How I Learned to Love the Absurd: A Love Letter to Mark L. Lester’s ‘Commando’

Welcome to Yippee-Ki-YAY, a regular column that celebrates action cinema in all its glory. This edition looks at Commando, an Arnold Schwarzenegger classic that is truly bonkers.

I grew up filling the seats of my local theatres from a very early age. From E.T. the Extraterrestial to Jaws: The Revenge, I was always front row, ready to be amazed. I was quiet, so though I was much too young to see half of the movies my parents took me to, I welcomed those experiences. I grew up adoring cinema, from Disney films to the craziest of horror entries. I was there and willing to give a shot to whichever film we went to that week.

My parents went through a vicious divorce when I was five. During that time period, we stopped going to movies regularly. But when things settled on that front, my father was left to raise two kids alone and we passed a LOT of time hitting the multiplex and our local video stores. Those aisles, dressed up in decorations corresponding with their respective genres, were my everything. I learned the timing of the horror section’s mechanical coffin, the rotation of specific trailers on the video store’s TVs, and the name of every employee working there. To say that the video stores of my youth played a massive part in who I am as an adult would be an understatement. And to say that they informed my love for all things action would be even more of an under exaggeration.

Due to my parents being on the outs with each other, I missed seeing Mark L. Lester’s action classic, Commando, during its theatrical run. By the time my mom hit the bricks and took an extended two-year break from being a parent, the hype for the Schwarzenegger vehicle was strong. But my father promised to rent it the day it was released to home video. When that day arrived, my father, being the kind of prankster that would annoy the living hell out of me, decided to pull the same bit on me that he did with so many other films. Knowing that like the previous attempts, I would fall for it, hook, line and sinker. He took me and my older brother to the video store and asked us to look at the NES games for rent, while he went to the clerk and asked for Commando.

Soon after, he returned to us and broke the news: every copy had been rented. The moment I had been waiting for, for what seemed like forever to an almost six-year-old, was robbed by whichever bastards assumed they were more important than I was. My quest for Schwarzenegger gold was stolen. We went home with whatever consolation movie my father rented and I immediately went to bed. Ten minutes later, my father told me that I had to watch the movie. So, protesting as hardcore as I could, I made my way to the living room, where my brother sat, laughing. They had fooled me. Not only did my father score a copy of Commando, but I was about to watch it. I don’t remember much about being a kid, but I remember watching that film like I remember the moment my first child was born. Not only did it live up to my expectations as a starry-eyed five-year-old action fanatic, it quickly became a film that I latched onto with great fervour.

What makes Commando so great to me is how it revels in its absurdity. In most action films of the 1980s, viewers are asked to suspend disbelief and get on board with one man army-like stories. Whether it be the Stallone-led Rambo films or quite literally ANY Schwarzenegger movie of the time, we always knew the hero would defeat hundreds of men. As long as they had a machine gun, rocket launcher and those camo-adorned muscles.

With Commando, the absurdity is front and centre, right out of the gate. We’re given a sequence involving a group of former special forces green berets being dispatched by a group of baddies through various setups. One man gets machine-gunned down by two guys posing as trash men. One man gets blown up in a boat (or so we think). The funny part of all of this is how visibly out in the open the killings are. For men who specialize in taking out terrorists and being covert, stealing cars from dealerships by driving through windows or shooting a man with two uzis seems counter-intuitive to being on the down-low. That’s part of the film’s charm. The fact that this shit is so bonkers that you have to love it and it’s easy to do just that.

We then meet John Matrix (Schwarzenegger), an insanely ripped dude, just doing what he does best: carrying an entire fucking tree on his shoulder. Retired from the special forces and living his best life with his young daughter (Alyssa Milano), Matrix has left the life of a merc behind and is now content to showing his daughter martial arts and shoving ice cream cones in each others’ faces. Gone are the days of chopping dudes’ arms off (for at least an hour or so), replaced with the quiet life that is soon interrupted by helicopters landing right on Matrix’s property.

Soon, Matrix’s commander tells him the men murdered were his squad members and that he is most likely the next target, something that is proven not even five minutes later. A group of bad guys show up in Broncos and cars, quite the contrast to the helicopter. If the bad guys could easily drive up the hill to visit Matrix, why couldn’t his commander just take a cab and save on the dramatics? Easy answer: this is Commando.

