No list of the greatest action film stars of all-time would be complete without mentioning Arnold Schwarzenegger. Beyond his inherent charisma and physicality, Schwarzenegger has a surprising diversity to the types of action projects he has starred in. No, he’s not necessarily an actor where the word “depth” comes to mind, but Schwarzenegger hardly plays the same exact character over and over again. Whether he’s taking things seriously, poking fun at his own popularity, or working within the confines of a complex science fiction narrative, Schwarzenegger is able to generate excitement among his viewers. However, he has never been more brutal or effective than he was in the 1985 action classic Commando.
Commando is easily the most streamlined of Schwarzenegger’s films, as it’s the film that relies on him the most. The Terminator films work because of James Cameron’s complex mythology and commentary on technological oppression; Predator is John McTiernan’s grim reimagining of the Vietnam War through the eyes of helpless soldiers in unfriendly terrain; True Lies required Schwarzenegger to contend with the comedic charms of Jamie Lee Curtis; Conan the Barbarian was a more straightforward medieval epic. Commando doesn’t have any of those added complexities, as the plot is pretty much indistinguishable from dozens of other action thrillers that both preceded and followed it.
Yet, this is precisely why Commando works so well. If you placed any other star at the center, the film would collapse under its lack of nuance. However, the simplicity allowed Schwarzenegger to show all aspects of his personality and the inherent contradictions of his persona. He was both a merciless assassin and a loving, sensitive father. Even if he’s absolutely terrifying in his brutality, he’s still oddly charming in his sincerity. He seems only somewhat aware of how corny the material is, but it works nonetheless. Commando might not be the best film that Schwarzenegger starred in, but it’s the purest distillation of his skills.
Schwarzenegger Gives Genuine Sincerity
Schwarzenegger stars as U.S. Army Colonel John Matrix, a retired military veteran who now resides in the countryside (complete with animal friends) with his loving daughter, Jenny (Alyssa Milano). The opening sequence showing Matrix and Jenny bonding together and caring for the animals is sickeningly sweet, suggesting that this melodrama will ultimately make way for an outburst of elaborate violence. At this point in Schwarzenegger’s career, his audience knew what to expect from one of his films. It’s humorous to see him cast as a gentle giant when you know it won’t be too long before he starts blasting bad guys away.
There’s a sincerity to Schwarzenegger that is absent from most modern action stars. While characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Fast and the Furious films tend to insert self-aware jokes that reflect on the implausibility of the scenarios, Schwarzenegger plays even the silliest moments completely straight. This signifies a respect for the audience. Schwarzenegger doesn’t think that he’s “above” the material, and he’s not going to lampoon someone for enjoying it. Due to this, Jenny’s kidnapping at the hands of a team of mercenaries led by Matrix’s ex-teammate Captain Bennett (Vernon Wells) is an effective inciting incident that draws the viewers into the story.
A Creative and Ethical Hero
Commando keeps the exposition light, but it doesn’t take very long to understand the differences between Matrix and Bennett. We’re given only a brief explanation of their backstory, where it’s suggested that Bennett was removed from duty due to his excessive brutality. This makes sense based on everything we see from him early on, where he ruthlessly attacks Matrix’s home and pries his screaming daughter away. In a strange way, this almost allows the audience to justify how much they’re going to enjoy Schwarzenegger’s upcoming path of vengeance; he’s resisted every opportunity to get back into action, and he’s only committing violence towards “bad guys.” The lack of political specificity certainly makes Commando more digestible compared to its action film contemporaries like Rambo: First Blood Part II.
At 90 minutes, Commando is delicately paced to center around a few key action sequences, each of which are unique. The airport sequence where Matrix escapes from his captors and enlists the help of the flight attendant Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong) doesn’t just focus on gunplay; Matrix is outwitting his opponents, preying upon their lack of preparation, and showing that his training has prepared him for any environment. While his intentions are serious, there’s enough one-liners to make it a fun sequence. Schwarzenegger’s insistence that this is all for the sake of his daughter is what draws Cindy to him, adding a new dynamic to the story that leads into the eventual idealized “nuclear family.” Everything moves so fast that you don’t even bother to think about how ridiculous it is that a flight attendant would fall in love with a ruthless mercenary and then join him on a quest to take down a militia villa.
A Brutal Face-Off
The final set piece in which Matrix comes to his daughter’s rescue is absolutely electrifying. An extensive preparatory sequence where Matrix loads his weapons and prepares his arsenal only pumps up the audience’s adrenaline. While the battle with Bennett’s men isn’t prolonged, it gives Schwarzenegger a chance to show off all the tools at his disposal. It doesn’t really matter that he does this with relative ease, as it’s clear that the real challenge will be his confrontation with Bennett. Not only is Bennett his most imposing physical opponent, but he’s a complete moral opposite.
Compared to the wide open spaces of the island where Matrix defeats the mercenaries, his standoff with Bennett is kept in confined spaces and steam boils in the background. This gives the battle a slightly eerie quality, and the hand-to-hand combat feels much more personal and brutal than any elaborate gunplay. Matrix is just vulnerable enough that we’re worried about him, but he doesn’t defeat Bennett without delivering one of the greatest one-liners in action movie history: “let off some steam.”
His reunion with Jenny returns to the goofy, warm-hearted nature of the opening. In a cheesy sort of way, this experience only draws them closer together, as now Jenny has a maternal figure in Cindy that she knows is worthy of her father’s love. Schwarzenegger’s goofy smile is so charming that it’s easy to laugh at the collateral damage and dismiss it as irony, instead of considering the real world consequences. We also get the confirmation that in his heart, Matrix would never choose violence; he tells his former employer, Major General Franklin Kirby (James Olson), that there’s “not a chance” he’ll ever return to duty.
Commando is emotionally manipulative, excessively violent, rife with plot holes, and frankly one-note; in other words, it’s a film that only someone like Schwarzenegger could turn into a classic. There’s nothing quite like hearing the steel drums of James Horner’s empowering score as you watch Schwarzenegger charge into battle to save his innocent child from danger. It’s a showcase for how unique his talents truly are.