With the (somewhat) recent announcement of a Commando remake, I thought I would open my blog and one of its regular columns, with an appreciation of that classic 80’s action film, Commando. And when I say classic, I don’t necessarily mean its any good. Let’s face it; Commando is a B-movie at best, arriving at the beginning of the 80’s action film cycle. So, why does it endure? How is it, 25 years since its release I’m writing about it now? Well, I hope you will indulge me as I write about one my favourite gloriously bad movies.
Mark L. Lester’s film starts with the scary shaving dude from Predator (Bill Duke) killing a bunch of regular seeming schmoes and Vernon Wells. So far, so typical action film. But then, then, we’re introduced to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix. And how are we introduced to this true blue American ex-Marine? Why, with extreme close-ups on his massive, sweating biceps (invoking Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films apparently) as he carries a fucking tree on his shoulders through the woods to his secluded, palatial cabin. Seems while the rest of Matrix’s unit got real jobs, a house in the suburbs and a beer belly, he’s stayed in ridiculous good shape. By carting the forest around on his back. And then, holy shit there’s someone sneaking up behind him!! Watch out Matrix! But don’t worry! It’s just his daughter; Jenny. They proceed to have a super fun montage together, eating ice-cream, laughing, fishing, feeding a deer, martial arts training. Y’know, your everyday idyllic life-style stuff. See, this is important for later, ‘cos this sets up the perfect life that is put in jeopardy by the bad guys. Do you get it? Their life is perfect and they have no problems. Once we’ve got through the set-up and credits, shit hits the fan. And we’re only 11 minutes in. Bam! That’s how you do it. That is a tight set-up. So, there’s a day-time assault by the bad guys and they make off with Jenny. Now we have ourselves a plot!
Matrix is given one choice, and one choice only to get his daughter back: kill some South American president so the bad guy can take over, or some-such. He’s put on a plane (telling Sully he’ll kill him last. Oh Matrix, you big liar) and sent on his way. See, if he’s going to save Jenny he has to do it before the plane lands on the other side and the bad guys discover he scarpered; a ticking clock! Now the tension is really piling on for Matrix, but that doesn’t stop him from casually murdering his escort, covering him with a blanket and asking for him to not be disturbed as he’s “dead tired”.
Ah yes, the one liners. They’re a hallmark of action films, notably in the 80’s and especially Arnie films. The Austrian oak shines here, in what helped to set the template for his future action career. This is after all, only just after Conan (not so much of the one-liners there. Conan defining happiness doesn’t count) and The Terminator (silent, nigh-unstoppable emotionless robot killing machine). Not many other actors could get away with the “brutal murder then cheesy one liner” combo like Schwarzenegger. Willis is possibly the only one who came close, but of course his delivery was markedly different, and the lines weren’t anywhere near as cheesy. This, of course, reached some sort of nadir for Schwarzenegger with the truly awful Batman & Robin (“You’ll never take me to the cooler” “Ice to see you”).
Partly for this, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Arnie filling Matrix’s massive shoes, even though original screenwriter Jeph Loeb had Gene Simmons and then Nick Nolte in mind. But this was in a vastly different draft: the Middle East was involved, and the retired Colonel was an out of shape Mossad agent. For some reason, I can’t really picture Arnie as a Jewish special forces agent... And that leads us nicely into the remake.
Somehow I don’t think any remake would retain the same... daftness as is present in Commando. First, we have to buy into Schwarzenegger being some sort of all-American super commando type. Despite his massive build (making sneaking around pretty damned difficult) and, oh yeah! His thick Austrian accent. Then we have to buy his name – John Matrix! Hmm. Interesting that Joel Silver was a producer on this. But somehow, through some sort of bizarre Arnie magic... we go along with it. We have no problem believing this man-mountain “eats Green Berets for breakfast”. Or that he could assault an island base and murder everyone single-handedly. What is it? What magic is cast over this film that we buy into it all? A number of factors, I think. Arnie is definitely one of them. A tight script; the action kicks in and pretty much keeps going until the steam pipe through a certain mesh-shirt wearing villain. The fact that it’s so very over-the-top (from the acting, through to the action to the music) and I’m not quite sure if it’s all done with a nod and a wink, or if it’s all straight faced; it walks that line, that balance.
Which just makes the idea of a remake so mind-bogglingly stupid. Sure, you get a little bit of name recognition with Commando but there is no modern day Arnie. The man, for better or worse, is one-of-a-kind. There is absolutely no way to do this film justice in today’s filmmaking climate. There’s no-one clamouring for a new Commando film, surely? A sequel was mooted at one point, but when Arnie wasn’t interested it was reworked and turned into Die Hard. And that’s fine. Commando works fine by itself. I fear the remake is yet one more example of Hollywood cannibalising itself, rather than try and come up with anything resembling an original film. And hey, that’s fine sometimes. But, Commando? Really?! Was there a story there that was clamouring to be told? Is Commando that much of a known quantity nowadays?
No. We will always have Arnie’s John Matrix. With his oiled muscles, his little mullet, his love for his daughter Jenny. His brutal nonchalance. For his one man assault on an island fortress. For the low production values. For the over-the-top nature of the entire thing. For Bennet’s gut and chain-link vest. And for that massive pipe hurled through him. Everyone, say it with me now: Let off some steam, Bennet.
What Else Have They Got Up To?
Arnold Schwarzenegger: do you really need me to write anything here?
Alyssa Milano (Jenny): Who’s The Boss?, Embrace of the Vampire, Double Dragon, Charmed, My Name is Earl
Vernon Wells (Bennet): Fortress, Innerspace, Jumper, Ultimate Spider-Man videogame.
David Patrick Kelly (Sully): Twin Peaks, The Crow, Flags of Our Fathers
Mark L. Lester (director) – nothing much worth writing about.
Steven E. de Souza (screenwriter): The Running Man, Die Hard, Street Fighter, Judge Dredd, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life
Joel Silver (producer): a veritable tonne of films, including Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, The Matrix, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, V for Vendetta, RocknRolla, The Losers...