Faster than you can say “kidnap Matrix’s daughter and reveal that the boat explosion was fake and that his former right-hand man is now an arch nemesis,” John is faced with an ultimatum: assassinate a rival leader or his daughter gets it. John’s former friend and now nemesis, Bennett (an overacting Vernon Wells – and I mean that as a compliment) puts John on a plane with a bad guy to watch over him and we hit the ground running.

From that moment on, Matrix has half a day to escape, find his daughter and get out alive. He wastes no time on snapping the overseeing bad guy’s neck and kidnapping a woman named Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong). He needs her car and her help while he goes after each henchman on his way to the big bad’s compound. We’re given some of the most insane sequences around and it speaks on how wild the movie really is. Matrix drives David Patrick Kelley off the road and, while holding him upside down off a cliff, asks him: “Sully, do you remember when I said I’d kill you last? I lied.” Before dropping him off the cliff. When asked where Sully is by Cindy (now an ally), Matrix responds with “I let him go.” It just gets better and better.

Soon after, Schwarzenegger gets into a fistfight with a green beret, played by Bill Duke, in a hotel room, sending him into another room, where a man and woman are having sex. Finding out that the compound his daughter is being kept at is on a villa in which you can’t travel to without a plane, they’re forced to do just that. Naturally, Cindy knows how to fly a plane and, low and behind, they steal a plane. Needing enough weapons to start a war, the duo loots an army surplus store and steals enough guns to get wild. When Matrix is arrested while looting the place, Cindy rescues him by shooting the police van he’s in with a rocket launcher, something that doesn’t harm Matrix whatsoever. Again, this is Commando. Fifteen minutes prior to that, Matrix swung across a mall with a balloon and threw a payphone at the police. So we can believe that a rocket launcher will only knock a tire loose, okay?

The film’s final quarter is nothing short of spectacular, with Matrix giving viewers an extended montage sequence, complete with placing stabbing knives and guns onto his belt. He also puts tons of camouflage all over his face and muscles. This is the ’80’s, it’s going down. Matrix wastes no time shooting hundreds of men, blowing some of them up. Stuck in a tool shed with dozens of men surrounding him? Matrix solves that problem by throwing a saw blade at a man, scalping him, chopping arms off with a machete and throwing grenades. Think that’s wild? When Matrix catches up to Bennett, the two have one of the coolest showdowns ever committed to film. There’s a lot of machismo in their fight, combined with the obvious adoration that Bennett has for Matrix. The dude just loves the hell out of Matrix so much, that he keeps talking about shooting him in the balls. It’s wild.

Just when we the fight winds down (a brawl which started out as two tough guys saying they don’t need guns to fight because it’s knife time), Bennett decides he needs an uzi and is about to shoot Matrix. But the muscle man we all know and love does what any man about to be shot would do: rips a pipe off the wall and throws it into Bennett. As steam comes out of the pipe, Schwarzenegger says one of my favourite lines of all time: “Let off some steam, Bennett!” Oh boy.

If there is ever a film that encapsulates 1980’s action to me, it’s Commando. Don’t get me wrong, I love the hell out of Die Hard and so many other films. But as a six-year-old wanting to see stuff get blown up and gravity and realism being thrown out the window, Commando hit that need like the first time you score top-shelf weed. It blew my mind and made me an instant fan. The one-liners, the ridiculousness of it all, there’s just so much to love with a film that really SHOULDN’T work. These days, every absurd moment would be ripped apart by Film Twitter, but there’s pure magic on the screen with this gem. It’s an example of the extravagant action films we grew up loving and still love.

Films like Commando simply do not get made these days. There’s a reverence for the absurd that is front and centre. The moment I witnessed Schwarzenegger breaking a man’s neck while sitting down in a plane and then telling the stewardess not to bother his friend because he was “dead tired,” I remember laughing so hard, I choked on my soda. There’s a playful spirit to what Lester crafted with the film and Schwarzenegger eats up every single scene he’s in. Whether it’s carrying a tree, jumping out of a plane into the water, or swinging across a mall, there’s a sincere affinity for the audience that loved these films and it shows. I don’t remember much about being a kid and as a 40-year-old now, I don’t remember what I ate last week. But you can bet your ass I remember the first time I watched Commando…and I will never forget

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