This 1985 action film, directed by Mark L Lester, helped define the action genre in cinema and cemented Arnold Schwarzenegger as the greatest action hero of the time. Rae Dawn Chong, Vernon Wells, Dan Hedaya and a young Alyssa Milano co-star.
Former US Delta Force Colonel John Matrix (Schwarzenegger) lives a peaceful, isolated life with his young daughter Jenny (Milano). Matrix is forced back into action when former colleague, Bennett (Wells), now a mercenary for hire, kidnaps Jenny on the behalf of South American dictator Arius (Hedaya).
Matrix is tasked to carry out a political assassination in the country of Val Verde to get Arius in power as President, with Jenny as the bargaining tool. As Matrix is about to leave the country, air hostess Cindy (Dawn Chong) is caught up in the chaos and reluctantly agrees to help Matrix in the 11 hours of freedom he has before his plane is due to land.
What follows is a countdown for Matrix and Cindy as they track down each of Bennett’s men to piece together where Jenny is. All roads will eventually lead to a final one-man war by Matrix against Arius’s private army to show they picked the wrong man to mess with…
What qualifies for a “5 star film” these days? Academy Award winning performances? A culturally significant plot? A story that echoes through the ages? Artistic, breath-taking and carefully crafted cinematography? Probably, but more than that, I feel a film that delivers what it says it will. No frills, no exposition, just entertainment. ‘Commando’ is marketed as an action film, and we GET an action film full of bone-crunching stunts, explosive fight sequences, brutal, bastard bad guys and a genre defining hero.
A rocket launcher.
An automatic rifle.
A garden fork.
A metal pipe.
A chair leg.
A razor blade.
These are just some of the implements and weapons Arnie uses to bludgeon, maim, blow up and de-limb those who stand in his way of seeking out his kidnapped daughter. Forget your Liam Neeson daddy/daughter troubles – this is where it all began.
Necks are broken, limbs are cut off, torsos are sliced and blood oozes in glorious pre-CGI crimson against clothes and floors. When Stallone’s John Rambo takes on an army in ‘Rambo III‘, it seems a little far-fetched for his character. But when Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix gets tooled up in the most macho moment of the 1980’s to take down a small army protecting their corrupt leader, you can actually believe that Arnie can, will and has done this before! It’s glorious, noisy and over-the-top without ever feeling impossible.
Arnie zips along the film at a mere 1 hour 27 minutes, but it’s full of action from the opening minute and carried on by those fantastic one-liners that put 007 to shame when dispatching an enemy. “He’s dead tired.”, “Fly or die!”, “I eat Green Berets for breakfast, and right now I’m very hungry!” and the wonderful moment when a villain is killed by a ventilation pipe – “Let off some steam!” The Austrian Oak at 38 years old looks great in this film, probably one of his best roles in his career and it certainly makes you wish the golden age of action and Schwarzenegger was still with us. We get tastes of what it was like when action ruled the world in cinema with recent films such as ‘John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ and even ‘Hobbs & Shaw‘, but something is still missing.
The simplicity. The passion. The care-free love for all things of the glorious genre. The short run time and lack of franchises.
Even the soundtrack by James Horner oozes tension and excitement and fits the mood perfectly. It’s dark and pulse-pounding and just compliments the action and locale with enough steel drum riffs and electric guitar thrashes to suit all tastes. With acting support from the likes of Vernon Wells as a brilliantly OTT psychotic Bennett and Bill Duke, David Patrick Kelly and Charles Meshack as Bennett’s heavies, who are each as important and memorable for different reasons, the bad guys are really bad without anything cliché about them and that’s all we need to really get into the story of good vs evil. Nasty pieces of work who aren’t tattooed, bearded mercs kitted out to the eyes with guns and knifes. They are individuals, with their own motives and backgrounds and can pull off looking dangerous just in a sharp suit or a straw hat.
Mark Lester knows how to direct a star like Arnie in a very simple film as this. It sets up the plot and then doesn’t stop moving until the resolution. The action sequences move fluidly from one to the other without drag, and it proves you don’t need huge exposition to make something as entertaining and escapist as this popcorn fueled masterpiece of cinema.
It was the peak of 1980s action cinema that was carried along by the biggest action star of the decade and it wasn’t afraid to show as much excess as audiences wanted without fear of reprisal.
They REALLY don’t make them like this anymore.