Commando (1985): Mark L. Lester
Arnold Schwarzenegger was a worldwide sensation by 1985, but forgive yourself for ignoring the minor slump of Red Sonja, Raw Deal, and Commando. Those films were sandwiched between The Terminator and Predator, easily two of the finest action movies in history. On second thought, don’t forgive yourself, because Commando is an essential action movie, if not a classic. You probably forgot that Bill Paxton and Alyssa Milano appeared in this movie, but you shouldn’t have.
The shoot for Commando lasted 45 days. Considering the tremendous amount of stunt work, that’s amazing. More stunt people are credited than actors.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: All that matters to John Matrix now is his daughter, Jenny.
Boots, biceps, logs: That is our visual introduction to Commando John Matrix. The movie introduces our hero through scored montage. (And what a score.) Matrix lives in the hills in a cabin he might have built himself. He’s busy cutting trees into firewood on a sunny afternoon. The camera cuts between closeups of his boots, his biceps, and the enormous tree trunk he carries on his shoulder. Also, he’s got a chainsaw.
Next, Matrix lines up a log to cleave with a shiny axe. He cuts logs in two with one swing. Suddenly, a shadow appears from behind creeping toward him. He checks the reflection in the axe. He turns and grabs…his daughter.
The string section kicks in and the montage switches to Matrix and Jenny having daddy/daughter day. Ice cream on the nose, splashing in the pool, feeding deer. Literally feeding a deer. Can a tough guy be made more adorable? No.
Then they take his daughter. Matrix goes from nice guy, wondering why they don’t just call him “Girl George,” to murder machine with one goal–save Jenny. And boy, does he murder. We’ll get to some of his moves, lines, and kills, but know this–no one has a laser focus like John Matrix. He rips car seats and chain locks, tosses guys in closets, and falls from planes. No risk is too high to recover Jenny. Efficient, passionate, dangerous: Matrix is the ultimate American hero.
The organizer of all this rage against Matrix is Arius, the former president of Val Verde, a man who Matrix helped to overthrow in a coup created by whatever group Matrix worked for. He might be the guy in charge, but all we care about is Bennett. Bennett is an Australian-American (I guess. He must be an American citizen to work for the Government, right? Maybe he works alongside General Kirby’s “federal people.”), once of Matrix’s unit, until Matrix expelled him.
Turned out he was a little too eager to help overthrow the president of Val Verde. We don’t know how many and in what manner Bennett killed honest Val Verdeans, but we do know he wears a chainmail shirt. The shirt isn’t even entirely chainmail. The torso is, but the sleeves appear to be black cotton. Where can you find a chainmail t-shirt? I need one. We all need one.
Bennett concocts a pretty good plan to unearth Matrix. He has his guys kill two other men in Matrix’s unit and fakes his own death. He knew Kirby would become agitated and lead them to Matrix. And they follow quickly. Kirby flies in a helicopter to warn Matrix.
Just minutes after Kirby’s landing, Bennett’s people strike, killing one guard and seizing Jenny, their target, with little trouble. But they didn’t know of Matrix’s gun shed. Matrix kills one guy without learning anything. He hops in his truck, despite its brakes being cut, and barrels down the mountain after the two cars transporting his Jenny. The goons know this, yet they don’t slow or stop to avoid colliding with his truck that can’t stop. After Matrix wrecks his truck, Bennett shows himself and darts Matrix.
One last thing about Bennett. When he kidnaps the Matrix family, he’s wearing that chainmail shirt. At least twelve, maybe thirteen hours elapse between that moment and movie’s end, including a long night. Bennett never changes his shirt. He wears the chainmail shirt all day and all night and all day. Bennett knows he’s the villain, and he owns it.
Commando is essentially a paint by numbers action film. It’s got fist fights, car chases, stealth, and infiltration. Yet it only has one action scene. But boy, is it a scene.
Matrix has stolen weapons from Surplus City, a pawn and ammo store with an enormous secret gun room. Cindy got away with most of the goods, and she packs him a nice bag lunch for the invasion of the small California island from which El Presidente will stage his Val Verde coup.
