“Let off some steam, Bennett.”
In the beginning there was Commando. And the God of ’80s Action Excess looked upon it and it was good. And lo did Arnold Schwarzenegger kill many South American mercenaries and cut off their heads with saw blades and forcibly amputate their arms at the elbow with a hatchet and Alyssa Milano did rejoice. Amen.
Schwarzenegger is Colonel John Matrix (awesome hero name, The First Law of Early ’80s Action Movies; see “Cobretti, Marion,” “Hawk, Lincoln,” “Cabot, Jonathan”), former special ops soldier, now retired and living on a mountain in a secluded cabin with his loving daughter and deer that like being hand-fed. Matrix thought his old life of violence and gunfire and post-mortem one-liner cracking was behind him, but a former dictator is unwilling to let the man rest in peace.
Arius (Dan Hedaya) is said dictator and along with Bennett (Vernon Wells), a psychotic soldier from Matrix’s old platoon, he enacts a daring plan to regain power in the third-world hellhole he was ousted from. Arius and his cronies assault the Matrix homestead, capture John’s daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano) and force the Colonel to do their bidding.
But there’s one thing these guys weren’t counting on: nobody f — — — with John Matrix. Here’s another thing: dudes that can’t eliminate entire guerilla armies single-handedly and swing from mall decorations don’t have names like John Matrix. I got one more for you: John Matrix can you shoot you in the head and quip about it as your vision turns black at the same time he shoots the guy standing next to you in the head.
After a couple Conans and a Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger got to totally tear it up and usher in the type of bruising, explosive, pectoral-ridden macho exercises in Reagan-era death and destruction that we’ve come to associate with the Governator. Commando is an action film that is more about “action” and less about “film.” There is virtually no downtime in this flick, an experience that surges forward from improbable set-piece to improbable set-piece, pausing only for the occasional Arnold one-liner and shots of Alyssa Milano sneering at her captors.
Here’s a breakdown of the major action offerings that can be found in this exquisite fireball of a motion picture (beware of spoilers if you have never seen Commando before, but then again, if you’ve never seen Commando I don’t want you reading my reviews anyway; seriously, leave now and never come back):
The Mountain-Top Siege
A few minutes into the film, the bad guys descend upon John Matrix’s home, snatching up his daughter and acting tough. Director Mark Lester sets the tone for what’s to follow early, as one of the thugs calmly tells Matrix what he has to do to get his daughter back, and dude gets a round in the forehead for thinking that Matrix can be calmly told anything. As if that wasn’t burly enough, Matrix rolls his truck down the mountain and almost overtakes his daughter’s captors if it hadn’t been for The Second Law of ’80s Action Movies, which of course dictates that all vehicles involved in an accident, no matter how benign, erupt in a ball of fire.
The Airplane Escape
Man, they were so close to corralling John Matrix. But while on the plane headed for South America, Matrix sucker punches the goon sitting next to him, makes his way to the landing gear, and free-falls about 1,000 feet into a swamp. Normally, that kind of drop would kill a stegosaurus, but John Matrix’s last name is Matrix so f — — you.
Chaos at the Mall
The havoc spills over into a shopping plaza, as Matrix attempts to use the feminine wiles of his newfound friend Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong) to con one of the bad guys into giving up his daughter’s whereabouts. Things go wrong, so Matrix is forced to collectively punch the entire mall security force in the face, power-lift a phone booth and swing from the aforementioned mall decoration. The collateral damage is massive, but no one seems to mind, or perhaps they got the memo that John Matrix does whatever the hell he wants to and if anyone has a problem with that they should go to the nearest deli and place an order for a Go F — — Yourself with Provolone on Whole Wheat.
Motel Room Smackdown
John Matrix and Cindy investigate a motel room for clues. But as soon as they get there, another goon shows up, and engages in vigorous hand-to-hand combat with John Matrix who is so good at hand-to-hand combat, the dictionary almost renamed it “Matrix awesome combat.” The two throw each other through tables, bureaus and walls — revealing the mandatory female nudity (The Third Law of ’80s Action Movies) — until finally one of them becomes intimate with the business end of a sharp piece of wood sticking up into the air. I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t motherf — — — John motherf — — — Matrix.
Amazingly, John Matrix is captured by the police, but even more amazingly Cindy uses a rocket launcher and breaks him out! Man, even a heavily-guarded prison transport and an RPG launched by the girl from Soul Man can’t defeat John Matrix. What chance does a highly-trained squad of professional soldiers have? It starts with “z” and ends in “-ero, bee-yatch.”
Here’s where things get wild. Free of anyone to protect, slicked up in baby oil and brandishing enough weaponry to arm a large Nebraskan agricultural community, John Matrix takes the fight to anyone who wants some — and there are oh so many. In a sequence that has earned a place in cinema lore as one of the most amazing body-count boosting, shell-casing-spraying stream of fatalities and gunshot wounds, John Matrix does what he does best: everything in the world.
The Final Bad Guy Fight
The showdown with Bennett had been brewing since the beginning, and now is the time for the two heavyweights to square off with each other. This fight is so bad-ass, you’ll see three Laws of ’80s Action Movies: The Fourth Law of ’80s Action Movies, where the good guy is slashed with a knife, but it’s only a superficial wound, enough to cut his shirt and draw a minor amount of blood; The Fifth Law of ’80s Action Movies, mandating that any time a bad guy is thrown into a machine that runs on electricity he or she is always electrocuted; and, finally, The Sixth Law of ’80s Action Movies, also known as the Monologue Hubris, the extemporaneous burst of villainous speechcraft that buys the hero just enough time to, say, rip a giant pipe off the wall and throw it like a javelin so it impales his adversary.
If that’s not enough Grade-A sirloin to convince you that you need to watch Commando and show it to everyone you see and that includes members of the clergy and psychologically unstable homeless men, then, friend, there’s nothing else I can do for you. This film shines as bright as Arnold’s lubed-up deltoids in the action canon, and features more over-the-top, ceaseless, bloody violence per capita than anything short of a National Geographic special devoted to lion-perpetrated antelope slayings.
This new DVD release features both the director’s cut and the theatrical cut, though the difference between the two is negligible (that is, three added scenes to former). The video transfer isn’t mind-blowing, but it’s sufficient; the picture quality has an aged feel with soft colors and detailing, but it fits with the nostalgia of the film, so I don’t have a big problem with it. Sound on the other hand is as aggressive as you’d want. Gunplay, explosions, donkey kicks to the genitals, they all resonate well in the 5.1 surround mix. The real beneficiary is the funky-fresh soundtrack, an insane amalgam of Calypso music and Miami Vice-like saxophone.
Extras include a commentary track with Lester, deleted scenes (highlighted by the alternate versions of John Matrix’s one-liner following the death of Bennett), still galleries and two featurettes — “Pure Action” and “Let off Some Steam.” These last two bring cast and crew members back together to reminisce and it’s a lot of self-deprecating fun.
If I actually have to tell you, then may John Matrix strike me down from heaven where I stand.