In Mark L. Lester’s 1985 action film Commando, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Colonel John Matrix kills eighty-one people in ninety minutes. Eighty-one bad guys, most of them thin-mustached South American mercs hired by a deposed dictator. Eighty-one bad guys, a few of them former U.S. special ops badasses. Eighty-one bad guys, killed by machete, M16A1 machine gun, circular saw blade, grenade, Desert Eagle pistol, claymore mine, knife, steam pipe, and splintered chair leg.
I miss those analogue action movies of the 80’s, the ones where some former Special Forces grunt is pulled back into service because his wife/daughter/former partner is raped/kidnapped/killed. I first saw Commando in 1987, my freshman year of high school. It was The Rocky Horror Picture Show for as-yet-unlabeled Gen X’ers raised on violent video games, the Cold War, and Malibu from American Gladiators.
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But Commando is more than an 80’s version of Charles Atlas with firearms, more than a period piece for hipsters to wax nostalgic. It was also Schwarzenegger’s first political ad.
Allusions to Ronald Reagan channeling the spirit of John Wayne were enough to convince most voters of the Gipper’s machismo in 1980; in Commando, Schwarzenegger left no doubt. Conversely, Sylvester Stallone’s 1985 Rambo: First Blood Part II—long considered an accompanying piece to Commando because in both films Arnold and Sly go shirtless and kill a lot of foreigners with a giant machine gun—could never be the launchpad for a Stallone political campaign. Forgotten Vietnam P.O.W.’s languishing in southeast Asian camps is a nightmare without political affiliation, and whispers of governmental conspiracy and abandonment leaves no one feeling good. John Rambo only served to publicize the nation’s Cold War emasculization, one man with 4% body fat doing what the mighty U.S. Army could not—Bring the Boys Home.
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In _Commando, _Arnold doesn’t remind us of any such failings. His towering presence is both reassuring and deifying. We’re introduced to Colonel John Matrix now working as a lumberjack, carrying felled trees on one shoulder.
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Matrix is portrayed as a man of the people, a blue-collar hero in Timberland shitkickers and a two-buck undershirt. The James Horner score is steel drum, pan flute, and sax. Close shot of an oiled Schwarzenegger bicep. Close shot of a sweaty, vein-strewn shoulder. In no way are those cheesecake shots geared toward women—I have yet to meet a woman who ever considered Arnold hot. Those cheesecake shots are for us, and they work.
And then, a tonal shift. Sax and steel drums give way to orchestral strings. Cut to John Matrix the loving father: Matrix feeding a deer with his twelve year-old daughter, Jenny (played by Alyssa Milano). We see Matrix and Jenny eating ice cream. We see Matrix and Jenny playing in the pool. The absence of a mom isn’t explained, but there’s no need. Matrix is the paragon of the compassionate conservative, and the old Republican party’s condemnation of single parents can knock on someone else’s door because Matrix and Jenny are doing just fine. Until, that is, a deposed South American dictator kidnaps Jenny and forces Matrix to assassinate a democratically-elected leader in exchange for her freedom.
There were no such domestic scenes with John Rambo. His was an alienated hero, a victim of Vietnam War PTSD. No wife, no children, no ice cream. Only his machine gun, his black bandanna, and the cold rain on his camo poncho. If Rambo _is now laughable, then _Commando _is prophetic. Rather than smirk at the clunky dialogue and clunkier acting, we marvel at John Matrix’s resilience. His quest to rescue his kidnapped daughter mirrors Schwarzenegger’s political rise. He’s laughed at by his tormentors, underestimated by his opponents, and forced into doing dirty work for his allies. Yet Matrix—like Schwarzenegger—follows his own code. Despite seeing his daughter tied to a chair with a knife held to her throat, Matrix remains defiant. He embarks on a mission of vengeance disguised as rescue, gunning for his kidnapped daughter while slaughtering anyone who dares set foot or toe or harsh word in his way. Matrix lops off limbs and axes testicles:
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He cracks necks:
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He impales Freddie Mercury look-alikes with metal tubes:
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And he lets his patented one-liners fly with the same unerring aim as shoulder-mounted missiles:
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This is political machismo at its most visceral, a bloodied campaign trail free from passive aggressive rhetoric and endless polling. What Would Rambo Do? We can only speculate but the ending of John Rambo’s first movie, _First Blood, paints its candidate as painfully soft. Rambo is just another unstable veteran, the action film genre’s answer to John McCain. John Rambo cries, and it’s not the tear-trickling-down-the-cheek crying. It’s hitching sobs and dangling snot layered over a semi-coherent story about Las Vegas, a magic marker, a Viet Cong village, and a booby-trapped shoeshine box:
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Stallone doesn’t make the same mistake twice. The _First Blood _sequel restores his credibility by way of cathartic wholesale slaughter of anyone and everyone with slanted eyes. Sparing, of course, a particularly hot Vietnamese woman. Played, of course, by a particularly hot Chinese actress. But it’s too late. Once an unstable veteran, always an unstable veteran. John Matrix knows this, and _Commando _ends the way all political ads should end: With the candidate holding a child while an ethnic-looking person stands in the background.
Roll credits? Not yet. Cue the theme song by Power Station as an Army general picks his way through piles of South American corpses. The general narrows his eyes against the ocean wind and asks Matrix if he’d ever consider coming back. You can hear the seduction in the general’s voice…promises of covert ops and more Freddie Mercury look-alikes to kill.
Not a chance, Matrix says. You can almost see him wink. Like all good politicians, he knows how to keep us in suspense.