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THE AXIS OF ACTION – COMMANDO (1985)

The Axis Of Action returns and this week Dawn Dabell examines Commando (1985) staring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vernon Wells and Rae Dawn Chong.

Jenny (Alyssa Milano) and Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) enjoy the wildlife... but soon their idylll will be shattered, in Commando (1985)

Jenny (Alyssa Milano) and Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) enjoy the wildlife… but soon their idyll will be shattered, in Commando (1985)

When talking film, if someone mentions the name Arnold Schwarzenegger it’s a safe bet almost everyone will know they’re not about to watch an artistic masterpiece. Having said this, his name above the title usually guarantees a fun, lively ride for the audience. ‘Fun’ and ‘lively’ are adjectives which can certainly be applied in the case of 80s action-fuelled offering Commando (1985), which stars Arnie as the titular hero.
Before the role went to Schwarzenegger, the studio originally intended to cast rock star Gene Simmons in the role of John Matrix. Simmons turned the role down, so it was offered to Nick Nolte. It was envisioned Nolte would play the ex-commando as someone who had let himself go over the years, meaning his character faces a greater struggle in order to successfully complete his mission. Alas, Nolte also turned the role down… and eventually it was offered to former Mr Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnie, in fairness to him, looks more believable as this tough guy out to save his daughter than any of the other suggested actors would have done.

The clock is ticking for Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Can he save his daughter in time?

The clock is ticking for Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Can he save his daughter in time?

Former commando John Matrix (Schwarzengger) lives in a mountain lodge with his daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano). He is visited by his old commanding officer Franklin Kirby (James Olson), who informs him that members of his special ops unit have recently been killed one by one. Kirby suspects someone is wiping out the old team, and thinks Matrix will be targeted next.
Within moments, Matrix’s home is attacked. During the mayhem, Jenny is taken by the bad guys and, after giving chase, Matrix himself is captured. He discovers his old colleague Bennett (Vernon Wells) is behind the assassination of his former army buddies. Bennett is now working for a Latin American dictator, and they want Matrix to assassinate some Head of State in a banana republic south o’ the border. If he carries out the job, they assure him they will return his daughter unharmed.

Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) prepares to take on Bennett in a knife-fight, in Commando (1985)

Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) prepares to take on Bennett in a knife-fight, in Commando (1985)

Believing his daughter will be killed whether he cooperates or not, Matrix escapes from captivity and begins a lone-wolf mission to get her back. Aided by an off-duty flight attendant named Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), Matrix races against the clock to save his kid and bring the bad guys down.
Although not the greatest of actors (he is often described as wooden, and nicknamed the ‘Austrian Oak’), Schwarzenegger does a wonderful job here as John Matrix. Some of his line delivery comes off a little bland but in the context of the film, with its comedic undertones, his performance actually works rather well. He is physically imposing and shows great prowess during the many action sequences.
Rae Dawn Chong – daughter of comedian, ‘stoner’ and actor Tommy Chong – puts in a decent performance as Cindy, the air hostess who unwittingly gets involved in the action. She isn’t Oscar-worthy by any stretch of the imagination, but she does what is asked of her and seems to be having fun. She’s also the human heart of the film; the one character we can identify with on an almost realistic level because, compared to everyone else, she is relatively normal and ‘everyday’.

Bare-chested and ready for action, Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) wages a one-man war against his enemies in Commando (1985)

Bare-chested and ready for action, Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) wages a one-man war against his enemies in Commando (1985)

Bad guy Vernon Wells looks a little uncomfortable in his ill-fitting, highly campy wardrobe, but this is because his outfits were actually originally made to fit a different actor with a slighter frame. Rather than spending time and money having his outfits altered, the makers decided to shoot with what they already had at hand. Unfortunately for Wells, this makes his character looks less macho, more camp, especially when compared with Arnie’s outfits. Nevertheless, watching him in OTT mode as the villain of the piece is still hugely enjoyable.
These days Alyssa Milano is more famous for appearing in the American TV series Charmed as Phoebe Halliwell, but seeing her as pre-teen Jenny Matrix here she is still immediately recognisable – she looks so much like her adult self. Although Milano doesn’t have much screen time, she is pleasing enough as the endangered – though resourceful – child, and delivers her lines well.
If you ‘over-think’ Commando, there are many plot holes and developments which don’t hold up to close scrutiny. What’s the point of Matrix’s former team being killed just so the bad guys can later kidnap his daughter and hold her hostage while he completes a mission for them? Why doesn’t Sully (David Patrick Kelly) simply shoot Matrix through the window of the phone booth while Matrix is shaking it (Sully is holding a gun while the unarmed Matrix tears the phone booth out of its foundations)? Why is Jenny left to her own devices for the best part of twelve hours while in captivity, providing her with plenty of time to chisel her way through a boarded-up doorway? There are dozens of similar logic lapses. If you can sit back and ignore these, the film is actually fabulous entertainment, with plenty of one-liners which are sure to have you laughing out loud. There are also many quotable lines which leave audiences thoroughly amused. I know people who can quote lines from the film without a blink of hesitation: “Let off some steam, Bennett” and “Don’t disturb my friend, he’s dead tired” being particular favourites. In 2007, a short featurette was made called Commando: Let Off Some Steam, which basically discusses the humour in the film in some depth.

Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) uses a rocket launcher to wipe out his enemies in Commando (1985).

Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) uses a rocket launcher to wipe out his enemies in Commando (1985).

Following the success of Commando, the studio wanted to make a sequel. They had already bought the rights to Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever (a sequel to his earlier novel The Detective, filmed with Frank Sinatra). Sinatra, alas, had declined to appear in a film version of Nothing Lasts Forever, so the script was completely rewritten as a sequel to Commando instead. Writer Steven E. DeSouza wrote the script and Arnie was approached but he turned down the proposal. Eventually the script was revised further still, and eventually became the hit action flick Die Hard (1988) starring Bruce Willis.
It would seem, though, that the world wasn’t quite ready to give up on Commando. In 2008 a Russian remake was produced – День Д (aka Den D). In 2010, yet another remake was announced, linking David Ayer to the project. In 2014, Ayer distanced himself from it and nothing has come to fruition since.

Theatrical poster for Commando (1985).

Theatrical poster for Commando (1985).

Sam Worthington’s name has recently been bandied about to play the Arnie character, but at present whether this remake will actually happen or not remains to be seen.
For fans of action movies, you can’t really go wrong with Commando: it’s fun, full of violence and is an enjoyable film. Just make sure you get the uncut version, as some DVDs exist with trims for violence, lessening the impact of many of the scenes. It’s daft for sure, but Commando is mindlessly enjoyable and very entertaining within its parameters.

MOM Rating: 7/10

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