The real invasion begins when Matrix beaches his rubber rowboat. We are treated to an epic (as epic as such scenes can get) “load up” scene. Matrix laces boots, zips a flak jacket, clips the jacket twice to his pants, fills it with shotgun shells, ties two grenades, sheaths a knife, chambers a round and holsters a pistol, blackens his arms and face, loads an assault rifle and a shotgun, grabs the rocket launcher, and stands silhouetted by the blazing sun, eager for blood. My God, such bloodshed will come. Matrix, carrying two weapons and with a rifle strapped to his back evokes a mythic demon crouched over, eager to inflict pain on whatever enemy it’s pointed at.
Matrix scouts and infiltrates the barracks as the Val Verde plane, which Matrix is supposed to be on, unloads. The synth and steel drums crescendo, back and forth the scene goes from Matrix to Val Verde, where the local goons on the ground have discovered the pale face of Henriques, dead eleven hours. They dutifully call their master in exile, President Arius. (Why is it that these thugs can find the time to call their bosses when teenagers are unable to call their parents and tell them where they are on a Friday night?).
Matrix whets his appetite for death by stabbing a few guys. He shows off his knife skills by killing five guys in four different ways: one is stabbed in the gut from behind, another gets his throat cut, two more die when Matrix throws knives into their chest and neck, and another dies when Matrix asks, “Como esta?” and shoots a Russian-made ballistic knife into his gut. Was he killed by the knife or the wit? Both are razor sharp. Did you know, before watching this movie, that “ballistic knife” was a real thing?
Matrix announces his presence with authority as he runs into view of a guard tower. He takes time to place his rocket launcher on the ground, turn, and fire, sending the guard tumbling to his death. Two guys run out the door and are immediately gunned down. Matrix flees and presses his button. Some buildings are shown exploding multiple times from different angles. It’s hard to tell how many, but at least two. “Welcome back, John,” Bennett says to himself.
Matrix surprises two guards at a gate. He is surprised in turn by a jeep full of soldiers. They are in turn surprised to receive a rocket into the wheelwell, exploding the jeep and killing them. Matrix uses his final rocket on the gate and storms through.
Guys are coming from everywhere. Time for Matrix to get serious about this whole invasion thing. He takes a knee and concentrates, mowing down everyone from all directions with his machine gun. Just to spice up things, he tosses a couple of grenades into the mix. He runs to the garden and finds it as infested with soldiers as worms.
Matrix ducks behind a short wall and pops up with an Uzi, because you want to vary your methods of killing. Next he uses the pistol. Did he run out of bullets in the Uzi? Who knows? Maybe he simply likes a challenge. The pistol was the loudest gun shot-for-shot. Finally we get to see the shotgun. Men and roses are dying with these blasts that sound like the deep, pounding crashes of battleship cannon salvos. And they should, for John Matrix is a one-man battleship, angrily beached and wreaking havoc.
One guy has a bright idea and tosses a grenade. Matrix sees it and jumps away safely. According to Kirby, Matrix is World War III. World War II ended with two nuclear bombs. How will Matrix end this war?
Pause the carnage. Matrix appears wounded. He hobbles into a gardening shed. Five soldiers follow him, surround the shed, and pump an ungodly sum of bullets into it. But they didn’t shoot high enough. Matrix affirms his demon status by pitchforking the first guy to go after him. The next two guys get their heads sawed off. Then a guy gets axed in the groin and a final guy loses his arm by machete. Matrix picks up a belt-fed machine gun as more guys stream toward. This is the worst army ever assembled. Even African child armies would surround Matrix. Someone would shoot him from afar or maim him with grenades. But they send wave after wave of men right to Matrix.
Matrix stands still and clenches the trigger, unleashing a sixty-second stream of gunfire that obliterates everyone in sight. The movie’s signature image is of Matrix, his face as rigid and his pecs are flexing, as he guns down dozens more soldiers, the finest that Val Verde offers. Bennett promised President Arius that he and Matrix could kill every one of Arius’s soldiers. Seems like he overestimated by one.
