Sunday, April 8, 2012

RUTZ Classic Movies: Commando

Directed by Mark L. Lester

Line that stays with me:  “Want to see me kick some ass?”

Essay Warning: There are no spoilers or story details. I want to offer the emotion that a film can access within us. Plus I think the best way to watch a film is by not knowing anything about it. Just Go In…So if you haven’t watched this film yet please don’t read this essay. Read it afterwards so we can enjoy the “feeling” together.

How many more overly serious and, lame, message filled action movies do we have to sit through before Hollywood starts making films like “Commando” again? An action movie not one bit ashamed of being exactly what it is, loud and action packed fun.  Made in 1985 during Hollywood’s last hurrah in creating action stars, Commando is a special, perfect blend of star power and a director’s strong vision. This is the sort of film critics ignore, for it has too much fun and doesn’t try to give us a meaningful message.  Those aimless feelings are to blame when films like “Ordinary People” beat out films like “Raging Bull” for best picture. Any movie can be great, no matter what the subject or genre. I do not think one film carries more importance than the next. At the end of the day they are just stories being told, each with their own different set of merits. Still, to be honest it is really hard for me to respect any great drama after watching an amazing martial arts film, yet the last martial arts film to get heavy Academy attention was “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.  “Kill Bill” with its fantastic, now classic “Crazy 88’s” scene got nothing.  That is the fate of all films that go against traditionalism and deliver surreal exciting activity with cinematic perfection. When this sort of movie is done right, it is usually the most fun you ever have at the movies. That’s why I love Commando, it wants me to have a good time, laugh at its jokes, and enjoy the bloody carnage; and I do.

Commando is the movie made for the inner child still in all men. My generation grew up on these type of films from Stallone’s “Cobra” to Van Damme’s  “Bloodsport”.  These are the action movies released in the 80’s that later turned up in what seemed like on a weekly basis on TNT’s “Movies for guys who like movies”.  As a person that thirsts cinematic experiences of all kinds, it was a blast to watch an “Above the Law” and “Roadhouse” double feature. Now, the films I just mentioned are fine for the moment but “Commando” is on its own level.  It’s one of the few films that sits next to the first “Highlander” as odd cinematic perfection. After watching “Commando” you are left with the fascination of trying to figure out why you truly like the film even though it has its misgivings. Commando has plenty of mistakes in it. You keep asking yourself “Is this movie serious?” or “Was that intentional?” I am here to tell you it doesn’t matter.  In one scene you can see the entire crew off a reflection of a car and in another you see Arnold lose his wallet but somehow the wallet finds its way back to him later in the film.  None of these errors were powerful enough to destroy director Mark L. Lester’s vision, Steven E. De Souza screenplay and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s star power.

It starts really slow. First, you laugh at the dialog. Dialog this fun and direct does not exist anymore. It seems to me that the screenwriter was having the time of his life trying to stick as many puns and zingers into this movie as he could. As a tribute to his excellent work, I have compiled a list of my 20 favorite lines of dialog. 

Commando Dialog Top 20 (No particular order) Steven E. De Souza Tribute

·         “All that matters to me now is Jenny!” 

·         “Let off some steam, Bennett!” 

·         “You have enemies all over the world John” 

·         “Your training, Matrix!” 

·         “I eat Green Berets for breakfast. And right now, I'm very hungry!” 

·         “Slitting a little girl's throat is like cutting warm butter.” (WTF!)

·         “Put the knife away and shut your mouth.”

·         “Someone’s killing your men…”

·         “Tranquilizers…. I wanted to use the real thing!” 

·         “The bird is flown”

·         “You know what I like best about this car? The price.”

·         “Silent and smooth just like always” 

·         “Don’t bother my friend he’s dead tired” 

·         “You're a funny guy Sully, I like you. That's why I'm going to kill you last”

·         “John... I'll be ready, John.”

·         “John, I'm not going to shoot you between the eyes. I'm going to shoot you between the balls.”

·         “Ever since you had me thrown out of your unit, I've waited to pay you back. Do you know what today is Matrix?... Pay day!”

·         “They offered me a hundred grand. You want to know something? When I found out I could get my hands on you, I said I'd do it for nothing.”

·         “I don't need the gun John. I can beat you. I DON'T NEED NO GUN!”

·         "Welcome back John! So glad you can make it!"

Once you become well versed in Commando’s dialog it is almost impossible not to quote the film with friends who also fell for Commando’s choice of words.  It is silly and fun without losing a bit of credibility or story thrust. A hard act to master and it took the star power of Arnold Schwarzenegger to pull it off.  Politics and personal tidbits thrown to the wayside, Arnold Schwarzenegger the superstar is a force to be reckoned with.  It is almost proven that any series that tries to move on without him fails miserably (The Terminator, Conan, and Predator) Good luck new version of “Total Recall”. He’s visual presence and unique dialect just works to make him the perfect action star of our times. Movie magic at its best; cast the world’s strongest man in a role that could only be played by the strongest man in the world. Never under estimate the strength of a true star’s presence. It was something Hollywood was great at. From Humphrey Bogart to Jack Nicholson, a star’s charisma can land him in 10 similar roles and still excite us. Yes, we are watching a character but mostly we are enjoying the unique abilities that only this star can do. Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep”, “The Maltese Falcon” and, “Beat the Devil”, are a perfect example of that sort of star power.  Who else but Arnold could get away with saying lines like “Get down” and “I’ll be back” in almost every other movie he’s in?

