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Commando (1985) Review

Commando was directed by Mark L. Lester (Extreme Justice, Class of 1984), written by Steven E. De Souza (Die Hard, V) and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger (Sabotage, Eraser), Rae Dawn Chong (Mysterious Ways, The Color Purple), David Patrick Kelly (VFW, The Warriors), Dan Hedaya (The Usual Suspects, Slapface), Vernon Wells (Debt Collectors, Await the Dawn), Bill Duke (Predator, Mandy), Alyssa Milano (Little Italy, Charmed) and James Olson (The Andromeda Strain, Ragtime). It follows an ex-special forces operator as he forges his own rescue mission for his kidnapped daughter.

The Plot: de Souza didn’t really have a need for much plotting in Commando, but that’s not to say there isn’t one. It’s a strongman’s revenge odyssey that quickly sets itself up and lets the characters and action do the legwork.

After mercenary Cooke (Duke) assassinates a bunch of men, we come to find out from Major Kirby (Olson) that they were Matrix’s (Schwarzenegger) former unit, and they’re most likely going to come after Matrix and his daughter Jenny (Milano) soon. No sooner than Kirby leaves, Cooke, Sully (Kelly), and other enemies arrive and take Jenny. And when I say soon, I mean soon, as they’ve taken her in less than a minute. Commando does things fast, mostly for the better, but sometimes for the worse.

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Matrix tried his hand at getting Jenny back as the kidnappers were leaving but ended up getting caught by Bennett (Wells), the only other living man from the unit, and Arius (Hedaya), who wants Matrix to assassinate the president of the country that overthrew him. To make this happen, the baddies put him on a plane, where he promptly escapes unbeknownst to Arius and Bennett and drags Cindy (Chong) into the fight. This is all in the first 25 minutes, by the way.

With all of that out of the way, the movie clears the path for action, with Matrix hunting down Arius’s hired gunmen to get any clues he can on his daughter’s location. A time limit imposed on Matrix’s murder plot and a few turns from expectations does help to keep the narrative somewhat interesting, though.

The Characters: Like with the plot, the characters are really just here to perpetuate action, although that doesn’t stop Commando from injecting some personality into most of them via dialogue, wardrobe, and action.

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Matrix is one of the prototypical one-track-minded leading men of the action genre. He’s well off after his time in the military, having done work in South America, Russia, East Germany, and the Middle East. He wants no part of it now, which is shown by his quiet home living, where he does almost everything by himself. The only thing that motivates him is his daughter’s happiness and safety, as seen in the montage that plays during the opening credits. Matrix is basically what almost every father wants to be and is instantly relatable.

Cindy makes for a fun companion to Matrix, even if she doesn’t have much to do for stretches of the runtime. She acts like any normal person would in the situations she’s put in throughout the movie. At first, she doesn’t trust Matrix, and even sets the cops on him when she thinks that he has malevolent intent in one of the movie’s genuinely surprising moments. Once she sees that he’s just looking out for his daughter, she fully supports him and uses her wit to assist Matrix.

Commando doesn’t put much emphasis on its bad guys, which does hurt it in the long run, but it tries to compensate for it by making them sufficiently scummy when they’re on screen. Opening with Cooke killing unarmed men is a good way to dissuade any likeability, and making Sully a womanizer who gets snarky with Matrix has the same effect. Arius and Bennett have motives and act as a unit, Arius being the brains and Bennett as the brawn.

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Bennett has a thirst for vengeance after being thrown out of Matrix’s unit for his instability. He takes too much pride and enjoyment from killing to be trusted. What adds to him (aside from Wells’ forceful performance) is his affiliation with Matrix, with the movie implying that he had the same training, so roughly, the same abilities.

It’s all caricature in Commando, but it does well with the angle, creating sympathetic leads and cold-blooded villains. It doesn’t have depth, but in this case, who needs that?

The Action: Continuing with the over-the-top nature of the movie, the action is insane and has no intention of hiding that fact, making full use of its runtime to create set pieces upon set pieces.

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Jenny’s kidnapping is fast and out of nowhere, with Arius’s men getting in and getting out while keeping Matrix suppressed just long enough to get a fair distance away. On the way out they cut the brakes to Matrix’s truck, but he doesn’t care, and the sequence is punctuated with a vehicle rushing down a hillside without the use of brakes in an attempt to ram the villains. It sets the tone and the standard with ease.

Between each major sequence, there are car chases and explosions to keep the momentum up when Commando begins to wobble. The first one ends with Matrix and Sully in a mall, in which Cindy tips the cops off to Matrix’s presence, which causes a fight to break out. It’s uncharacteristically nonlethal, but it doesn’t lessen the impact, with Matrix beating the brakes off of the cops to catch a fleeing Sully via swinging from balloons(?) to get to the roof of the elevator he’s taking down. It’s an impressive sequence with an uncommon and fully populated location that’s probably the best in the movie.

Lester knows what the audience wants and adds some buildup to the finale, with Matrix and Cindy getting armed to the teeth with every kind of weapon one could think of. It’s a great way to build anticipation, which pays off spectacularly with what’s basically a 20-minute shootout on an island villa that ends with the matchup between Matrix and Bennett. It’s a greatly executed way to cap off an action movie.

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Overall, the action in Commando is great with set pieces, stunt work, and pyrotechnics. It has some minor issues, like a few obvious stunt doubles and a few spatially disconnected moments, but they’re nothing that will devalue the movie harshly.

The Technics: Lester is a helmer familiar with low budgets, so Commando is right up his alley. While most of the money is well spent, there are some issues on a technical level.

Editing by Mark Goldblatt (Death Wish, Case 39) is a staple of the action genre. With enough films under his belt, his work here illustrates experience as he nimbly cuts the action (for the most part) and the narrative to a lean 90 minutes. The sweet spot stays that way with a runtime that doesn’t drag or move too fast, the only essential elements missing for large portions of the movie are the main villains, who don’t get to do much until the end.

The look of Commando does leave a lot to be desired. While what’s playing out on screen will often make up for the camerawork, when the movie isn’t celebrating spectacle, it looks flat, with awkward lighting and occasional flimsy bluescreen compositing. Plentiful continuity errors don’t help the look, either, with Matrix’s escape from the plane being the most glaring.

Commando is all action, all the time, with impressive sequences across the board. It’s missing a villainous presence and has a lot of mechanical flaws, but that doesn’t stop the movie from being a tour-de-force of good leads performing better acts of violence.

Commando is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital platforms via 20th Century Disney. The film still has an official, though not updated, Facebook page. And if you’re looking for more action, FilmTagger has some ideas.

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