Tom Jolliffe revisits the Schwarzenegger classic Commando, which recently turned 35…
It pains me to think a seminal film from my childhood has now turned 35. I probably first saw Commando some 30(ish) years ago. That would make me? Urgh, like the old Knight Harrison Ford stumbles on in The Last Crusade probably. Or at least that’s how I feel some mornings. There came a moment back in the day, with carte blanche to pick an action film from the VHS collection of a friend’s older brother. The choice we made was Commando. We chose wisely (spot that reference?). The thing about Commando, which landed slap bang in the middle of the 80’s, is that it’s almost THE perfect embodiment of excessive, overtly macho 80’s action. It’s in retrospect, been described as dripping in homoeroticism. I don’t see it personally. Yes, Arnold is shirtless and greasier than a bucket of KFC for large swathes of the film. Yes, he wrestles with a guy who looks like Freddie Mercury, if he got bored of Queen and auditioned for the Village People. In fact there’s lots of all male wrasslin’ and long lingering looks and strangely suggestive lines of dialogue. Okay…maybe I see it, but it’s something that was rife in an era of action that didn’t always seem to have self awareness.
Is Commando the most 80’s action, action film then? It may well be. If you took away his Cyborg legacy, the most associative image of Arnold might be in his guise as an unstoppable, superhuman one man army. The eponymous image of him gratuitously using a four chambered rocket launcher. It’s iconic. The 80’s action era has often been spoofed, and the ludicrous antics of Arnold in Commando, Stallone in Rambo II and III, and additionally Chuck Norris in a few of his, have been ripe for the plucking. To be spoofed doesn’t always imply badness, because whilst some high brow critics of the time may have dismissed Commando as glorified trash, it’s exceptionally good at what it does. As a barnstorming, escapist slice of action entertainment, it more than delivers.
As silly as the film gets, with Arnold nigh on indestructible, and able to gun down hordes of enemies using only shrubbery as cover, it has a certain sincerity that many of the eras best action cheese fests did. Arnold is great. He’s not here to emote beyond a few basic expressions, and Arnold, on his day isn’t half as bad an actor as many make out (check out some of his more recent works), but his remit in Commando would essentially blueprint much of his future career. Stoic delivery combined with that action figure physique, and plenty of one liners. This came shortly after Terminator. Whether that one liner thing had already caught on, I don’t know, but who knows whether writer Steven E. De Souza and director Mark L. Lester had any inkling that Arnold’s delivery of his one liners, through his thick Austrian accent, would become relentlessly quoted in years to follow. Did they write the lines in spite of how they might sound through the accent and slightly robotic delivery? Or did they envision them having a certain je ne sais quoi as delivered from the Austrian Oak? James Cameron and Arnold didn’t particularly expect ‘I’ll be back’ to be so iconic, it’s throwaway, but a line like ‘Let off some steam, Bennett…’ such a definitive finisher, is meant to have impact. I suspect they knew it would work (and Commando is absolutely littered with quotable Ahnuld lines).
Commando is expertly put together too. There’s no airs or graces about the direction, it’s thoroughly efficient in capturing the on screen carnage, and it’s nicely shot. Again, this era of action films, apart from anything else, often look very good. It’s a Joel Silver pic too, so it wasn’t cobbled together cheaply. Throw in a nice James Horner score too, and neatly designed set pieces, culminating in a great finale, and Commando has everything, including a lithe 90 minute run-time that breezes by. Arnold is also blessed with an excellent supporting cast throughout his misadventure. There’s a villainous duo of Dan Hedaya and the iconic Vernon Wells (one of the definitive 80’s baddies). They’re both great, and then we’ve got some good character actors through the picture like David Patrick Kelly and Bill Duke. DPK does slime ball brilliant. Duke is an expert of intense gruffness, and also has a gift for making lines iconic (see this, and see his subsequent Arnie reteam in Predator). Rae Dawn Chong was also good, in what amounted to a more integral part than female side characters tended to get in films like this (without being focused as little more than a love interest) and there’s an early role for an impressive Alyssa Milano as Arnold’s daughter (when Jenny Matrix is nearing 50, you know you are old).
Every time I watch Commando, it makes me recall how dazzlingly spectacular I found watching it at a young age. Like so many classic action films of that period for my generation watching, it’s almost a cartoon come to life. I still get that feeling watch it now. Let us know your thoughts on Commando on our social channels @flickeringmyth.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), War of The Worlds: The Attack and the star studded action films, Renegades (Lee Majors, Billy Murray) and Crackdown. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.