Naturally a film cannot achieve greatness with star power alone. It can survive as many actions films do starring Jason Statham but to achieve cinematic greatness you have to deliver the goods in various basic movie fundamentals. Director Mark L. Lester and his screenwriter were very smart in giving Arnold great visual moments, properly setting up this action piece for him. I hate watching a great action star go to waste in a film that doesn’t exhibit any of the star’s gifts. (The Rock in “The Tooth Fairy”) In Commando we watch Arnold single handily push what looks like a Chevy Trailblazer downhill, rip off a car seat, rip up a telephone booth, hold the character Sully upside down with one hand and, Arnold running through a glass wooden door even though I am pretty it wasn’t necessary. The filmmakers were very keen on how to best utilize Arnold’s strengths just like James Cameron did in the first two Terminator films.   

One of the reasons I think people don’t revere Commando as a great movie is because it moves so seamless. That’s the signature of great work. The simple “I got to save my daughter “story works and the filmmakers set up a great tone that will not exhaust the flow by executing highly in other areas. For one the supporting cast in this film is very strong. It is filled with great character actors. Dan Hedaya is great as a stereotypical dictator, Vernon Wells is too perfect as John Matrix’s back stabbing partner Bennett, which might be the most out of shape villain in any action movie ever. That’s when you know the filmmakers have done their job, when you actually believe that Bennett could ever compete with John Matrix. Watch the film again and enjoy how badly out of shape Vernon Wells is. Enjoy the formidable talents of Bill Duke and one of the best sleazy looking character actors ever, David Patrick Kelly also adds so much zest to the mix.  Watching this cast kick macho lines back and forth to each other is just plain fun and hilarious. Plus, let us not forget James Horner’s crazy wonderful score filled with wild jazzy horns and steel drums. The score alone makes me laugh, it is very effective, but man those steel drums do it to me every time.

Bottom-line, if girls just want to have fun than guys just want to see things blow up, crazy shoot outs, and some sexy vixens. We are men. We were once boys playing with fake guns, while taking crazy chances trying to pull off our own dangerous stunts. Great movies like “Commando” allow you to enjoy that side of you, that side of you that still likes to play and raise hell. The movie has no tear jerking moments; it is fun all the way around. That’s why the opening has that silly moment where Arnold is feeding a deer with his daughter. It is a funny moment but it’s also poking fun at itself to make sure you don’t take the whole thing too seriously. The movie is proudly immature. It knows we don’t need a sappy ending like “Con-Air”; we just want mayhem and a cool one liner to close the film out. Obviously “Commando” is geared towards a specific gender and that’s the way things are. Women get excited about watching films like “The Notebook” and “The Vow” films that tickle their interest. Films that play on woman’s childhood built dreams of getting married and living happily ever after. Our childhood dreams was being an action hero or super hero, ideas that live off our testosterone.  Unfortunately, they are not a lot of filmmakers left trying to be that bold and manly. “Taken” is pretty much the same movie as “Commando” but it’s Commando with “realism”. I miss a good ole movie that doesn’t care about “realism” but impresses me with its style and great storytelling. I am not saying “Taken” is a bad film but it is not my idea of a fun film. Signs of the time I suppose.  Commando wasn’t afraid to say I know what the boy in you wants. You want car chases; bloody shoot outs, explosion after explosion, limbs being cut off, someone getting stabbed with a pitchfork, machine gun frenzy with unlimited ammo, that’s what we want! 

Who wants to watch realism when you can watch the 1st48 on A&E? Commando is make believe in every sense of the word with cool make up effects, stunt doubles exploding into the air, exaggerated gun fire, it’s soul was created from the good ole days of playing make believe with your friends. “I shot you, I shot you, you got to get on the ground” that sort of fun.  The only difference is that the filmmakers that brought us “Commando” had 10 million dollars to play with and a great crew.  The film delivered on its promise of wild, action packed fun. It didn’t set out to please everybody because that is impossible. Most action films these days try to please everybody and stick some sloppy romantic subplot that goes nowhere, dragging the movie down. Not “Commando”, in “Commando” even Arnold’s kidnapped daughter is tough. There are no drags, it opens with guns ablazing and closes with the catchy, silly yet appropriate PowerStation song “We fight for love”. Will there ever be a film this fun, silly, over the top, and straight forward ever again? Well as John Matrix said at the end of the film, “No chance”. 

So rejoice and enjoy this excellent parody "Commando: The Musical"   

ABOUT RCM: Rutz Classic Movies is dedicated on writing film essays for films that in Rutz's opinion, have not gotten the credit they deserve. Next Essay: Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette



  1. Love it! This was really enjoying to read. I haven't seen Commando in a while, but it's always been one of my all-time faves for all the reasons you just mentioned. Bless my dear old Dad for providing an antidote to the bullshit fairy-tale shlock other chicks eat up hand over fist.
    I really hope you take on the first Highlander soon. And I must admit, I'm really curious on what will be done with it in the upcoming remake/reboot/re-imagining (whatever you want to call it). I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, but I can't really picture Ryan Reynolds as Connor MacLeod

    1. Thanks Cheryl, hope all is well with you! Glad you enjoyed the essay! "Bullshit fairy-tale shlock other chicks eat up hand over fist".....I don't know how people can sit through those boring films. I heard about the "Highlander" remake but I didn't know about Ryan Reynolds which now leaves me with little hope that the film will be any good. If it's not rated R, it is going to suck, or become another throw away remake like the new "Total Recall".

  2. Great essay! For the record, my favorite line in the movie comes from Bill Dukes' character during the fight in the motel room ..."Are you scared mother F*cker? Well you should be, 'cause this green baret is gonna kick your big a**!" Good stuff.