Sylvester Stallone claims this film was made in response to Rambo, during the Stallone/Schwarzenegger cinematic arms race that claimed more onscreen lives than the Cold War. An invincible ex-military man called John, a simple plot, a title ending in “o” and commanding officers that look remarkably similar, the influence is clear.
But while First Blood was a sincere character study, critiquing American foreign policy and veteran care, and looking at the impact of war on its participants, Commando is about seeing how much Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscles jiggle when he’s firing an AK-47.
Commando takes a slightly more optimistic view of veteran well-being as our hero John Matrix (Schwarzenegger) has retired to a huge pad in the mountains where he lives in peace with his daughter doing stereotypical father/daughter activities like eating ice cream, feeding a deer and saying “aargh”.
But this picture of domestic bliss all changes when some guys show up and kidnap the daughter and hold her ransom in an attempt to get Matrix to overthrow the leader of a small South American country on their behalf. Matrix has other ideas, escaping with just eleven hours to spare, to prove that if he can overthrow an entire country single-handedly, he can certainly find his daughter and kill everyone in his path.
The rest of the film is spent doing this 80s style. On the way he picks up an unwilling hostage-cum-sidekick (Rae Dawn Chong) before a killing spree which stays just the right side of genocide, before one of the best (and cheesiest) closing scenes in cinema history.
The film’s main antagonist is Matrix’s former work colleague Bennett (Vernon Wells), an Australian dominatrix with an inferiority complex, and his gang of rogues are gleefully dispensed of as Arnie goes commando on them. And it’s given a distinctive feel by its James Horner (Titanic, Aliens and Apollo 13) soundtrack which ends any association steel drums had with chilling out peacefully.
It’s a fine example of how to make a completely stripped back movie, with just enough going on to keep your audience distracted from how little sense it makes. While it certainly isn’t a great piece of art, it remains a comically fun Reagan fantasy. Overall there’s a view throughout this film that there’s nothing muscles can’t solve. It might sound crazy now, but it’s an ethos Arnold Schwarzenegger has built three careers on.