Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Film Appreciation - This Macho Bulls--t


Cody Hamman's Film Appreciation takes aim at 1985's Commando.

As a Colonel in the Special Forces, John Matrix led his team of men into battles all over the world, in places like Syria, South America, and Russia, taking on militaries and terrorists alike. Their duties done, Matrix and his men retired, his team settling into civilian life with new identities. On his part, Matrix has gotten a nice house up in the mountains, focusing on having a normal life as a single father to his young daughter Jenny.

Some time has passed since their days as soldiers, and now the men who served under Matrix have all been murdered one-by-one in quick succession, leaving him the last man standing. Their new identities were supposed to keep them safe, but someone leaked their secrets out to an unknown enemy.

Major General Kirby arrives at Matrix's home via helicopter to notify him of the situation and assure him that he's coordinating with the Feds to make sure that whoever has killed Matrix's men will not make it anywhere near him. Before taking off in his helicopter, he leaves behind two men, "real good" men, although he notes that they're not as good as Matrix was. Kirby has barely taken off before a group of heavily armed mercenaries attack Matrix's house. The two men Kirby left behind are dead within minutes. Matrix is able to access the keypad-locked safe room/armory that he has in the back of his work shed, but by the time he returns to the house it's too late. Jenny has been kidnapped.

He pursues his daughter's captors, but instead of rescuing her he only manages to get taken captive as well, shot with a tranquilizer dart. When he comes to, the details of the situation are laid out for him - the mercenaries who killed Matrix's team and attacked his home are all former military men themselves, and they're working for a man named Arius, deposed dictator of the (fictitious) South American country of Val Verde. It was through the action of Matrix and his team that Arius was overthrown and replaced by the country's new President, a President who heralded Matrix as a hero of the revolution. Arius wants his country back, and as his right hand man he has Bennett, a man who once served under Matrix, until he was kicked out of the Special Forces team for being a homicidal psychopath. He's the one who sold out his former team members, seeking revenge.

Arius presents Matrix with a deal: If he goes to Val Verde, uses the President's trust of him to get in close, then murders the man, allowing Arius to take back control, Jenny will be safely returned to him. If he doesn't comply, Jenny will be murdered and mutilated.

A first class ticket is booked for Matrix on an eleven hour flight to Val Verde and he's escorted to the plane by a couple of Arius's men, one of them boarding the plane with him to watch over him... But our hero doesn't stick to the villain's plans. His watchman is dead almost as soon as they take their seats and Matrix escapes from the plane before takeoff.

He quickly enlists the help of a flight attendant named Cindy, who doesn't think much of his initial, carjacker-y approach, but comes around to sympathizing with his plight and sticks around much longer than she needs to in order to help him save his daughter. From the moment Matrix leaps off the plane's landing gear during takeoff to the final moments of the film, he is on a roaring rampage of revenge, following clues and knocking off mercenaries on his way to rescuing Jenny.

To accomplish his goal, Matrix must partake in car chases, brutal fist fights, and large scale gun battles, the action escalating until its reaches the heights of a climactic raid on Arius's Val Verde compound, during which Matrix is a one man army taking on an actual army, Arius's own private military.

It's always been one of Matrix's first stops on his path that has stuck with me the most, and my girlfriend advised that this write-up wouldn't be complete if I didn't make mention of this particular location: There's a brief sequence that takes place inside an awesome, majestic-looking shopping mall.  Film fans may recognize this location as the Sherman Oaks Galleria, one of the greatest malls that has ever stood, a place which has been featured in several other films, including Chopping Mall, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Innerspace, Walk Like a Man, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The place had a very distinct look, with it's multiple levels and cool elevators... and Matrix gets to swing across the place like Tarzan while pursuing a target.

Directed by Mark L. Lester (Class of 1999, Showdown in Little Tokyo, Night of the Running Man) from a screenplay and story by 1980s-early '90s go-to man of action Steven E. de Souza, Jeph Loeb (who would go on to write comic books featuring the likes of Daredevil, Batman, and Superman) and Loeb's Teen Wolf co-writer Matthew Weisman, Commando is brilliantly simplistic. Fast paced and action packed, the movie amounts to nothing more than a determined man laying waste to anyone and anything that gets between him and his distressed daughter.

There was a little more substance in Loeb's initial ideas for the story, as it was originally meant to star Gene Simmons of Kiss as a Mossad agent who, weary of all the violence he's seen, retires and moves to the U.S. When Simmons passed on it, the project was further developed as a potential vehicle for Nick Nolte, who would play a retired soldier who's broken down and out of shape. The kidnapping of his daughter was always going to be what brought the lead character back into action.

