Plato’s theory of forms is, briefly, the idea that floating in the ether are the ideal forms of an object. If you think about a table, somewhere in the patterns of the universe is the idea of “tableness.” The ideal table. The perfect table. There are millions of ways of making a table, but the essence of table is within the cosmos. I’m diluting the idea considerably, but you get the idea.
If Plato could conceive of an action film, it would be Commando.
My quarter-life crisis involved a revisiting of classic action films. Within only a few months, I bought copies of Rambo, Red Dawn, Roadhouse, Wanted, and several others. Commando tops them all, and easily. And it’s no wonder: Joel Silver, who is responsible for every action film ever made in recorded history, produced Commando. Matthew F Leonetti, Commando’s director of photography, also shot Dawn of the Dead, Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Insurrection, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Weird Science, and the criminally underrated Leap of Faith. Mark Goldblatt, the editor, is a great friend to geekdome. He’s worked on Terminator and T2, Predator 2, Super Mario Brothers, True Lies, Starship Troopers, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, among many others. And Mark Lester, the director, also headed up Showdown in Little Tokyo and Firestarter (and Armed and Dangerous, but nobody’s perfect).
The plot is simple (and awesome): when the daughter of John Matrix, a retired black ops commando (with the best/worst action hero name ever) is kidnapped by a cadre of ex-special ops soldiers turned terrorists, he’s got two choices: get a dictator back into power or save his daughter, played by a young Alyssa Milano. Guess which one he chooses? Yeah, he chooses to shoot every gun ever made and blow up a bunch of stuff to save his daughter. I wasn’t kidding when I said it’s the expression of the platonic notion of the action film. In short, it’s Arnold doing what Arnold does best.
It gets better (somehow). John Matrix is pretty much just Wolverine, sans claws. He can smell his enemies, hunt like a ninja, and heals from his wounds by the next scene. Pick your flavor of combat: guns, knives, explosives, martial arts? He’s got it covered. Granted, one fight is against a bunch of mall cops, but hey, there’s at least a dozen of them. That’s got to count for something. Besides, this is 1985. It’s Ahnuld’s golden age: post Conan, post Terminator. We even get an “I’ll be back.” What’s not to love? If you want to try a thought experiment, watch Commando and wonder if John Matrix could take on a T-800. You can even handicap Matrix 2 rockets out of his M202A1 FLASH rocket launcher*. For my money, give me John Matrix over John Conner or even John Rambo.
Bennett, the big bad of the film and winner of the 1985 Freddie Mercury lookalike contest (medieval category), works hard to create a special kind of insanity not seen again until Heath Ledger’s Joker a quarter century later. And this is important, considering that his boss is played by the ex-husband of Carla from Cheers. It’s pretty tough to separate the two characters. Bennett and Arius/Nick Tortelli kidnap Alyssa Milano, who hasn’t quite gotten her witch spellcraft down at this point.
After a car chase in the mountains involving the bad guys in a cadillac and Ahnuld chasing them in a truck without a working engine, Ahnuld escapes through the wheelwell of a Boing, tears a passenger seat out of a car, and throws a phone booth at a bunch of cops. I swear. And that’s not even at the halfway mark. There’s martial arts fights, claymore mine explosions, and a circular saw blade used as a frisbee. Automatic weapons are startlingly accurate. You want a gear-up montage? Done. Gratuitous but momentary nudity necessary to be a solid 80s action film? No problem–it happens during a karate fight. Super ethnic stereotypes? It’s the 80s. That’s the only kind they had.
The legacy of the film is equally impressive. What was to be Commando 2 eventually became Die Hard, Plato’s other perfect action/Christmas film. Jeph Loeb, one of the writers of the film, also wrote Teen Wolf and some of the best comic books ever produced. And Ahnuld made some movies you might have heard of. There’s even a brief appearance of Bill Paxton. But more than that, Commando’s plot is linear to and unheard of degree. It’s causality and nothing but. There’s no real B-story involving a love interest or a secondary plotline and it still works; other films would follow suit. Jack Reacher or Shooter or Taken all touch on the existence of life outside their primary story but never really focus on it–or if they do, it’s in service of the main storyline.
Commando isn’t a film that’s going to renew your faith in humanity or keep you spellbound with the poignancy of human drama and the plight of modernity. It’s mostly explosions and gunfights. Commando practically defines the modern action genre as a whole, not just in what elements are required but in the kind of spectacle to be created. It’s not a film meant to enlighten, but it is a really perfect action film. And I find real value in that. There’s comfort in knowing what you’ll get out of a film: we know Ahnuld is going to save the day, Who’s The Boss? won’t be looking for a new cast member, and terrorists will be blown sky high. Sometimes, we need that comfort. We need to know that the hero emerges from his adventure unscathed and that evil has most certainly lost. Commando, all these years later, provides that comfort.
*Yes, I looked it up. If you need even more proof of the magnitude of this film, printing out the Internet Movie Firearms Database article for Commando takes 82 pages.