He made better films, but Arnold Schwarzenegger never produced a more definitive expression of his cinematic style than “Commando.” Though “The Terminator” made Schwarzenegger a hard-to-spell household name, “Commando” was the movie that proved his star power. It’s the template for his entire career: brutal action, absurd deadpan humor. It’s the most Schwarzeneggerian Schwarzenegger movie.
Surprising naysayers who told him he would never be anything more than a cinematic punchline thanks to his freakish body and thick accent, Schwarzenegger worked steadily in Hollywood for almost a decade before he made “Commando” in 1985. But if his career was well-established, his onscreen persona was not. Schwarzenegger’s early roles were split evenly into two camps: the single-minded killing machine, be he a literal one from the future (“The Terminator”) or a figurative one from the past (“Conan the Barbarian”) and the charmingly jokey bodybuilder, be he loosely based on Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Stay Hungry”) or directly based on Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Pumping Iron”). Schwarzenegger had proven he could play the stone-cold killer, and he’d also proven he could carry films on charm and humor, but never both at the same time. “Commando” was the movie that synthesized those two parts into one enormously muscled whole, the archetype he would play for the next twenty years: the warrior jester.
The story of “Commando” is a fairly serious one on paper: a retired Special Forces soldier’s daughter is kidnapped by mercenaries who want to blackmail the soldier into assassinating a Latin American President. Sneaking away from his escort on the way to the assassination, the soldier has just 12 hours to find and rescue his daughter before the mercenaries discover his deception. A man fighting for the lives of himself and his daughter against dozens of ruthless, vicious men. That’s no joke — except to a guy like Schwarzenegger.
Granted, some of those lines — okay, all those lines — are ridiculous. It’s hard to envision an actual Special Forces commando with Col. John Matrix’s unique skill set: deadliest man alive, nurturing father, vaudeville-style one liner comedian. But if “Commando”‘s quips don’t make a lot of sense coming from Matrix, they make perfect sense coming from Schwarzenegger. With that insane physique and dead man’s stare, killing was so easy for this guy that he could actually crack jokes while he did it.
Though Schwarzenegger’s penchant for schlocky wordplay eventually started to make his movies look old-fashioned (see 1997’s “Batman & Robin”), the humor in “Commando” now feels almost cutting edge. Schwarzenegger is so much larger than life, he seems to stand outside of narrative, commenting on its absurdities even while trapped inside it. He’s almost a prototype for the ironically detached Internet blogger, maybe one reason why “Commando” continues to grow in cult esteem as the years roll by. Silly as the film is, “Mystery Science Theater 3000” could never do an episode on “Commando” — because “Commando” makes fun of itself far more effectively than anyone else ever could.
The dumb one-liners also serve as a statement of personal style. Sean Connery had the tuxedo and the shaken-not-stirred martinis. Steven McQueen had the turtleneck and the green Mustang. Clint Eastwood had his Magnum. Schwarzenegger had “Let off some steam, Bennett.” And just like that, he went from cinematic punchline into a deliverer of cinematic punchlines.
“Commando” is playing tonight Friday, June 15th at 7:30, and tomorrow, Saturday, June 16th at 7:00 at 92YTribeca. Tomorrow’s (sold out) screening will feature a Q&A with “Commando” director Mark L. Lester, moderated by yours truly.