There are few joys in life simpler or more pure than the cocktail of adrenaline, testosterone and cordite that makes up the American action movie. It is a not a nuanced genre. It is not a deep genre. But in the same way that an ice-cold Pabst Blue Ribbon goes down easier on a hot day than does a malty, complex craft beer, there are times when nothing else will satisfy. And if any action movie has earned the metaphorical role of “ice-cold Pabst” for those days when nothing else will satisfy, it's Commando.
Released in 1985, a great year for the action movie, Commando starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man who would come to define the role of “action hero” for that decade and much of the next. In a perfect match of actor and character, he plays John Matrix, a special-forces badass who speaks only in punchy catchphrases and absolute nonsense. In a perfect match of character and plot, the film simply gives Matrix an excuse to kill a lot of bad guys (they took his daughter!) and steps aside to let him do exactly that.
Boy, does he do that.
He kills men on airplanes. He kills men on highways. He kills men in exotic, tropical jungles. He breaks their necks, drops them off cliffs and, of course, he shoots them. Lots of them, with all kinds of different guns, from handguns all the way up to rocket launchers. Sometimes, for variety, he blows them up with a grenade. In one memorable scene, he gets creative with the contents of a gardening shed, ostensibly because he didn’t have a gun handy, but in reality because the filmmakers just wanted to get in some more clever killing.
While he does this, he spouts catchphrase after catchphrase, from the almost-clever “You’re a funny guy, Sully. I like you. That’s why I am going to kill you last” to the banal but beautiful “Fuck you, asshole.” When, in the grand finale (spoiler alert!), he throws a length of pipe all the way through the worst of all the bad guys, penetrating the boiler behind him and letting off a burst of steam, he says, with the perfect menacing scowl, the only thing he possibly can: “Let off some steam, Bennet.”
This is genius of the stupidest kind.
There is a love interest, but she doesn’t matter. There is some vague hand-waving about why these bad men kidnapped his daughter, but it is irrelevant. At its heart, Commando is just ninety minutes of a usually shirtless, usually oiled-up Schwarzenegger running around, doing impossible things like picking up and throwing a phone booth with a bad guy inside, and shooting, punching or blowing up every problem that presents itself to him. In the Commando universe, there is no dilemma that can’t be resolved through the unsophisticated and unthinking application of violence. It is an essentially pure — and essentially puerile — philosophy of action over all. There are no politics to get hung up on, no morality to speak of, no reason to think at all. It is simply a spectacle of violence from the opening minutes to the closing credits. It’s a slasher movie where the slasher is the hero, because instead of killing oversexed teenagers, he kills bad men who stole his daughter.
Oh, and it also has an unforgettable score that features an unreal amount of steel drums.
I wouldn’t say Commando is a good movie, but it is a great action movie. You will not learn anything about the human condition from it. You will not be moved. You will not find yourself pondering its subtleties days later. But you will see a near-perfect execution of the action-movie formula, from the greatest action-movie star of all time at the height of his powers. If that sounds awful to you, I’m sorry you hate life and everything fun. If that sounds awesome to you, well, what are you waiting for? Commando awaits.
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