewardess whose sports car Matrix appropriates when he needs to give chase to the slimy henchman Sully. At first Matrix’s terrified hostage, Cindy then realises that this is a desperate man who needs her help and the pair become allies. (Extremely conveniently for the plot, she has been learning to pilot small aircraft, which comes in handy when Matrix learns that Jenny is being held on an island.) Playing the frustrated, sarcastic dialogue for all its worth, the actress lifts the character above the usual ‘female sidekick’ function and adds a huge amount of fun to the film, not least when she haphazardly uses a rocket-launcher to rescue Matrix from a temporary spell in police custody. Refreshingly, there’s no romance between the two leads. Why would there be, when Matrix is focused on saving his daughter’s life? (A sex scene was shot then wisely cut from the finished movie.)
4. The violence
The film’s opening scene is murder in suburbia. A middle-class couple are awoken one morning by the sound of a garbage truck, so the husband races outside to make sure they collect his bags. The two binmen then starkly gun him down in the street… We later see many more scenes of brutality: deaths, gunplay, stabbings, explosions, scalpings, dismemberments, a man plummeting down a cliff, a man being impaled on a pipe, and so on. (Some of the more extreme shots were trimmed out of the print originally released in the UK.) It’s the kind of ultra-violence you don’t get in this type of film any more. The 1980s saw savagery go alongside sass in many high-profile genre films, especially those starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was understood that adult audiences could decode fact from fiction, and take harmless pleasure from the cartoon action. But since then – for financial reasons – there’s been a split. The big-budget action successors to movies like Commando (the Avengers series, for example) are courting a wider age range of viewers so contain watered-down violence. It’s never too graphic, never too challenging. The really hard-core stuff, meanwhile, is mostly found in lower-profile films like John Wick and Drive. Times change; fashions shift; cinema evolves. Commando now feels old-fashioned but – if you’re of a certain age – in a brilliantly nostalgic way.
5. Vernon Wells
Every great action thriller needs an entertaining bad guy. And Commando has a beaut. A colleague of John Matrix’s from their old special-forces days, the thug Bennett is a moustachioed Australian dynamo of testosterone and arrogance. He dresses in a macho-gay outfit, all string vest and tight leather trousers, and comes off like some kind of sadistic Freddie Mercury. Bitter at his firing from the military (for being a nutjob), he teams up with Central American fascists and helps kidnap Matrix’s daughter; he even stages his own death to disguise his involvement. A thoroughly nasty piece of work, Bennett snarls and snarks and smirks his way through the movie. This is not a misunderstood character with a deep psychology: he’s just a shit. But actor Vernon Wells (Mad Max 2, Weird Science, Innerspace) knows that and plays up the campy villainy in such a gleeful way that you miss Bennett whenever he’s not on screen.
6. The other bad guys
Bennett is just one of a gaggle of entertaining foes in this film. The boss is pompous wannabe dictator Arius (Dan Hedaya), and like a Bond villain he has baroque underlings. The goons who try to coerce Matrix into flying to Val Verde, for example, include Cooke and Sully. The former is an ex-Green Beret (‘I eat Green Berets for breakfast!’ quips Matrix) and is played with a stern expression by Bill Duke, who co-starred again with Arnie in 1987’s Predator. The latter, meanwhile, is a slimy, suit-wearing 80s twat who thinks his seedy chat-up lines will work on Cindy. He’s played by David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors, 48 Hrs).