The ideas for making Matrix violence weary and out of shape went out the window when Arnold Schwarzenegger, the hulking Austrian bodybuilder whose career was on the rise at the time due to the successes of '82's Conan the Barbarian and '84's Terminator, signed on to play the character. This guy was certainly not out of shape, and his Matrix expresses no second thoughts about the violence he deals with and dishes out in the film. Instead, Lester presents him as "the invincible man of the earth", an unstoppable force of nature.

As such, the audience is merely asked to sit back and enjoy watching as this "gigantic motherf---er" makes mincemeat out of his opposition. Everyone who goes up against him is way out of their league and quickly taken out. He beats the hell out of people, flips over cars with barely any effort, engages in ridiculous gunfights wherein he can mow down entire platoons with the greatest of ease and escape with hardly more than a scratch. He wades into the third act battle sequence armed to the teeth with items he steals from a secret room in the back of a military surplus store. A machine gun, a rocket launcher, grenades, all there for the taking. This film doesn't let reality or logic get in the way of vengeance and destruction. By the end, Matrix has chalked up a bodycount with more than 80 bad guys on it.

In exchange for demonstrating his physical abilities, Schwarzenegger is given as little dialogue to deliver as possible, but the character does have a tendency to drop some wonderfully groan-inducing one liners, spoken by Schwarzenegger in a completely deadpan manner, when he dispatches his enemies.

Pitted against Schwarzenegger are a great group of actors that includes Bill Duke (who would go on to co-star with Arnie again in Predator), David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors, The Crow), Vernon Wells (The Road Warrior), and as South American dictator Arius, New York actor Dan Hedaya (Cheers, Blood Simple). Lester had wanted to cast Puerto Rican actor Raul Julia in the role of Arius, which would've been a great choice, but producer Joel Silver insisted on Hedaya. The shabby accent Hedaya attempts to put on just adds to the film's ridiculous charm.

Also in the cast are Alyssa Milano as little Jenny and Rae Dawn Chong, who is very likeable and fun to watch as Cindy, the flight attendant who gets in way over her head. Familiar faces like Chelsea Field and Bill Paxton show up briefly along the way, with Branscombe Richmond, Thomas Rosales, Jr., Dick Warlock, Johnny Hock, and Tom Morga among the legion of men who get on Matrix's bad side.

Stuntmen Warlock, Hock, and Morga also worked on the same year's Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, with Warlock (famous to horror fans for playing Michael Myers in 1981's Halloween II) as the stunt coordinator and Hock and Morga both appearing in the hockey mask as Jason Voorhees in scenes. Morga was also the primary man behind the mask for copycat killer Roy in that film, and F13's Jason isn't the only horror icon he has to his credit - he's also Michael Myers in a couple scenes of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers and performed a stunt as Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

Morga's appearance in Commando really stands out because of the truly awful fake mustache he has plastered to his face. He shows up at a point when a weaponless Matrix is forced to take refuge in a gardening shed. The shed is surrounded by men armed with machine guns, who Matrix proceeds to wipe out with the implements he finds in the shed; he chops off limbs with a machete, he impales a man with a pitchfork, he tosses circular saw blades like frisbees, embedding one in a man's chest and cleaving off the top of another's head... Morga gets it with an axe, as Matrix (who was introduced chopping wood at his mountain home) charges out of the shed and swings the axe up into his groin. It seems very fitting to me that a man who has played Jason would be killed off in such a slasher-esque manner.

Filled to the brim with violence, destruction, and nonsense, carried along on the back of a memorable score by James Horner, Commando is pure, mindless entertainment, a very enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes. It's a movie that I watched again and again on cable and VHS during my childhood. It lapsed out of my viewing rotation for several years, but when I do occasionally get around to revisiting it, I always find that it is still a whole lot of fun to watch Schwarzenegger kicking ass at his peak.

Steven E. de Souza went on to write Die Hard, and it's all over the internet that he originally developed that screenplay as a sequel to Commando. That's a claim de Souza has recently refuted. He did, however, write a script for a Commando II, a script that then received revisions by Frank Darabont. The ending of Commando leaves the door open to a sequel, despite Matrix's insistence that he's done with military life, but Schwarzenegger was not interested in sequels in the late '80s and turned the project down, depriving the masses of the delight further John Matrix mayhem could've brought us... But that doesn't take anything away from this film as a standalone action classic.

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