The formula seems to be intact, at least for these two action pics: A guy who just wants to be left alone is drawn out of comfy retirement to fight one last fight. (Schwarzenegger is with his little daughter, carrying logs on his shoulders in the desert of Southern California; Norris wrassles alligators at his everglades retreat.) Both retired heroes are drawn out into battle because an old nemesis has gone power-mad and wants to rule the world (more or less). And both films share, of course, the indestructibility of their protagonists and the uncanny willingness on the part of the thousands of extras to step in front of a red-hot machine gun. Oddly enough, they also share a tendency toward flipness; both heroes like to make funny cracks about the dude they’ve just wasted, a la James Bond (some bon mots in Commando are actually stolen from early Bond films, if I’m not mistaken). But the tone, especially in Commando, is less Bond-droll than a kind of hip nihilism, very much along the lines of Schwarzenegger’s big hit from last year, The Terminator.
Similarities noted, it must be said that the two films offer differing degrees of pleasure. Invasion U.S.A., helmed by Norris vet Joseph Zito and co-written by Chuck Norris himself, is a typically tawdry-looking Chuck movie. The villains perform atrocities, Chuck gets mad, mows villains down. Nothing too interesting about it, except that the atrocities are a little more far-out than usual: a suburban neighborhood prepares for Christmas, and a little kid runs out on the lawn to put the star on the top of the Christmas tree. She manages to get inside the house before the vans parked out front (bought and paid for with rubles, no doubt) deposit their payload on the front porch, torching the whole neighborhood. That’s a little kinky, but there are no scenes in which Chuck is forced to bite the head off a live rat (as in the unforgettable scene in Missing in Action 2), and Chuck’s masochism level is relatively low, although he does have to wear the same ugly blue shirt all the way through.
Commando is a lot more fun. Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually better in his Terminator role, because there his voice could sound dead and metallic and be suited to the character. He sounds more Teutonically incongruous than ever in Commando, but that’s all right. The forward motion of the film itself is the main thing, and it trips along pretty well. Its inferiority to The Terminator stems from the lack of an identifiable directorial personality; colorless Mark L. Lester handled the reins on Commando, and the gap between the flip, funny dialogue and the ordinary visualization suggests that he might not have had that much to do with what is good about the picture. (An example of the absence of overriding directorial presence: in some early, execrable lines of dialogue, Schwarzenegger trades quips with his daughter on the subject of Boy George; this seems to establish him as something of an old fogey. But late in the film, he exhorts his main foe – played by Vernon Wells, the fearsome Wez of The Road Warrior – to join in a fight to the death, and whispers, “Let’s party.” Since the character has not changed at all in the day that has passed since the first dialogue exchange, and this last phrase is quite irreconcilable with his earlier behavior – although it sounds great in the TV commercials for the movie – you get a feeling the director did not have a terribly strong idea or notion of what the character was about).
All of which, perhaps, is taking too seriously a film whose major concern is to rub its hero’s chest with grease and have him cream the bad guys – except that James Cameron was able to take the same concern and carry it off with a lot of style in The Terminator. The attitudinal holdovers from that film that crop up in Commando might very well be attributable to Schwarzenegger himself – which conjures up big-bicepped visions of a future auteur fashioning his own odd, sardonic, and by all means muscular mise en scene.
First published in The Informer, October 1985
This was a case of double-dipping, as I’d reviewed Invasion and Commando for The Herald, but I guess I needed something for the cover of The Informer, and Arnold was it. Lester spiraled into lower-budgeted titles, but has a robust career as a producer, so good for him. I forget that Arnold’s character in Commando was called John Matrix. Man, we had some dumb fuckin’ movies back then.