By Darren Franich and Keith Staskiewicz
January 06, 2011 at 12:00 PM EST

Commando isn’t just an ’80s action movie, it’s the ’80s action movie. Of course, in terms of quality, it’s nowhere near as good as The Terminator or Die Hard, but in terms of big guns, nacho-cheesy dialogue, nonsense plots about vaguely Contra-like South American politics, and explosions, explosions, explosions, it’s miles ahead of the pack. So for our second day (of three) honoring Arnold Schwarzenegger’s departure from Sacramento, we look back at what might be the purest distillation of Ah-nold-ness.

Darren Franich: To me, Commando is the ultimate Schwarzenegger movie. That doesn’t mean it’s the best, not by a long shot. But this is what you think about when you think “Vintage Arnold”: ludicrously greased-up arm muscles; wry one-liners tossed off after every kill; a dictator bad-guy from the fictional land of Val Verde; and a final-act blood orgy that makes The Wild Bunch look like Tootsie. And it all kicks off with an extended montage of Schwarzenegger out in the wilderness, carrying what looks like the trunk of a Sequoia tree, which he’ll probably carve into a rocket launcher.

Keith Staskiewicz: But like we pointed out yesterday, despite all this machine-gunning, drop-kicking testosterone, it’s also the first film that gives us a glimpse of the cuddlier, less genocidal, side of Arnold. The ultra-lumberjack scene is quickly followed by a credits sequence of this killer commando doing a bunch of lovable activities with his daughter — hugging, laughing, eating ice cream, feeding deer. It’s basically got everything but Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” playing in the background.

DF: It’s a delicate balancing act. Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix — a name that was either born of too many studio notes or too much cocaine — is established almost immediately to be the most incredible soldier on the face of the earth. But all he wants to do is hang out with his daughter in the wilderness and eat ice cream. He’s super gentle…until she gets kidnapped, and he promptly annihilates an entire army. Alyssa Milano’s role in the movie is so bizarre that I can’t help but assume that the relative-in-jeopardy was originally going to be a wife/girlfriend, but then the producers said to themselves, “What the second act of Commando really needs is a bazooka-firing, plane-flying love interest played by Tommy Chong’s daughter!”

KS: I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure no one makes mention of the mother, who one would assume would have been helpful in the child-rearing department if Matrix was away on business all the time, assassinating revolutionaries and deposing Haitian dictators. I’ve got a wild theory that the reason no one talks about Jenny’s mom is because there isn’t one, and that this is actually just a sequel to Junior — or, more accurately, Junior’s a prequel to this — and Jenny is the baby that Schwarzenegger eventually gave birth to.

DF: If only! Then we might have seen Danny De Vito play the bad guy, which would have at least been funny. Instead, Commando‘s Big Bad is Bennett, and he is literally the least threatening villain in the history of all morality. In the commentary for Conan the Barbarian, John Milius talks about scouring Europe in search of dudes huge enough to actually look like legitimate opponents for Schwarzenegger. The makers of Commando did exactly the opposite, casting only non-threatening people like Dan Hedaya, a James Spader lookalike, and Vernon Wells, who plays Bennett like your smarmy uncle who’s the last person at the family reunion to realize that he’s not a cool bachelor, he’s an impoverished alcoholic.

DF: And it’s not all Wells’ fault, either: the costume designer had the brilliant idea to dress him in chainmail and a sleeveless shirt that taunts Wells’ non-biceps.

KS: And yet, in the final climactic fight, they go head to head and are somehow evenly matched. Even when Bennett is thrown into an electrified fence-y thing, he just bounces back like nothing happened. It takes a pipe through the torso to stop him, which makes you wonder why he was wearing that chainmail in the first place if it can’t even stop a pipe.

DF: But how else are you going to get one of the best lines in all of cinema, “Let off some steam, Bennett?”

KS: I will say, the one thing that this movie wins above all others, except perhaps Batman and Robin, is in the sheer number of post-mortem Ah-nold quips. There’s that, “Please don’t wake my friend, he’s dead tired,” “I lied,” “Wrong.”  Amazing. He’s like an un-terrible David Caruso without the sunglasses. Sometimes I feel like my own death would be a disappointment unless he said something after I die, like “You’ve just gone to pieces” if I fall into a wood chipper, or “You’re all wet” if I drown, or “I’m sorry for your loss” if it’s natural causes.

DF: The one-liners are incredible, but the centerpiece of the movie is practically wordless: the final assault on Evil Villain Island. I kept track of all the onscreen deaths, and I can scientifically confirm that we see Arnold Schwarzenegger kill exactly 35,811 people during the attack, which is coincidentally the exact population of Dover, Delaware. That assault sequence is just such an unrelenting feast for the eyes, and the best thing about it is that Matrix — who, we have been told, is a “silent and smooth” commando — quickly sacrifices any sense of stealth. Here is his battle plan, as near as I can figure: 1) Blow up every building on the island. 2) Run out into the middle of a crowded field and fire guns in all directions. 3) Save daughter!

DF: It’s so ridiculous, so insane. All that’s missing is a horde of pink elephants trailing behind Schwarzenegger, carrying grenades and humming the soundtrack.

KS: That reminds me. Hey Darren, remember when I told you I’d give you the last word?

DF: Yeah, you did say that.

KS: I lied.

Tomorrow: Shhh! Did you hear that? It sounds like something’s following us. Aah, I’m sure it was nothing. Anyway, tomorrow, for the third and final day of our Schwarzenegger appreciation, we’ll be tackling Predator. Stick around.

More Arnold Schwarzenegger in EW’s PopWatch Rewind:

Conan the Barbarian: Arnoldfest ’11, Day 1

 

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