Saturday, April 8, 2017

Arnie Watch: We went COMMANDO! (1985)

Thursday night we had nothing queued on the DVR, the Cubs weren't playing and I was pondering what we might put on the tube when Jamie said "Why don't we watch Commando?"

I immediately ran over and began trying to remove the Jamie-disguise from whomever was pretending to be my wife, but eventually it was revealed that, no, it was her, and she didn't care what we watched.  She had seen my recently purchased Commando BluRay collecting dust on the shelf for months, earnestly waiting a viewing, and - as she loves me, some times she takes pity on me.

Now, if you know me, you know of my ironic/ totally not-at-all ironic love for Commando (1985), an early-ish Arnie picture that was part of what catapulted him to superstar status that would reach peak popularity around 1992.

In the harsh light of reviewing this movie in 2017, the movie probably seems positively camp.  While it certainly has some gags and Arnie-isms, it was never intended as a yuck fest - but Arnie was part of a wave of a certain kind of action movie that wasn't afraid of a sense of humor.  And I can easily watch it as a straight action movie of workmanlike success, just as I can enjoy the movie for the truly bizarre specimen and reflection of a certain mentality in mid-80's actioners that it is.  OR I can enjoy it as the Platonic Ideal of 80's Action Movies/ Movies in General.

Technically, Commando is like a movie that spawned from a machine.  I am convinced there were test tubes, a Univac and one of more astrolabes involved in the creation of this movie, so perfectly designed is this film.  It's almost exactly 90 minutes of running time, and hits all of it's turns and changes with Swiss Clock precision.  It genuinely feels like the screenwriters used a screenplay template and plugged in their characters and basic situation, and - voila!  They had a movie.

Hot trivia for comics folk:  Jeph Loeb was one of the movie's screenwriters.

But I tip my hat to director Mark Lester, who was lucky enough to have his picture taken with me a couple of years back.

me and Mark L. Lester in happier times

I don't know what drove this mad man's vision (it was the 1980's, so one assumes: cocaine), but he was absolutely fearless in making this crazy film.  He makes a super-fun movie with a hero -who should be a terrible 5th graders' table-top RPG character -into a buyable and like-able protagonist.  The sorts of stunts and derring-do of the movie weren't entirely new, but recontextualized from swashbucklers and mythical figures into an American/ Austrian (John Matrix is German in this movie) military man.  It's action-packed in the best sense of the word, has great sequences and fight scenes and characters who aren't overly complex, maybe a bit hyperbolic, but work perfectly in a cohesive world.

The plot is just enough to set us up for a series of exciting sequences of extreme violence (not always bloodless violence!  Go 1980's!), a plot that's simple but fits together like parts of an engine, and bad guys you just really hope end up dead by the end of the movie.

Despite being paired with the lovely Rae Dawn Chong, Arnie's character is intentionally laser focused on recovering his daughter from the vindictive and evil Bennett, who is teamed with working for Dan Hedaya (playing the deposed dictator of a made-up banana republic).  So - there's no love story unless you count the not-even-implied possibility that now that he'd done saving his daughter, John Matrix is going to notice that the lady who helped him out for the past 11 hours is kinda nice.

And, of course, our action hero is retrieving his child instead of a MacGuffin.  That's pretty specific.  It may not have the Boomer-guilt overtones of Rambo: First Blood Part II, but it's super relatable, and you can't argue with his motivations.

It's deeply important to understand that John Matrix (Arnie's character) is a man among men.  He literally smells his enemies coming.  He breaks Stanley padlocks by yanking on them.  Tackled by 10 mallcops, he tosses them aside like so many kittens.  He leaps from flying airplanes into shallow swamps without sustaining injury.  He stands unprotected in the middle of a field, unhit by the dozens of guys with machineguns descending upon him.

It's a lot - and it's hard to explain in the era of Vita-Rayed Super Patriots and Tony Starks, but once upon a time, we just bought that our action heroes could do this stuff.  I mean, Rambo: First Blood Part II came out in 1985 - and that movie has some amazingly ridiculous, super-human feats of Rated-R violence as well (we were going for gritty, not gritty realism in those days).

Commando was one of the movies I rented circa 1987, and I actually very much recall watching it the first time, as - at some point - I began to get a bit dizzy from the extreme body count and - what I read now as "nigh-comedic" - levels of violence.  Around the point when Arnie spears a guy with a garden tool, I remember Jason and I started discussing how these soldiers had families they were supporting, and really had no idea they were involved with anything so bad until this maniac came along and began disassembling them with bullets and machetes.

To this day, and after seeing Lester interviewed, it's unclear what they were up to, except - making as much mayhem as they could get on film.  But this movie was far from alone in on-screen bodycounts.  It was the 1980's when the Hard-R rated supreme at the box office.

