Insomniac Movie Theater: Commando

by Trevan McGee on June 10, 2010

in Columns,Insomniac Movie Theater

64 million people a year suffer from insomnia and every so often I am one of them. But rather than use the extra time I’ve been given during a given insomniac episode to be productive, balance my checkbook, study for the LSAT or exercise, I instead fool myself into thinking the time isn’t my own and can therefore guiltlessly waste it.

Netflix instant queue is the perfect response to this mentality as it gives me access to countless B and C movies all of which I willingly watch while everyone else is fast asleep. Enter Insomniac Movie Theater, where I subject myself to some of the worst, campiest and outright terrible movies the world has to offer … and the occasional cult classic.

This week’s entry was inspired by Joe Carnahan’s reboot of “The A-Team,” a movie that doesn’t shun its 80s action roots, but instead embraces them fully.

When it comes to actual 80s action movies, one man stands apart and one movie had the balls (and lack of plot) to show him at his most unhinged. I am of course talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger and 1985’s “Commando.”

“Commando” is the definitive Schwarzenegger vehicle. Yes, he made loads more money in other franchises and yes, “Commando” isn’t even close to his best work, but it was the first project built from the ground up around him. Unlike “Conan The Barbarian,” which featured additional talent in the form of an Oliver Stone script, John Milius direction and a Basil Poledouris-composed soundtrack or “Conan The Destroyer,” which featured a recognizable supporting cast, the only audience draw to “Commando” was Schwarzenegger. Sorry, Dan Hedaya fans.

The original script was supposed to be about an ex-Mossad agent forced out of retirement and was supposedly intended as a Gene Simmons vehicle with Walter Hill interested in directing. But as soon as Arnold got attached the screenplay was significantly rewritten and directing duties went to Mark L. Lester, whose other high-profile projects include “Firestarter,” with a young Drew Barrymore and nothing else.

As a result, “Commando” is 90 minutes of nonsense punctuated by one-liners, ridiculous action set pieces, an obnoxious steel-drum-fueled soundtrack and roughly 6,000 corpses. When girlfriends and arthouse cineastes think of stereotypical guy movies, they picture “Commando” –– even if they’ve never actually seen the movie. It’s so testosterone-filled that the DVD release should have come with its own set of Truck Nutz.

Case in point: Here’s Schwarzenegger’s first appearance in “Commando”:

Schwarzenegger starred in plenty of gun porn during the 80s, but that’s the first and only documented example of lumberjack porn that didn’t carry an X rating.

The plot of “Commando” can be broken down into three sentences: John Matrix (Schwarzenegger) is a retired leader of an elite commando unit. His daughter is kidnapped, forcing him out of retirement. He kills everyone.

And the ways in which he does so are incredible. Here’s what happens when Matrix runs out of bullets and takes refuge in a toolshed:

The action heroes that emerged in the 80s were indicative of the time. Anti-heroes played by Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Charles Bronson were worn and weary men, made brutal by the same world they were trying to make sense of. The 80s responded to these aging, complicated men by ushering in bigger-than-life-characters that were always right and whose bloody actions were always just, no consideration needed.

“Commando” epitomizes the 80s action genre. Schwarzenegger is a living action figure and every scene looks like a Hasbro playset. This is actually the movie’s most enduring mechanic. “Commando” never takes itself seriously and instead laughs off murders and the hilarious, indestructible nature of Matrix with cheesy, self-aware dialog and some truly campy performances from Schwarzenegger, Hedaya and Bill Duke. Here’s a classic exchange:

And there’s plenty more where that came from. In fact, seeing as how I skipped inventing a drinking game for “Tarzan, The Ape Man,” though the obvious one would be, “drink anytime Bo Derek is naked or John Derek uses slo-mo,” here’s this week’s official Insomniac Movie Theater drinking game:

Drink anytime Arnold throws out a one-liner.

And for the more advanced alcoholics:

Drink anytime someone is killed. (Warning: Doing this will kill you.)

“Commando” also features a James Horner score. That’s right, the man behind dozens of soundtracks including “Braveheart,” “A Beautiful Mind,” and “Avatar” did the soundtrack for “Commando” and it’s a doozy.