Let’s revisit that list of items which Matrix carried from the beach: ammo jacket, knife, shotgun, submachine gun, automatic rifle, remote bomb, rocket launcher, pistol, grenades. Matrix used every last one of those weapons during his invasion, plus he found a few others. Each gun offered different cacophonies, pleasing to the aural palette. The unyielding carnage juxtaposed nicely with the well-tended garden. I enjoyed the role reversal when Matrix used the garden tools, intended to bring life, to bring death. Matrix’s invasion of Arius’s hideout remains a genre-making action scene. The pacing in the scene excels, working much like a two-act play, in which the garden shed scene serves as the intermission.
Rae Dawn Chong shines as Cindy, the flight attendant keeping together better than the airline she probably worked for. (How many airlines from the 1980s are still in business under their own name?) Her flight to Cincinnati is canceled, and Sully, overhearing this, asks her out. Sully comes from a world in which sexual harassment is what happens when men don’t get laid by their choice of women, and he is equally pissed about. Cindy handles the situation with grace. She tells him first to get lost and walks to her car as Sully follows her. He tells her, “You don’t know what you’re missing.” She says, “From here it looks like a nightmare.” What a great tell off. And she’s only getting started.
When Matrix tells her that a guy he used to trust wants him dead, she says, “I’ve only known you for five minutes and I want you dead.” Imagine if a stranger had ripped out your car seat. Could you speak to him like that? Cindy can. She subtly tells him that she has an advanced karate class that night. What more clever way could she have exposed her skills in a non-threatening manner? Granted, Matrix had just ripped out her car seat, so he probably wouldn’t fear a charging rhino, but it was worth a try.
She decides to trust Matrix’s story only after trying to have him arrested. In the mall, Matrix beats a phalanx of mall cops and is nearly shot. He’s hardly behaving like the victim, yet Cindy wisely sides with him, based on Sully being a creep. Lesson to be learned: don’t harass women if you want to earn their trust. Without context, we could easily believe that Matrix is stalking Sully and threatening his life. Why should Cindy trust Matrix? Because she can smell the truth.
Cindy’s most badass moment came when she followed the police truck, flirted with the policemen driving it, and then shot it with a rocket launcher. When Matrix asks her how she learned to do that, she answers, “I read the instructions.” Brains and guts–she’s perfect.
The rocket launcher was cool, but her finest moment comes inside the Sunspot hotel. Matrix tasks her with luring Cook into Sully’s hotel room. She answers the door and faces Cook. He asks her who she is. She flashes a smile and says, “Room service.” This is top-notch acting. Consider that she had just seen Matrix murder a man, was in a car–her car–as it smashed into a light pole, was facing down the stare of a man she must have assumed to be a murderer, and knew that Matrix was moments away from killing him, and she mustered the calm courage to come up with that “Room service” line. Pure class. Hire her for the CIA.
Smooth talking “funny guy” Sully escorts Matrix to the airport. His job requires him to watch Matrix and Henriques get on the plane. Henriques will sit with Matrix and make sure he gets off. Sully has other tasks to complete that morning, but he does a good job. He watches Matrix board the plane, watches the door close, watches the plane taxi and takeoff. Only when the plane is off the ground does he walk away. He probably couldn’t see Matrix hanging on the landing gear even if he knew he was there.
Sully promptly places a call and tries to pick up Cindy. He drives in his Porsche to the mall, meets another bad guy and buys fake passports from him. Sully seems to be a freelance goon, entrepreneurially dipping his toes in several pools to feel for the right temperature. When he sees Matrix at the mall, he immediately steals a quarter for the payphone to call Bennett. He carries a gun and shoots at Matrix. His one mistake was not firing his whole load into Matrix right then. Although Matrix was probably so jacked on adrenaline that six bullets in his guts might not have stopped him. Sully’s Rick Astley wardrobe, his obscene sense of sexual justice, and his having fallen from a cliff endear him as a highly memorable henchman.
