Pop quiz: It’s 1985, and the biggest goddamned weightlifter anybody’s seen in living memory has just crushed it in a box office smash last year, only he speaks through an accent thick enough to absorb bullets and has marginal acting ability. What do you do? You do what any red-blooded American would: you’d take a script originally written about an Israeli soldier who renounced violence, rejigger it to be about an ex-Spec Ops guy killing an entire island full of people, film in the backyards of California for a month and a half, overlook things like continuity or editing, and collect almost $60 million at the box office. In other words, you make Commando.
The story is basically historical fiction for 95% of all 1980s action cinema: ex-Green Beret Colonel john Matrix is quietly living out his retirement in the mountains with his young daughter Jenny when he learns that a psycho named Bennett is going around knocking off old members of Matrix’s team. Bennett was kicked out of Matrix’s unit for excessive violence, which considering what kind of carnage we’re about to see in the next 90 minutes, is fairly alarming. Anyway, Bennet storms Matrix’s house, kidnaps his kid and delivers him to a deposed dictator named Arius, who until recently was running the tropical paradise of Val Verde, a country that doesn’t really exist but is referenced in a bunch of other movies (no, really, it’s like the Alan Smith of movie settings). Arius tells Matrix he’s got 12 hours to get to Val Verde and assassinate the president that Matrix himself helped to install, so that Arius can then attempt a coup. If Matrix follows through, he’ll release his daughter unharmed. Matrix immediately breaks loose and spends the next 11 hours tracking down the various henchmen who captured Matrix in the first place, locates Arius’ hideout, grabs a whole lot of guns and explosives, and kills so many bad guys it takes him about a dozen different guns to do it. That last bit is not a spoiler. This is an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie called Commando. You knew how this would end.
Boy howdy, where to begin? For starters, those who have not yet seen Commando need to understand that it is basically a grindhouse B-movie with a budget some 20 times larger than it deserves, so the results are somewhat predictable. The plot is thinner than onionskin. The acting is wooden, the camera work is wobbly, the continuity is laughable, and the editing is what happens when you have Bring Your Village Idiot to Work day every single day of a given movie’s shooting schedule. There are rough spots and blemishes galore through this, the kind of thing that in a modern picture, any one of which would generate a pretty lengthy cycle of hot takes justifying why nobody should see this movie, ever. But this movie here, it’s got so many problems it just throws them all in your face, like a card sharp firing off an entire deck between his fingers, daring you to try to see them all. You’ can’t.
This, of course, is what makes this movie so awesome. In the world of badwrongfun, Commando is in pretty elite territory, a movie with a recognizable star who is clearly going through acting school and expecting us to pay for it, and we do so without even feeling bad for playing along. This movie is so blatant in its expectations that we have no choice but to give in to them. Yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger can just walk through walls and pull telephone booths out of the ground and send half a dozen guys flying through the air at once with a single shrug of his titanic shoulders. Anybody who thinks otherwise is probably worth putting under surveillance.
The movie runs for 90 minutes, but very few of them matter that much until we get to the last 20 or so and Arnie kills an entire army of South American mercenaries (you can tell by their boonie hats and cigars) with machine-guns that don’t run out of ammo, shotguns that are clearly rubber props, claymore mines that vaporize entire buildings, and flying buzzsaw blades thrown like frisbees. There are about a hundred on-screen kills in this movie, and that doesn’t count all of stuntpeople who probably died on set, as well as movie critics who take themselves too seriously and probably suffered fatal heart attacks in the theater. All gave some, but some gave all.
So if we’re going to dwell on this movie’s shortcomings, let’s do so to have a laugh at ourselves for ever expecting more out of such a hamfisted and sophomoric effort than a kill festival in which Army/Navy stories have secret back rooms with enough weapons to overthrow a country. Let’s laugh at how Arnie and Rae Dawn Chong crash a tiny convertible into a telephone pole without wearing seat belts and then hop out like nothing happened. Let’s count how many times the boom mic hangs from the top of the screen. Let’s marvel at the safety line attached to David Patrick Kelly as Arnie dangles him over a cliff, knowing full well that Arnie probably argued against it at some point. And let’s definitely pause to reflect on how awesome this movie’s moment of truth is, when during the climactic fistfight between Matrix and Bennett, as Scharzenegger and Vernon Wells grunt at each other while trying to stick each other’s heads into an open furnace, they audibly say “switch” to each other before they dramatically reverse themselves. These aren’t just things that should never have happened during filming. They are the kinds of things don’t even happen in bad movies, yet they all made it through the final cut. Why? Because half-assed quality control was never going to stop anybody from watching or enjoying this movie, and everyone involved knew it. If this movie had a finishing title card, it wouldn’t read “The End.” It would read “You’re Welcome.” Amen.