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30 Minutes on: "Commando"

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    By Entertainer


    A perfect engine of nearly meaningless destruction, "Commando" followed Arnold Schwarzenegger's breakthrough hit "The Terminator" by less than a year. Even though he played a villain in the latter, he imported a lot of the signature moves and performance tics into this good-guy part, playing a stoic meat-slab trying to save his daughter from Latin American death squads and their hired mercenary goons. I'm the right age to have seen all of the now-nearly-canonized 1980s R-rated adventures (including this one, the Rambo pictures, "Aliens," "Predator" and "Die Hard") in first-run theaters. As a historical witness (cue Civil War fiddle music—or maybe Horner's turtle drums) I can testify that yes, this movie was kind of a big deal—not just because it was continuously violent (hundreds of killings) and mordantly funny ("I lied"), but because any viewer with eyes could see that even then, Schwarzenegger had absorbed whatever lessons he'd learned working on James Cameron's tech noir science fiction thriller and was determined to build a career on them. from the instant that Arnie made his entrance in "Commando," clomping through a mountain forest with a chainsaw in his right hand and a huuuuuge log over his oiled left bicep, you felt pretty sure you were in the presence of a film that was in on its own joke—and just in case you weren't convinced of that, the film had its hero row toward his final confrontation on a goon-packed island clad in nothing but a Speedo. There are jokes in the script about red meat and macho b.s., but they're mainly in there so that the film can indulge the things it decries. "Commando" might be the first entirely postmodern action thriller, serving up many of the cliches that audiences saw in "Rambo, First Blood Part II" four months earlier (including close-ups of a glistening muscleman strapping on weapons) but putting a half-mocking spin on them. 

    I dimly recall reading an interview with Schwarzenegger in my local newspaper sometime around the film's release where he said something along the lines of—and I'm paraphrasing here—"Young audiences now don't just want their good guys to be good, they also want them to be bad." Bad, as in badass. Or bad as in bad boy, verging on bully—like Clint Eastwood, an actor whose films Schwarzenegger had obviously studied as if they were chapters in a holy text, or a How-To manual for actors who had charisma and broad shoulders and a square jaw but not a lot of range. Schwarzenegger's predatory squint comes from Eastwood. So does his sneering delivery of kiss-off lines and his willingness to play characters so adept at killing that they seem almost supernatural, at times more like John Carpenter horror movie stalker-creatures than traditionally heroic leading men. (Both Schwarzenegger and Eastwood have played multiple characters who get killed, in body or spirit, and then resurrected so that they can deal out death, pausing occasionally to remind the soon-to-be-dispatched that they sealed their fate the instant they stood between the hero and his goal.) There was a tendency at the time to ascribe Schwarzenegger's fondness for cheeseball bon mots like "Don't disturb my friend, he's dead tired" and "Let off some steam" to a desire to to make like Bond, but the self-satisfied quality is more Eastwood. When he tells David Patrick Kelly's Sully while he's hanging him off a cliff that "this is my weak arm," or quips upon leaving the hotel room where he killed Bill Duke's Green Beret that they're taking his car because "he won't be needing it," he's just being a jerk.

    But he's a funny jerk—and the film's and Schwarzenegger's deadpans are so expertly judged that you don't tire of Matrix's "wit," much less disapprove of it. Tone is everything. "Commando" is as knowingly unreal as some of the best 1980s Hong Kong action classics, and like those films, this one is essentially a comedy with a high body count. The bit where Matrix swings across a shopping mall atrium like Tarzan might be an homage to the most famous stunt in Jackie Chan's "Police Story." "Die Hard" cowriter Steven E. DeSouza and "Class of 1984" director Mark L. Lester have a knack for setting up preposterous sight gags and groan-worthy jokes, then cutting away from them so quickly that you can't help but laugh. When Chong and Schwarzenegger (why even refer to them by their character names, honestly?) crash into a telephone pole, Lester cuts instantly to a tighter shot of the guy asking the girl, "Are you all right?", and of course she's all right. This is the kind of film where the hero realizes the bad guys have torn the cables out of his truck to prevent him from chasing them to retrieve his daughter and pushes the damned thing down a mountainside and drives it towards them in neutral, somehow dodging every tree, and when he finally wrecks and the truck obligatorily explodes, the movie cuts to Schwarzenegger sprinting away from the flaming wreck.

    There are a lot of moments like that one in "Commando"—moments where the film seems to have a crush on its own ludicrousness and is determined to keep the buzz going by never allowing the audience to look (or think) long enough to poke holes or second-guess. Roger Ebert was fond of calling out this kind of Saturday morning serial logic (affectionately): Hopalong Cassidy seems to get buried in an avalanche at the end of a chapter, and at the start of the next one you see him riding along in the desert again while the announcer says, "After Hoppy escaped from the canyon..."

    Schwarzenegger's brawn is used for slapstick effect throughout. He's the Terminator as single dad. Abetted by Rae Dawn Chong's intrepid flight attendant Cindy, he charges through Southern California with an improbable mix of lethal grace and thunder-footed clumsiness. At times his whole performance seems modeled on the scene in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" where Jonathan Winters destroys a gas station with his bare hands. Matrix rips through a partition in the cargo hold of a plane, kicks and punches enemies so hard that they crash through walls, snaps a man's neck with his bare hands as if it were a shingle, and rips a seat out of Cindy's convertible for no discernible reason (it can't be to hide from Sully; in long shots of the vehicle, Matrix's head is sticking up right next to Cindy's, like a dog enjoying the feel of highway wind in his mouth). He just crashes through the world, punching and kicking and shooting and incinerating everything and everyone that stands in his way, until he finally javelins a pipe through Vernon Wells' bug-eyed henchman Bennett and wraps his redwood arms around his cute daughter again and they fly away with Cindy.

    I wonder, after the final credits are we supposed to think that Matrix, Jenny and Cindy form a makeshift nuclear family? It's hard to say, because this is a rare '80s action picture that doesn't try to twist the script's only significant male-female relationship (unless you count the couple that's surprised mid-coitus when soldiers crash through their wall) into a love story. But at the same time, it treats the leads' very real chemistry as a comic resource, one that's ultimately as important as any of the film's explosions or gory prosthetic flourishes (like that buzz saw flattop that the hero gives to a hired goon in the tool shed scene). That Matrix and Cindy's relationship is so instantly comfortable adds immeasurably to its humor. They get along as if they've known each other for years. She busts his chops and freaks out sometimes, but she always comes through in a pinch (she figures out how to fire a rocket launcher by reading the instructions), and he never loses his cool with her. He treats as if she's just the latest addition to his unit, somebody who's a bit green but will get the hang of things eventually.

    There's an arc here; who'd have thunk it? Before Matrix met Cindy, she was just a flight attendant who couldn't get a date, now she's helping a commando rescue his daughter by flying a hijacked seaplane to an island stronghold and waiting to call for help until she hears all hell breaking loose. One of the many fun ways to think about this film after-the-fact is to envision it a chaste romantic comedy titled "When Matrix Met Cindy," about the most exciting twelve hours in one ordinary woman's life. Even if the two don't end up married and living happily after the final credits have rolled, I feel certain that they keep in touch. Maybe Cindy attends Jenny's high school graduation and gives her a card with a drawing of a seaplane on it.

    By: Matt Zoller Seitz
    Posted: October 24, 2015, 4:46 am


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