Commando stages one car chase: the slowest car chase in the history of cinema. After Sully sees Matrix in the mall and gets flipped over in the phone booth, he sprints to his Porsche and drives away, shattering the parking garage lever. Matrix, throwing off eight security guards, runs after him and into Cindy’s car. He pulls away, but Cindy is wise. She runs out the front of the mall and flags down Matrix, demanding to ride along.
Matrix chases Sully through L.A.’s streets. Despite driving high-performance vehicles, the two drivers weave through traffic like they are agitated at the morning news. The life and death stakes mean little to them. Once they drive into the hills, the situation changes. Matrix smashes Cindy’s car into Sully’s. Sully fires a few shots toward them, missing each time, until Matrix forces Sully to flip his car onto its side.
The best fight scene occurs inside Sully’s hotel room. Cooke enters and is surprised to find Matrix punching him in the face. This is some good close-quarters combat. Remember those glass bricks found in hotel bathrooms? They have ‘em here, and Cooke crashes into a few. He draws his gun and shoots. Matrix rolls and dodges. How does a Green Beret miss six shots at close range? When he’s shooting at small targets. What’s that, Matrix is a so huge that he eats Green Berets for breakfast, and is currently very hungry? I can’t explain it.
Matrix and Cooke knock each other into the adjoining room. A couple, filming their tryst, was not turned off by the shooting and fighting a few feet from them. I have a good feeling about their relationship. Cooke gets the upper hand, aims at Matrix, and pulls the trigger. He’s spent. Matrix says, “Fuck you, asshole,” and throws Cooke back into Sully’s room and onto the upturned table legs. Hey Cooke, you’re shish kebab. The fight was well staged, using all of the small space and breaking a lot of things. They even worked nudity into the scene.
I can’t leave here without mentioning the airdrop. Matrix hangs on the landing gear of the jet headed to Val Verde, currently airborne. After the runway ends, Matrix lets go and falls…onto a nice soft bed of swamp grass. Matrix lives in L.A. Did he know a swamp lay at the end of the runways at LAX? I bet he did.
Once Matrix sets foot on the island, he begins one long climax. So many things are blowing up, so many men dying, and so many daughters are in jeopardy, that the ride doesn’t end until after Bennett lets off some steam. I discussed much of the action earlier, so now I will talk about Bennett.
After Matrix neutralizes the brigade surrounding the mansion, he enters with a gun blazing, one-handing an M16, a feat that must be nearly impossible. But at this point, we’ll believe anything Matrix does. Bennett and President Arius are chasing Jenny and hiding from Matrix. Matrix finds himself in a parlor with a balcony overlooking it. President Arius appears there, firing a machine gun. Matrix hides from the shots and ends the presidental campaign with four shotgun blasts to the torso, sending the president’s body falling to the ground faster than his poll numbers. Ba dum tssh.
Matrix searches the mansion for Bennett and Jenny (who escaped her room just before she would be killed). A couple of guys try to shoot him, but they provide as much hindrance as an ant hill. Matrix hears Jenny’s shouts and pursues them to the steamy basement that probably powers the compound. Bennett, still clutching Jenny, shoots her dad in the arm. Matrix tells him to “stop screwing around and let the girl go. It’s me you want.” Bennett lets her go, of course, appearing to take on demonic possession/orgasm. “I don’t need the gun, John. I DON’T NEED THE GUN.” You can practically see the flames in his eyes as he two-hands his knife (custom-made for the film).
Each man swipes his knife at the other, each scoring a solid hit. I love moments when two guys are trying to arm wrestle a knife into the other one. They’re grunting lowly and sound like cats yowling.
They fight, brutally. Kidney punches and face slams into iron doors. Lead pipes and electrified chainmail shirts. (OK, just one shirt.) Both men try to push the other’s face into flames. Remember when they burned The Thing alive in the John Carpenter movie with Kurt Russell? Matrix and Bennett sound like that trying to burn each other.