7. The director
When Mark L Lester got the Commando gig, his CV was a mixture of now-forgotten genre flicks, a roller-disco musical featuring Linda Blair, and the hit horror film Firestarter. Tasked with an Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle, he pushed all the dials up to 11. This is not a movie about nuance. Made today, Matrix would have a drinking problem or an estranged wife (Jenny’s mother is never mentioned), but Commando works so well because it’s stripped down to the essentials. There’s nothing but plot, action, humour and excitement. It might have cost $10 million to make, but it’s essentially and tonally an exploitation film; directed crisply and sharply, with lots of driving momentum and no flab to the storytelling. Lester understands the idiom so well, taking the story *just* seriously enough that it flies but never forgetting that this is an arch, escapist fantasy. He also provides us with plenty of vivid, well-chosen locations, such as the Californian woods where Matrix lives, a vibrant shopping mall (which was later used in another Arnie classic: Terminator 2), and Arius’s island compound (which was actually an estate built by the silent-movie star Harold Lloyd). The action sequences, meanwhile, often have a James Bond-style panache, whether it’s Schwarzenegger swinging across a food court or jumping off the undercarriage of a jumbo jet during take-off. Commando is 90 minutes long and packs a huge amount in.
8. The tooling-up scene
If one moment typifies both Commando as a whole, and Arnie’s mid-80s career generally, then it’s when Matrix has arrived on the small island where his daughter is being held prisoner. Cindy has flown them the two hours off the Californian coast in a seaplane, and now Matrix has come ashore in a dinghy loaded down with supplies. In a meticulously edited montage lasting 19 seconds, we see our hero ‘suit up’. He ties laces, clicks buckles, straps on guns, pockets ammunition, sheaths knives, cocks handguns, zips up his jacket, streaks war paint across his muscles and face, then strikes a pose like a superhero on the cover of a comic book. It’s a scene that adds little to the plot – all it’s saying is that Matrix has guns with him – but it’s hugely important on a more primal level. Psychologically – if that’s not too highfalutin a word to evoke when it comes to this film – we’re seeing Matrix prepare for the most important battle of his life. It’s pure ritual. (In 2007, this kind of tooling-up scene was spoofed with affection in Edgar Wright’s millimetre-perfect action comedy Hot Fuzz.)
9. The music
Commando’s score was written by James Horner, a man whose career was typified by exciting, vibrant and memorable work on films such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Aliens, The Rocketeer, Sneakers, Patriot Games, Titanic and many more. Riffing on ideas he’d recently used in the cop film 48 Hrs, here his music is a joyous collision of electro sounds, sax gurgles and steel-drum melodies. (What do steel drums have to do with the plot of Commando? Nothing. They just sound cool.) The score drives the action and embellishes scenes with wit. As the credits roll at the end of the movie, with the bad guys vanquished and Jenny returned safely to her father, we also get to hear a rock song that was specially written for the film. Sadly, We Fight for Love by the supergroup The Power Station is one of those tracks you start to forget while it’s still playing.
10. The line
‘I’ll be back, Bennett,’ promises John Matrix when he’s being shipped off to Val Verde. As most viewers – both then and now – will have realised, this is a reprise of an especially memorable line of dialogue from The Terminator. In fact, it’s the *first* reprise of ‘I’ll be back’ – and it would be far from the last. The line has since been repeated or referenced in many other Arnie movies: all the subsequent Terminators, Raw Deal, The Running Man, Twins, Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop, Last Action Hero, Junior, Eraser, The 6th Day, The Expendables 2… But here is where ‘I’ll be back’ evolved from a quotable bit of one movie and became a Schwarzenegger-specific catchphrase.
Schwarzenegger Says: ‘I was riding the great wave of action movies, a whole new genre that was exploding during this time. Stallone started it with the Rocky movies. In the original Rocky, in 1976, he’d looked like just a regular fighter. But in Rocky II, he had a much better body. His Rambo movies, the first two especially, also had a giant impact. My 1985 movie Commando continued the trend, coming out in the same year as the second Rambo and Rocky IV. Then The Terminator and Predator expanded the genre by adding sci-fi dimensions. Some of these movies were critically acclaimed, and all of them made so much money that the studios could no longer write them off as just B movies. They became as important to the 1980s as Westerns were in the 1950s.’
Ten promises to kill you last out of 10
Next: The Terminator