There's a checklist of other 1980's-ness to the movie.
  • montage of joyful scenes with daughter Alyssa Milano
  • Alyssa Milano's overalls
  • going to the mall
  • doing anything in an airport without being afraid of being arrested
  • pointless nudity
  • deeply augmented breasts during pointless nudity
  • pink and turquoise neon lighting
  • semi-hapless female comedy relief just keeps screaming and waving her hands while our hero does his thing
  • Everyone is super casual about seeing people killed horribly
Arguably, Commando is the first or second movie to feature the "our hero gets prepared in a montage" sequence - not the training one, but the one where he gets dressed in a series of quick cuts which makes tying one's shoes look 100% bad-ass.

Before this, of course, we are reminded Arnie was a reigning Mr. Universe body building champion for a reason when he strips down to his underwear for a bit of boat-rowing.  It's utterly nonsensical, but I guess the dude had nothing to be ashamed of.

Watching the movie this time - maybe the 20th time or so I've seen the movie - I was chuckling my way through the ridiculous hail of bullets that is the end of the movie, and I realized:  I like it a whole lot when movies descend into absolute @#$%ing chaos.

I don't think much of the Benicio del Toro 2010 era The Wolfman, but I'll always stop on it on cable when I see he's about to wolf-out in the middle of London.  I will always watch that bit as a Wolfman suddenly bursts onto the streets and causes just a mind-blowing amount of havoc.  It may be why I like movies with giant gorillas tearing up New York or radioactive dinosaurs breathing atomic fire onto Tokyo.

And, so, after brutalizing his way across the greater Los Angeles area, we find John Matrix invading an island somewhere near Santa Barbara where Dan Hedaya has holed up with John Matrix's ex-commando buddy/ competitor, Bennett (who, by comparison, seems to have really let himself go) and a number of drab-clad guys who act as Hedaya's personal army.  All of whom John murders in terrible ways.

According to this video, John matrix kills 102 people by the end of the movie, which actually was right about where I assumed he'd be.

He is God's own harvester of souls.  I mean, yeah, Bronson killed a lot of people, but only 116 over the course of 20 years' worth of Deathwish movies.*  We get (nearly) there in one.

It's a shame, because people see this sort of movie as a certain cultural detritus of the Reagan-era, and has not the flash and glamour of either the Fast and Furious movies, nor the benefit of post 1997 CGI to make for a John Wick machinegun ballet or sci-fi-ish extravaganza.  But one can argue that those movies are children and step-children of the 1980's Arnie and Stallone era of movie making, the most pure example of which is, of course, Commando.

Arnie hasn't hit the levels of perfection he'd reach with True Lies - my personal favorite role he's ever played, if we're talking about the Arnie-as-Arnie roles he's taken on over the years.  But you can see he's made a leap from his Terminator days of working hard to deliver every line.

The movie struggles with some casual 1980's racism, deep sexism and doesn't know how a human body works (or that people can see you across the aisle on an airplane).  It's all a bit "problematic", as the kids would say.  I won't excuse any of it, even if - yeah, if a guy is from a Latin American country, his loyal followers - probably Latin American.**

If it's been a while, put the kids to bed and choose your favorite platform for delivery, and take in Commando.

I feel bad, because I feel I literally have pages more to say, but I'll stop here.  This is probably more than you ever wanted too think about Commando.  Let's just agree that it's maybe the best movie ever.

* not one of which I've ever seen
** I do not envy movie producers trying to reflect some aspects of reality when the end results read so clumsily


Jake Shore said...

Here come the sandwiches!

RHPT said...

I'm sorry, but the guy who had his arm chopped off could technically survive. So 101 people killed.

The League said...

@Jake - I'm still wondering what was in those sandwiches.

@RHPT - We had a long talk about this. I'm going with blood loss and shock and everyone is dead, so who would even help the guy? Or maybe he gets really depressed because all his friends died AND he lost the arm - and he becomes kind of angry so his wife leaves him and takes their kids. So now he's drinking a lot, and no one will hire him. Every night it's the dreams of that angry German guy. I mean, who even WAS that guy? Because there wasn't any investigation. The authorities did nothing. So every night it's the dreams - shooting up the shed, then Barry, Steve and Burt get it. And then - and you see it in slow mo - he's coming at you and you can't stop him.

Also, then he gets an infection. Man, he gets so sick. So sick. And he can't get anyone to help him. No money. No job. No friends. No family. Doctors refuse to see him because he can't pay. So he goes into an emergency room, and, man - it's too late. Way too late. And walking to the bathroom, he slips on a wet spot on the linoleum, cracks his head and dies. So - yeah. 102.

RHPT said...

Really, his was the most tragic death of them all..

The League said...

The crazy part - John Matrix *planned* it that way.