I don’t know what this steamy facility is doing beneath a gorgeous mansion, but I’m glad it’s there, because it allows Matrix to throw a pipe through Bennett’s chainmail shirt, his body, and the metal wall of a steam chamber and utter his famous line, “Let off some steam, Bennett.” I suspect the location and death was chosen because of that line in the script. How hard would Matrix have to throw a metal tube to penetrate all that metal and flesh?
The smile on Jenny’s face says it all: “Daddy, when I grow up, I’m going to be a psychopath.”
Oh yeah. Oooohhhh yeahhhhh. Let’s run through some, just some, of the jokes.
- Matrix, holding Sully above a cliff, says, “This is my weak arm, Sully.”
- Cindy: From here it looks like a nightmare. Sully: You fuckin’ whore. This line was funny only because of its over-the-top insanity.
- Flight attendant [to Matrix]: Any carry-on luggage? Matrix [pointing to his kidnapper]: Just him. Later, after Matrix breaks his neck, without anyone noticing, he tells the same flight attendant, “Don’t disturb my friend. He’s dead tired.”
- “If [Matrix is] still alive, I’d expect a lot more [bodies].”-Kirby
- “Let off some steam, Bennett.”
- Army guy, about the home invaders: You think I can smell ‘em coming? Matrix: I did.
- The entire invasion scene
I’ve seen Commando several times, and I’m pretty sure it takes place in Southern California, possibly near Kirby’s “city” of Los Angeles. The land looks like southern Cal, so at least it was filmed there. Street names are never used or seen, so it could be anywhere. Except it must be near water, since Bennett is “killed” on a fishing skiff and the plane Matrix steals is a two-hour flight from the mysterious island with huge barracks and an invasion army.
Val Verde is eleven hours from the airport, but Val Verde is a fake country, supposedly Latin American, so it could be anywhere. The only piece of evidence appeared when Matrix first flees the airport. Behind him is clearly shown the marquee for the Tom Bradley terminal. I looked it up. The terminal is at LAX.
Filming locations are as bland and whitewashed as you’d expect from a midseason episode of NCIS:LA. I imagine the script reading things like: “They drive to WAREHOUSE” and “The army is housed on ISLAND,” and the producers said, “Any old warehouse and island will do.”
One man armies were en vogue in the 1980s. Matrix was a great one, but he wasn’t even the most famous John (Rambo). Rambo was about Vietnam, but Matrix was about living without war. Matrix had done his duty, and was living a well adjusted life as a single father.
Commando tells the story about what one man will and can do to get back his daughter. It doesn’t have much to say about the wide world out there, except that the US has interfered with Latin American politics before, and perhaps too often.
Sully’s “You fuckin’ whore” line is offensive, but so is Sully. I dunno. Minus one.
- General Kirby rarely figures into the movie, but his appearances are notable for their strangeness. The way he says “bastards” resonates. He speaks each syllable with equal weight, and he adds an extra “-s-” after the first. And this line is as generic as a line can get: “I’m going into the city to coordinate with the federal people.” What city? Any city. What people? Federal people. We assume the city is L.A., and we assume the federal people are FBI, but we don’t know.
- That is Bill Paxton.
- (1) The music is terrific. Classically 80s, the score leans heavily on synthesizers that jar you when they start. Tympanies, saxophones, and other instruments unused in today’s film scores. Maybe we should revisit them.
- (3) Automatic Arnold bonus
Summary (53/68): 78%
Arnold kills more people in Commando than in any of his other films. By one count, 105 people die on screen, although many of these supposed kills could be maimings. However, considering the number of large barracks he explodes, the actual count might be about right.
The movie clocks in at 90 minutes, giving the movie 1.17 kills per minute, one of the highest in history. Throw in the high total of quips, and Commando stands as Arnold’s most-Arnold film. Thomas Hobbes would have loved revenge movies, like this one, because they are brutish and short, and many lives in Commando are cut short, brutally.