First of all, the music ever-present, something every good movie should avoid, but this is made even worse by the fact that it’s a weird mix of 80s synth bleep-bloops and calypso steel drums. It’s infuriating. The choice of steel drums would make sense if any part of the movie took place in Jamaica or a similarly tropical environment, but “Commando” takes place entirely in Los Angeles and a South American island.

While “Commando” doesn’t qualify as a good movie, there’s still plenty modern action movies that could learn from it, particularly in the pacing department. It moves from point A to point B with efficiency (I won’t say “calculated efficiency” because most of the good parts of the movie were made by accident) and it quickly establishes character motivation and introduces the entire cast within the first 20 minutes. What’s more, it’s straightforward, something that most modern action movies seem to forsake in favor or unnecessary plot twists and ham-fisted character development.

Catching a 3 a.m. airing of “Commando” isn’t just ideal. For any action movie fan, it’s required.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Reed June 10, 2010 at 8:23 am

First of all, I appreciate the Dan Hedeya apology.

Trevan, I think you are being a bit too hard on this movie. When I last saw it, I was really surprised at how well it holds up. They blow up EVERYTHING. And then they blow it up again. Plus, outside of the first Terminator, Schwarzenegger has never played a tougher character. My favorite line of the movie is when Cindy lists off all the abuses Matrix has delivered her, closing with “…are you going to tell me what’s going on or what?” Matrix responds with a curt and authoritative, “No.” It both takes itself seriously and winks, and that line sums up both sides pretty well. It shifts in a split second from her comical hysteria to his devout anger.

Sure, better villains would have helped, but it’s way more enjoyable than I expected.

My extended take:
http://fightingtheyouth.blogspot.com/2007/04/schwarzenegger-sunday-commando.html

Reply

2 Reed June 10, 2010 at 8:23 am

First of all, I appreciate the Dan Hedeya apology.

Trevan, I think you are being a bit too hard on this movie. When I last saw it, I was really surprised at how well it holds up. They blow up EVERYTHING. And then they blow it up again. Plus, outside of the first Terminator, Schwarzenegger has never played a tougher character. My favorite line of the movie is when Cindy lists off all the abuses Matrix has delivered her, closing with “…are you going to tell me what’s going on or what?” Matrix responds with a curt and authoritative, “No.” It both takes itself seriously and winks, and that line sums up both sides pretty well. It shifts in a split second from her comical hysteria to his devout anger.

Sure, better villains would have helped, but it’s way more enjoyable than I expected.

My extended take:
http://fightingtheyouth.blogspot.com/2007/04/schwarzenegger-sunday-commando.html

Reply

3 Reed June 10, 2010 at 8:23 am

First of all, I appreciate the Dan Hedeya apology.

Trevan, I think you are being a bit too hard on this movie. When I last saw it, I was really surprised at how well it holds up. They blow up EVERYTHING. And then they blow it up again. Plus, outside of the first Terminator, Schwarzenegger has never played a tougher character. My favorite line of the movie is when Cindy lists off all the abuses Matrix has delivered her, closing with “…are you going to tell me what’s going on or what?” Matrix responds with a curt and authoritative, “No.” It both takes itself seriously and winks, and that line sums up both sides pretty well. It shifts in a split second from her comical hysteria to his devout anger.

Sure, better villains would have helped, but it’s way more enjoyable than I expected.

My extended take:
http://fightingtheyouth.blogspot.com/2007/04/schwarzenegger-sunday-commando.html

Reply

4 Trevan McGee June 10, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Don’t get me wrong Reed, I love this movie and from a straight up action movie perspective, it still holds up. But the low rent production value and hammy performances keep it from being as good as, say, Predator or Die Hard.

Reply

5 Trevan McGee June 10, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Don’t get me wrong Reed, I love this movie and from a straight up action movie perspective, it still holds up. But the low rent production value and hammy performances keep it from being as good as, say, Predator or Die Hard.

Reply

6 Trevan McGee June 10, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Don’t get me wrong Reed, I love this movie and from a straight up action movie perspective, it still holds up. But the low rent production value and hammy performances keep it from being as good as, say, Predator or Die Hard.

Reply

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