Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Commando
It really is the tone that makes a movie cheesy. And sometimes, that tone is the direct intent of the filmmakers. As we’ve touched on a handful of times previously, this intentional cheesiness we sometimes call camp is the hardest tone to pull off successfully. Most directors never want their films to be viewed this way and marketing departments at the major studios are utterly baffled by it. They cannot sell these films as “legitimate” examples of their easily-defined genres and the cannot sell them as comedies. So what are they?
Someday, I might come back to this notion and discuss one of the greatest camp successes of all time, Big Trouble in Little China.
Somehow, though, this is the week to talk about Commando.
Someway, the plot concerns retired Special Forces Colonel John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger). When members of his squad start turning up dead, his old superior arrives at his mountain retreat to warn him. Unfortunately, this leads Bennett (Vernon Wells), a disgraced ex-member of the squad, straight to Matrix. After an extended fight around the cabin, Matrix’s daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano) is kidnapped by Bennett’s goons and Matrix is given one chance to save her. He must commit a political assassination on behalf of General Arius (Dan Hedaya), a military dictator Matrix’s squad deposed some years earlier. Matrix agrees to the terms, so he and one of Arius’s subordinates head to LAX for an 11 hour flight to the fictional country of Val Verde.
Matrix manages to kill his handler before the plane takes off and makes his way back to the city to track down another member of Bennett and Arius’s organization, a weasely little man named Sully (David Patrick Kelly). Along the way, Matrix obtains the assistance of a flight attendant named Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong) and when he finally gets all the information he needs out of Sully, he let’s him go.
What, you thought I’d ignore all the deadpan one-liners?
The stage is set for Matrix to revenge himself about Bennett and Arius while also rescuing Jenny. By this point, Cindy is all in and the pair make their way into explosive action set piece after explosive action set piece in a film which could only come from the mind of former blockbuster juggernaut Steven E. de Souza, who makes his first appearance on Your Weekend Cheesy Movie with this film.
But if you think the writing is part of the charm … well, it certainly is. Originally written by current Marvel TV boss Jeph Loeb — no really! — Commando began its life as the story of an Israeli soldier who denounces violence. De Souza, as Wikipedia dryly puts it “rewrote the script, tailoring it to Schwarzenegger.” Those seven words, which you can imagine Schwarzenegger intoning, tell you the truth of Commando‘s cheesy qualities. No stranger to action pictures, de Souza re-crafted the film with every overcharged action scene he could think of at the time. He also filled it with something which would become a staple of the star’s work: the one-liners. Classics like “Remember when I said I kill you last? I lied.” and “Let off some steam, Bennett.” definitely reflect Schwarzenegger’s persona after The Terminator‘s “I’ll be back” entered the public consciousness.
The script’s steady stream of one liners and absurd action sequences gave director Mark L. Lester all the ammunition required to realize the film with more of a heightened, almost comedic sense than it might otherwise have. Loeb’s original draft was certainly meant to be more in the vein of First Blood. Lester’s film can be read as a parody of Rambo: First Blood Part II.
At the same time, nothing in the film is any more absurd than scenes in The Terminator or any of Schwarzenegger’s subsequent action films. In fact, Commando sort of defines his ultimate screen persona while becoming the very first parody of films he would not make for another four or five years.
Which, looking back it, is a staggering achievement. With only the Conan pictures, The Terminator, and Red Sonja preceding it as star vehicles, Commando manages to predict Schwarzenegger’s filmography — and the media’s reaction to it — while he was still a relatively green action movie star. Also, it is done with such freakish accuracy that you would think it was made later in his career.
And that brings us back to the tone. Commando is undeniably funny. But is it intentional? I’m inclined to believe so. As stated above, I’m convinced Lester took the de Souza draft — which is filled with the sort of dialogue and action beats he would put into scripts for Die Hard and eventual Cheesy Movie subject Hudson Hawk — and gave it a campy edge directors like John McTiernan (Die Hard), Renny Harlin (Die Hard II), and Russell Mulcahy (Ricochet) would never dream of employing. The action scenes, while well-made, have a tongue-in-cheek quality to them which underlines the absurdity of the film’s plot. At the same time, 20th Century Fox was able to take the film and market it as a completely straight action picture; almost as though their marketing department failed to notice the cheese factor baked into it. The film was a hit upon release, a rarity for the sort of movies I talk about here, and helped make Schwarzenegger a box office draw.
Other performances, like Hedaya’s Arius and Wells’s Bennett, suggest another level of intention as they come across as cartoon villains. Nonetheless, they support the film’s cartoonish hyper-reality even as their work exists in contrast to Schwarzenegger’s deadpan delivery.
It all makes Commando one of the most watchable — and readily re-watchable — films in the Schwarzenegger cannon. It both builds his persona while deconstructing it for the insanely macho and cartoonish thing it can be. Its plot is less credible than an episode of G.I. Joe, but it is lovable for its dedication to its silliness. At the same time, it knowingly winks at the fact that giving Rae Dawn Chong a rocket launch is inherently silly. The intersection of intent and cheese makes it a rare gem.
Commando is available for rent on Amazon. It is also available as sub-$10 Blu-ray release.