The story of Mr. Ming and our cinematic Boy’s Night In
Two years ago, I met an adorable Pekinese by name of Mr. Ming. Short beige hair, floppy ears and a pushed in face, Ming wormed his way into my heart. One night, while doing some dog sitting for Jamie, Ming and I started a tradition. With his mommy away, we sat down on the couch, I with a beer and he with a cookie, and watched “man movies”. The playlist included 80’s classics like Die Hard, Robocop and Lethal Weapon. By the time Ming fell asleep on my chest, I fell in love with him.
A year later, I fell in love with his mommy and our tradition became secure. Every year or so, Ming and I grab some snacks and watch loud, obnoxious and deliciously fun action flicks. With some help from the good people at weareallcritics, I had some great choices for this year’s ear buster but due to lack of availability, I went back to a classic. Commando is pure 80’s excess, full of gun battles, explosions and Arnie’s biceps. It’s not high art but it’s a great piece of low brow escapism that still manages to give you enough to actually care.
At first glance, there’s nothing in the story we haven’t seen a thousand times before. Schwarzenegger plays John Matrix, an ex-Army operative who lives in the mountains with his daughter, Jenny (a very young Alyssa Milano). After some senseless bloodletting, the opening montage shows the two fishing, laughing and having uncomfortable ice cream fights. The opening does two things perfectly: lets us know this is going to be an ass kicking action flick and gives us just enough back-story so we care about the protagonists. It’s not deep by any stretch but there’s just enough to keep the ridiculous plot within our suspension of disbelief.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Schwarzenegger movie without something going wrong. According to Matrix’s old commander, the bullet pillows of the opening are all of his old army buddies and wouldn’t you guess it, the large Austrian bodybuilder is next. The muscle of the operation is Bennett, Matrix’s old right hand man. The blaggard has teamed up with a South American dictator who’s working his way to his hidden retreat. Why? To recruit him for a devious “overthrow the government” plot. If Matrix fails to comply, the newly kidnapped Jenny gets the ax. Again, the setup provides just enough reason for us to follow Schwarzenegger through the bloodbath. A dad will do anything to save his daughter. Simple enough to get out of the way but not too simple where we cease to care.
And what a hilarious bloodbath it is. Commando isn’t the goriest of action films, but what it lacks in cadmium red, it makes up for with great action pacing. Some of the action scenes run long, especially the final assault on the compound, but the cheese ball James Horner score and well directed rhythm keep things interesting. The film is also filled to the brim with groan inducing one liners. Anywhere else, I’d smash these lines down with my Critic Stick but for some reason, they elevate the fun in Commando.
But there’s more to the success of this film than bullets and bombs. Plenty of movies have tried the same trick with diminishing returns. Commando not only gets the big set pieces right, it nails the details. Jenny is written as more than a damsel in distress which lends some reality to her being an army nut’s daughter. The baddies all wear outlandish outfits, allowing the audience to easily identify the enemy and freeing us up to focus on the fun. Arnold’s reluctant sidekick arcs from ear splitting annoying to somewhat useful throughout the course of the picture. All of these little touches and tricks help elevate the movie from a special effects demo to a movie we can rally around and care about
In fact, there’s a moral to this story if you look carefully enough. Action is really tough to do properly. Any fourteen year old with some explosives can blow things up but it takes real craft and skill to wrap up an audience in it. Commando does just that. A skillfully and well made film, Commando dials up the adrenaline with over the top action rooted in solid, old fashioned filmmaking. The movie isn’t perfect, but if you’re looking to have a boy’s night in with a furry friend of your own, you can’t have much more fun than this.
Score – 85%