In the moderately long teaching career I have had, the class I enjoyed teaching most was, unsurprisingly, a film course. It is a class I mostly inherited from my mentor at Loyola University Chicago, though I made some changes to it. The biggest one was a group project. When I first started as a professor, I was only one summer removed from my time as a student. If there was one thing I did not particularly enjoy as I matriculated, it was group projects. I pressed on with such an assignment for my course because it involved student formed teams picking their own films, and me dedicating extra time outside of class to watch their selections with them and make suggestions. I do not know about other professors, but I appreciated such semi-unstructured interactions. My first time offering this class, I had one student who was particularly keen on today’s film, Commando (1985). So forceful was he that he got his groupmates to go along with what he believed to be the quintessential 1980s movie. What is to follow is a tribute to that student, who occasionally reads my reviews on The Legionnaire. I just hope he does not get too mad at me!
With a title like Commando, you expect for it to start with a suburban murder, right? Two gunmen, disguised as garbage men and riding a corresponding truck, back into a cul-de-sac and machine gun a guy taking out his cans. One of the assassins, Cooke (Bill Duke), next steals a Cadillac from the dealership and runs over the salesman while driving through the window. Then, for good measure, we see him blow up a fishing boat. This prompts a visit from General Franklin Kirby (James Olson) to his favorite former special forces operative, Colonel John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger). You would not know he is a highly trained soldier from his introduction, though the better part of a tree he carries done the side of a mountain with his rippling muscles that the camera lingers on would make such a profession likely, I suppose. The thing that he is most concerned about these days, aside from chopping wood, is his daughter Jenny Matrix (Alyssa Milano). There is a montage during the opening credits of dad and daughter doing all sorts of clichéd activities together, though no mention of a mother. Maybe Jenny fell from the sky? Anyway, Jenny understands what General Kirby’s arrival could mean, and she makes her father swear not to leave. General Kirby explains that somebody is going around killing his former team and that Colonel Matrix and Jenny are not safe. General Kirby wants them to come with him, but understands when Colonel Matrix refuses. To compensate, General Kirby leaves two cannon fodder soldiers to help protect Colonel Matrix’s house. Almost immediately after General Kirby leaves, Cooke leads a group of thugs in an assault on the Matrix estate. Colonel Matrix tells his daughter to go hide while he goes for guns. Luckily, in the history of everything, no child has ever thought of taking refuge under a bed . . . except for in almost every movie. Jenny is kidnapped and Colonel Matrix’s attempt to immediately get back his daughter ends with him also being captured. He is taken to the disgraced former president of Val Verde, Arius (Dan Hedaya), a man that Colonel Matrix had helped topple from power. He is also brought face-to-face with a former ally now operating on the wrong side of the law, Captain Bennett (Vernon Wells). Captain Bennett had never liked Colonel Martix, so this is personal. At any rate, Colonel Matrix is told that in order to have Jenny returned to him, he must travel to Val Verde and kill its new leader. To make sure he does what he is told, he is sent to the airport with two men, one to ride with him, and the other to watch the plane take off. As this is about to happen, Colonel Matrix murders his travel buddy and manages to jump off the plane just as it is lifting off from the runway. I cannot emphasize enough how silly this bit is. He now has eleven hours, the time it takes for the plane to get to Val Verde, to locate President Arius and find Jenny. The first order of business is to track down the man who watched the plane leave, Sully (David Patrick Kelly). Not long after spotting him, he crassly hits on a flight attendant, Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), and is rebuffed. Not to be discouraged, he creepily follows her to her car where he is again refused. Colonel Matrix proceeds in their wake and then orders Cindy to follow Sully. She warily complies. Their chase takes them to a mall and finally to a hill overlooking Los Angeles, off of which Colonel Matrix drops Sully after obtaining the information he needs. Though Cindy does try to get the police to handle Colonel Matrix, she eventually decides to follow him on this mad scavenger hunt that eventually leads to Jenny. She has no reason to do so, but willingly watches Colonel Matrix murder Cooke, helps him break into an Army-Navy surplus store, and uses a rocket launcher to blow up the prisoner transport truck they are taking Colonel Matrix away in after the burglary attempt. I guess she had nothing better to do on a Saturday night? Conveniently, she is also a pilot in training, and is able to fly them on a seaplane to the island location of President Arius where Jenny is being held. From there, Colonel Matrix single-handedly takes out a horde of mercenaries with worse aim than blind stormtroopers, including President Arius and Captain Bennett. This last one had his hands on Jenny, a gun on Colonel Matrix, but is foolishly talked into hand-to-hand combat. When General Kirby gets to the island and surveys the wreckage Colonel Matrix wrought, the commanding officer tries one last time to get his subordinate to join back up. Colonel Matrix says no, and he, Cindy, and Jenny fly off into the sunset. How lovely.
The gratuitous violence that marks the climax of Commando is laughably bad. The brief moment of nudity is unnecessary. And everything else is over-the-top. The character that baffles me the most, though, as alluded to in the previous paragraph, is Cindy. Helping our fellow man is a bedrock of Christian teaching. The best example is Luke 10:30-35. This is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Briefly, there is a man dying in the road, who is observed and ignored by two religious men. It is a lay person who stops to give assistance, putting the wounded man in an inn, and providing for his care long term. The Good Samaritan goes above and beyond. Cindy commits felonies, at the very least, and possibly murders. Of course, if she had done the Christian thing, this would not have been an action movie. All I am really saying here is that I do not get her motivation. Taking lives is frowned upon by the Church. It is good to be of service to people in need, but there is also such a thing as restraint.
I have been told many times, and Commando is no exception, that I think too much while watching movies. I say this because it is clearly intended to be a mindless action movie. This is a huge yawn for me, nor do I think we should be so flippant about this much violence. I guess, if nothing else, at least there was not a dumb romance forced on Cindy and Colonel Matrix.