When it comes to 80s action movies, a few things come to mind: a muscle-bound, superhuman hero; an insane, somewhat campy villain; big stunts; bigger explosions; body counts of small wars; and all this helpfully blunted by a strong supply of one liners. If you were to come up with a canon of ultimate 80s beefcake action movies (let’s put the Die Hards, Lethal Weapons and Predators on another shelf… a higher one), most of them would have these ingredients.
If you are looking for the purest distillation of the OTT ethos of the era, you will find yourself spending a lot of time with the collected works of Messers Stallone and Schwarzenegger – specifically those twin icons of 1985, Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and Commando. In terms of quality, I doubt whether anyone would rank either of these movies as the highpoints of either action star’s career – Stallone will always have Rocky and First Blood; Schwarzenegger will have The Terminator and Predator. However, if you are trying to come up with star vehicles which manage to meld the formula of the one-man army action movie with the personae of the Italian Stallion and the Austrian Oak, then their 1985 hits are the beginning and end of any conversation (Red Sonja doesn’t count). But which one is better?
If we are talking box office, Rambo II smokes Commando seven ways to Sunday. In terms of cultural impact, you could make the argument that Rambo II wins out because it directly influenced the look and style of Schwarzenegger’s film. According to the November 2012 issue of Empire magazine, director Mark L. Lester saw Rambo II and had the climax of Commando expanded to match the one-man-army excess of the Stallone epic. However, just because one film is acknowledged as originating a certain genre does not automatically make it the definitive example.
Let’s start with our heroes. On the one hand you have John Matrix (Commando). A less complex character you could probably never find. A living cartoon where Rambo is a fully realised character (at least in First Blood), Matrix is intended as a joke. He is so big and impervious, so wildly different from everyone else, that rather than trying to humanise the character, the filmmakers embrace his oddness and accentuate it to the most ridiculous extreme — that extends to everything from the way he is introduced (carrying a tree), to the way he interacts with his daughter, to the way he interacts with nature (you know what scene I’m talking about).
It even extends to things like gravity, and the characters he comes into contact with. Rather than drop Matrix into the middle of the real world, the filmmakers create a comic book universe in which he can drop from a plane and survive, crash a car into a power line and survive, jog awkwardly away from a mob of soldiers and survive… (you get the idea). This world is the perfect hyperbolic environment for a hyperbolic character like Matrix — with so much craziness threatening to destroy this place, it requires a character like Matrix to exist to save it.
In First Blood, John Rambo was a fully realised character and the film was based around examining the toll his experiences had had on him. Against the comic book backdrop of its sequel, this character is rendered ridiculous and completely out of place. The basis of Rambo’s character is consequence — how violent action destroyed a young man before he had a chance to live. The world of Rambo II operates in a completely different way — it is an outright fantasy in which one superhuman individual takes on an army of dehumanised villains and wipes them out in various spectacular, crowd-pleasing ways. In this context, Rambo’s pain rings hollow.
With an action movie, the script is generally treated like an excuse to string set pieces together. This lack of pretension could be an asset, as the filmmakers focused on making sure the viewer got exactly what they wanted — plenty of action, with just enough story to keep it all coherent. What has become a lost art today is the sense of narrative economy which defined the action films of the 80s and 90s. You have to give both of these movies credit for getting to the action as quickly as possible, and keeping the runtime to a neat 90-something minutes. In one case, this works for the film. In the other case, it completely undermines the intent of the filmmakers. We’ll get to which film is which shortly.
First, Commando, which offers a lesson in unpretentious narrative economy: Matrix’s boss turns up and warns him that the bad guys are coming. BOOM! Bad guys arrive. There is some kind of brain dead genius at work here, and it pervades the rest of the film. Like Taken, The Raid or John Wick, this movie establishes a simple goal (in this case, save ‘Chenny’) and never deviates from it. Even the screen-writing 101 of having a time limit works in the movie’s favour.
Rambo II opens with a similar sense of drive. Within the first 20 minutes, Rambo goes from prison to Thailand and then straight to Nam. Whereas this economy works for a live action cartoon like Commando, this has detrimental consequences for Rambo II. While it wants to be a popcorn flick, Stallone wants to maintain the same kind of character depth and nuance present in its prequel. This approach does not come off — particularly the way in which the movie clearly tries to make the viewer care about Rambo’s ally/potential love interest Co Bao (Julia Nickson). The problem is that the script spends so little time developing her relationship with Rambo that when she dies Rambo’s ‘quest’ for vengeance appears incredibly perfunctory, and deprives his final speech of its intended pathos.
It is indicative how little her character means that she is introduced 19 minutes in and dies just after the hour mark — the movie then ends with a 30 minute long rampage that goes on way too long. Co should have been killed by Pudovsky — Rambo kills Colonel Tay at 1 hour, 15 minutes into the runtime, but the movie still has over 10 more minutes of aerial hijinks with the Russians to get through. This leads me to my next point…
Commando is a cartoon and knows it. Rambo II wants to be a cartoon, except when it wants to be a serious look at the treatment of Vietnam veterans. It is completely schizophrenic.
