Commando

Commando is many things: it is an action movie from Arnold Schwarzenegger's heyday about a dad who murders about fifty dozen people en route to rescuing his kidnapped daughter. It is also basically a comedy, since most of it's fight scenes are knowingly ridiculous and they are punctuated with over the top one liners. (At one point Arnold kills a bad guy with a Freddy Mercury mustache by impaling him with a steaming pipe. As the guy is gasping for his last breath Arnold tells him to "let off some steam." It's that kind of movie.)

However, when I watch Commando now I just see it as a political movie. Now, I'm not saying that because it's lead actor dabbled in politics for a while; I'm quite capable of treating most of Arnold's movies as mere entertainment. No, I'm saying that Commando feels political because it is one of those 80's action movies whose plot feels very Reagan-esque. At around the time that the Gipper was promising "Morning in America" to a generation that was exhausted by all of the political gridlock of the 70s there was a series of movies where tough Americans were re-fighting old wars and rewriting the history so that we would win this time. Certainly, Commando is a political movie in this sense, because the final third of the movie takes place on an unidentified dictator-controlled island that is a short boat drive off America's coast, and thus all the scenes where our proud dad kills an entire army worth of non-white people with complete ease have a certain wishful thinking quality to them. Basically, Commando is what you would get if you told the CIA "write me a movie where the Bay of Pigs invasion goes off without a hitch."

Thus Commando exhibits a particularly odd type of irony, where it is both winking and straight faced at the same time. It stages it's final battle in a way that is obviously over the top: Arnold Schwarzenegger walks through a compound shooting at hundreds of armed soldiers without ever ducking, hiding or reloading, and every shot he fires appears to kill two or three enemy soldiers. The movie is more or less a video game where Arnold is playing in God mode: if he throws a grenade at a cluster of people not only do all of them get exploded but they have the good graces not to leave gruesome body parts lying around. Everything is so implausible that you have to laugh at it... But the film also has serious undertones, because Commando is legitimately indulging in the idea that a single American soldier would be undefeatable in a full on assault against an inferior army. This film is kidding about many things, but I think it wholeheartedly believes in American exceptionalism - even if it's main American is actually an Austrian.

Thus Commando is a huge guilty pleasure for me. Now, most people use the term "guilty pleasure" to describe something that is silly or shoddily made, but I'm fine with admitting that I enjoy inept movies. No, what I struggle with are enjoyable movies with unenjoyable political overtones, where my desire to be entertained is at war with my overall worldview, and Commando fits that bill to a T.

Again, I don't want to sell Commando short as a piece of popcorn entertainment. Its particular mixture of seriousness and parody is hard to beat. This film is as bloody as anything in the Arnold canon, and thus it can hang with all of the best action movies of it's time period. It is also as funny as the movies that tried to parody it - when Weird Al wanted to mock this sort of shoot-em-up in UHF, for example, he had a scene where Al-as-Rambo chews up a handful of bullets and then spits them at a crowd of enemy soldiers and they all immediately die - but honestly that is barely an exaggeration over what Arnold is doing here. As such, you have to laugh at what Commando is trying to sell you.

At the same time, I can't help but take this movie seriously for two reasons. The first is because it mixes earnest All-American wholesomeness with an unquenchable love of violence without seeing that those things are inherently contradictory. It would be fine for a movie to equate Arnold's love of his daughter with his ability to murder strangers if we all agreed that it was just an entertaining fiction - but people really believe this stuff. After years of hearing anti-gun control nutjobs argue that the answer to every mass shooting is more guns, not fewer, I have very little stomach for this sort of propaganda.

My other problem is that Commando actively remids me of all of the neocon hogwash we were sold in the run up to the second Iraq war. In 2003 a lot of neocon pundits were trying to argue that we were going to be the heroic liberators who would shock-and-awed-and-steamroll over everyone in our way without ever receiving any setbacks because, goddamnit, we are America and our purity is unimpeachable and our competence is unstoppable... But of course that didn't happen because the Iraq war didn't take place in a movie and real enemies don't die three or four at a time just because you lazily lob a grenade in their direction. Again, my stomach for this movie would be a lot greater if I knew that everyone just thought of this as a movie - but I think there are some people who see this as a legitimate foundation for our foreign policy. Which is super scary, because some of those people actually were in charge of executing our foreign policy.

For me the crux of the Commando question is this: can you watch it and see nothing but a movie? Because if you can, then you are gonna have a good time. But if you can't, well, then you're in for a real bummer, because all of its real world associations are unpleasant. There was a time when this was nothing but another Arnold movie in my mind, and at that time I had real affection for it. Now, however, I see it as evidence in a larger political argument, and thus I have to associate it with a lot of seriously awful real world events. But, you know, I probably shouldn't let those dark associations spoil my fun. After all, while it's better to just laugh, laughing at the pain works, too.

Winner: Draw

Commando on IMDB