There have been some truly great films over the years. Films which move you, change the way you think about the world, or even just provide a fantastic ride you couldn’t get anywhere else. Citizen Kane. The Shawshank Redemption. Star Wars. Casablanca.
And I, like all people who pretend to be sophisticated, like to talk about my “favourite” films and list those sorts of examples, revelling in my excellent taste in films and sneering at people who profess to actually enjoy the big-budget brainless blockbusters which are flooding cinemas.
But deep down, I know it’s a sham. As much as I rail against it, I can’t escape the fact that when all is said and done, all I really want from a film is an enormously muscled man killing large numbers of people in amusing ways.
It should therefore come as no surprise that my favourite movie of all time is…
Oh holy shit yes. Made in 1985 in the Golden Age of American Action movies, and starring the Quintessential Action Star, the Governator himself, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Commando is possibly the perfect action film. Ahnuld was on the upward rise of fame on the back of the Conan movies and The Terminator. What’s surprising is that Commando was actually his first “action” film, as the invincible gun-wielding protagonist. Until this film he’d played mostly fantasy characters, be it Conan or Hercules or the Terminator. To be fair, his John Matrix in this film is basically a fantasy character anyway, but this time he has guns.
Lots of guns.
The basic plot goes like this- a group of terrorists (or Columbian rebels, or something, I was never really clear on that part) kidnap Matrix’s daughter and demand he free their leader from a prison. Instead, he says a big “fuck you” and procees to murder as many of them as he can get his hands on until he gets her back. The end.
Oh and there’s a subplot about his former squadmates being killed off, and one of them, Bennet, working with the rebels against Matrix to settle an old score. Also, there’s a shrill female sidekick/ love interest who gets sucked into Ahnuld’s wake and basically is useless for the entire movie.
And that’s it. The rest of the film is taken up with the aforementioned slaughter of bad guys. It’s fantastic.
This film moves so quickly it makes more modern action movies look like fat tubs of lard. We get a quick montage at the start showing how happy Matrix is with his child, swimming and eating ice cream and cutting lumber. Then, his old commander arrives, and the shooting begins straight away. That’s like, 10 minutes of setup, tops.
The whole thing is constructed that way, just leaping from one scene to another in this breathless rush, but never feeling forced. A perfect example is shortly after the rebels attack Matrix’s cabin, and are making off with Jenny. One of them stays behind to let him know what their plans are. In any other movie, the plot would then be a race against time to free this leader from prison before the rebels kill Jenny. But because this is Commando, this happens instead-
And that’s not the best one-liner by a long stretch of the imagination. The best comes in the form of a one-two combo which you can see the setup for and payoff here-
That combination of humour and action runs throughout the film, and would become a cliche of Schwartzenegger movies as well as action movies in general. Die Hard, with its wisecracking everyman hero John McLane, didn’t come out until 1988.
Of course every hero is only as good as the villain he faces. Which means John Matrix is either the best or the worst hero of all time, because in Commando he has to face off against his old squad mate Bennet.
Bennet, played by B-movie stalwart Vernon Wells, is inexplicably Australian, as well as being visibly out of shape and wears chainmail and leather gloves. And yet somehow he’s still pretty badass, in his own way. Until Matrix shows up and hands him his ass. Their final fight is hilariously mis-matched, with Matrix taunting Bennet to drop his gun and fight him man-to-man. In a move up there with Custer’s last stand, Bennet declares he “doesnt need the gun” to kill Matrix. Um, sorry to break it to you like this mate, but yes you fucking do.
Speaking of handing people their ass, much has been made of the supposed homosexual subtext in the film. I don’t buy into this at all. I mean, sure the movie starts with long, lingering shots of Ahnuld’s oiled muscles as he carries an enormous tree, or “wood pole”…
…and sure, the whole rivalry between Bennet and Matrix makes a lot more sense if you think of Bennet as a jilted ex-boyfriend. And yes, the movie “climaxes” with Bennett being impaled by a big metal pole which spurts white “steam”…
…bu I just don’t see it.
Regardless, Commando is a pure, unashamed action movie, and it is perfect at what it does. I think it was described best when I was watching it with a group of friends one night, and we reached the point where Ahnuld is on the island slaughtering half the population of Columbia. And one of them made the observation “in the last 15 minutes, Schwartzenegger has killed over 30 guys, and there hasn’t been a single line of dialogue.”
If you haven’t seen Commando, and you like things which are awesome, you need to get to a video store as soon as possible.