Rambo II seems to feel guilty that it is an action movie – every moment of awesomeness is mitigated by Stallone’s attempts at striving for a depth which the film cannot sustain. Action set pieces are bracketed by extended debates between Trainman and Murdock, or angst-filled emotional beats from Rambo. The movie never settles on what the tone should be. It wants to be realistic (Rambo’s explanation of the word expendable) and a superhero movie (the 30 minutes of mayhem at the end). Even after Co dies, it never feels like Rambo is in serious danger, which reduces the climax to a series of set pieces — they are fun in the moment, but there is no sense of escalation or mounting excitement. This is especially true of the showdown with Co’s killer. There is no real sense of tension, as there is never chance that Colonel Tay will kill Rambo. He just runs away while Rambo readies bis bow, stops and gets blown up.
That old saying that you cannot have a great action movie without great villains rings very true for Rambo II. While Steven Berkoff provides a nice slice of his special brand of ham, he does not get a lot to do, and his subordinates do not bring anything else to the table. Colonel Tay is just a racist caricature — alternately cowardly and sadistic, he represents the worst Yellow peril fantasies of the 80s. Even as a stooge, he is relegated behind Pudovsky’s right-hand man Yushin, a monosyllabic Russian strong man. None of them have real personality, and do not have anything particularly memorable to do. This movie even has veteran heavies Charles Napier and Martin Kove, yet grounds them away from the action — Napier sneers and sweats profusely; Kove just squints and gets bowled out of the way at the end. It is not saying much that even Enriques (Matrix’s giant minder who ends up dead tired) is more memorable than the villains in Rambo II.
While Rambo II has Steven Berkoff with a cartoonish accent, Commando has Vernon Wells in a chain mail vest. It’s no contest. In both cases, both actors are coasting on the vapour of previous roles (Octopussy’s General Orlov in Berkoff’s case; Road Warrior’s Wes in Wells’s), but the key difference is that Wells gets far more to do. While he is basically Freddie Mercury with a gun (I like to imagine that Flash is constantly playing on loop in his head), he at least gets a few moments of advantage over Matrix.
It helps that he is also backed up by some great henchmen. David Patrick Kelly’s Sully is a sadistic little creep who seems to have walked in from a different movie, while Bill Duke adds an icy relish to his ex-Green Beret Cooke. Dan Hedaya is a little rote as Bennett’s bankroller, but he is the exception of an otherwise strong lineup. All of these rogues get a good helping of great meat head one liners and cool action beats (Cooke’s hilarious assassination at the car dealership; Bennett’s orgasmic relish in the final battle with Matrix) which elevate Commando’s rogues gallery over the moving targets which constitute Rambo’s villains.
The female lead
To be honest, it’s more a case of Julie Nickson losing it, rather than anything special that Milano does. Partly this is the script — Co Bao is a cardboard cut-out. When she is not talking like an anime character (“No, I fight!”), she turns into an audience surrogate (“You made it, Rambo!”). She never emerges from Stallone’s shadow — she feels like a half-fleshed out idea, rather than a character that can bond with Rambo. Ultimately, she is just a plot device — she gets fridged to provoke Rambo into going psycho. Like her killer, she is just a stereotype — in this case, the native girl who loves the white man but dies so that he can grow as a character.
When it comes to visual style, the balance swings strongly toward Rambo II. Rambo II boasts several great moments: the fantastic long shot of the soldiers rushing through the rice paddy as Stallone watches the helicopter fly away; the lightning flash that reveals a guard standing in front of Co Bao as she sneaks through the prison camp to rescue Rambo; the great focus pull from the Russian commando to Rambo’s eyes opening in the mud behind him. Matthew Leonetti is no slouch, but Rambo II has the great benefit of having been lensed by Jack Cardiff, the master cinematographer famous for his collaborations with Powell and Pressburger. He gives Rambo II a lush look that really sells the mayhem and his leading man’s machined body.
Commando looks more like a comic book, and the lighting resembles a TV show. However, the one area where Commando pulls ahead of Rambo II away is the editing. Commando seems to recognise how to arrange and cut shots of action in a way that is dynamic and keeps up the pace without losing a sense of geography. The action in Rambo II is weirdly lethargic in parts — there are a few moments where it feels like the editing could be tighter. There feels like a few too many cutaways and alternates of the same action — particularly to show off the pyrotechnics during the final assault on the prison camp. This pads out the action (particularly the helicopter chase, which is just two vehicles racing each other). While less interesting than Cardiff’s work, the comic book, boiler plate style of Commando is more impactful.
Anyone who argues that James Horner’s theme for Commando is better than Jerry Goldsmith’s majestic main title is surely in the minority here. While Goldsmith liberally re-uses the motifs from his score for First Blood, it is still great and gets the blood pumping in a way that Horner’s extremely dated synths do not. Horner’s score is hilariously one note, but one note for longer than 3 minutes gets dull real fast. While there are a few synth flourishes, Goldsmith’s score benefits from traditional orchestration and lends Rambo II a pathos it would otherwise lack.
And since these are both 80s action movies, we have to bring up that old staple, the end credits song. It would not be an 80s action movie without a cheesy overblown rock tune, and its does not getting cheesier or more 80s than the Power Station. Rather than taking the James Bond approach of trying to wedge the title into the chorus, they go for the film’s tagline, resulting in one of the greatest action anthems of all time. The only thing that could make it better was if Robert Palmer had stuck around to provide the vocals. Rambo II is stuck with Frank Stallone moping about peace and humanity. This is after his brother has spent the last 95 minutes wiping out a bajillion nameless soldiers. Once again, the makers of Commando know exactly what kind of movie they are making, and show absolutely no shame in celebrating the bloodlust of its hero.
Now that I have drawn first blood, you can make me pay in the comments.
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