With Arnold Schwarzenegger returning to the big screen in The Last Stand, the Flickering Myth writing team look back at their favourite Arnie movies. Next up, David Bishop with 1985’s Commando…
The 80s were a defining decade for Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator, Predator and Conan all helped to launch his career and make him one of the most recognisable stars in the world. However, there’s one film, one which wasn’t anywhere near as ground-breaking as the aforementioned, that is held in the hearts of many Schwarzenegger fans, and for very good reason.
Commando isn’t his best film (Terminator 2: Judgement Day probably gets that accolade), but it’s his most unashamedly entertaining. The ‘plot’, for lack of a better word, begins with John Matrix (yes that is his name) enjoying the wildlife up in his mountain-based home with his daughter. A particular highlight sees them petting a deer. Its Arnie meets Disney way before the likes of Jingle all the Way.
Predictably, it’s not long before paradise is interrupted and John’s daughter is kidnapped by a group intent on revenge. Revenge for what is unimportant and it doesn’t matter in the slightest. All that matters is Arnie’s unique method of finding his daughter, which involves jumping out of planes, throwing bad guys off cliffs and lying about who he’s going to kill last.
On paper it all sounds like standard 80s action fare and you’d be forgiven for lumping this in with the straight-to-video Seagal and Van Damme oeuvre. However, there’s something that elevates this above, and out of, the bargain bin. It certainly helps that, at this point in his career, Arnie was at his absolute physical peak. Fresh off the success of The Terminator and, to a lesser extent, Red Sonja, Arnie was quickly building a strong following. You can feel the need to appeal to his fan base, to deliver on what people loved about his previous roles. Here we’ve got one-liners aplenty, tons of explosions and Arnie single-handedly taking on an entire army.
It’s the constant need to deliver on its premise that sets this film apart. There’s no attempt to take the material seriously, no overly complicated subplots and no unnecessary detours. You could argue that damsel-in-distress Cindy is added just so John has someone to talk to, but she rarely gets in the way or slows things down.
Clearly, this isn’t as nuanced as The Terminator, but what’s surprising is how strong the script actually is. Written by Steven E. de Souza (Die Hard, The Running Man and, err, The Flintstones), Arnie’s one-liners have never been better. Lines such as “I know I said I’d kill you last. I lied.” and “Don’t disturb my friend, he’s dead tired.” are genuinely witty. It’s easy to snigger at such dialogue, but there’s an art to writing the perfect one-liner and Commando does it better than most.
There’s also an economy of storytelling, a variety to the action scenes (one highlight is when Arnie lifts up a guy, while still in a phone-booth, and throws him to the lower level in a shopping mall) and a sense of its own absurdity. Arnie taking down an army, using a gigantic machine gun with one hand, is a great example of the filmmakers simply embracing the outlandish elements and running with it. No holding back, no attempts at realism, just pure escapism.
More so than his work with a certain James Cameron, Commando is the quintessential Arnie film. Director Mark L. Lester knows his audience and takes full advantage of Schwarzenegger’s star power. He’s practically in every scene, given straight-to-the-point dialogue and allowed to do what he does best. There are a lot of ‘better’ Arnie films, but few sum up the great man’s screen persona so perfectly.