BLU-RAY DISC REVIEW: COMMANDO (1985)

The moment I first took my Blu-ray copy of “Commando” for a spin, the sharp stink of testosterone and ’80s machismo filled my home theatre. I have to admit to spending many a school evening watching shoddy VHS copies of Schwarzenegger flicks like “Commando,” “Predator,” and “The Terminator“. Even then, I knew “Commando” wasn’t subject to the same rules as other films. I didn’t care about its shallow plot, its clichéd cardboard characters, or it’s laughably indulgent violence. No sir, all I cared about was having a good time watching Arnold Schwarzenegger tear through a horde of baddies. I remember chuckling my way through the flick and enjoying it as I always had. It gets a run in rotation every few years, and as part of these pilot episodes of “Reel Chat,” I found myself genuinely excited to sit down and take in the film’s glorious kitsch one more time.

Commando” tells the tale of a retired special forces colonel named John Matrix (Schwarzenegger) who lives a reclusive life in the mountains of California with his eleven year-old daughter, Jenny (a young Alyssa Milano). Just as the memories of his soldiering days are finally beginning to fade, his Commanding Officer arrives to inform him that several men from his former unit are being murdered, one by one. Before John can wrap his head around the news, his daughter is kidnapped by an ex-compatriot named Bennett (Vernon Wells). As it turns out, Bennett now works for an exiled dictator (Dan Hedaya) who wants his political replacement to be assassinated. Agreeing to kill anyone to recover his daughter, John boards a plane set for Val Verde (a fictional Latin American country), but in true Schwarzenegger fashion, John escapes the plane, leaving himself eleven hours to rescue Jenny before the plane lands and Bennett realises the colonel is missing.

There’s no doubt that the 1980s was the decade of “peace through superior firepower,” as the United States defeated the Soviet Union in good measure to superiority in the arms race. “Commando” features big, bulky rocket launchers, an extra large in appearance Kalashnikov style rifle, and a sizable shotgun, just to name a few. It’s also completely over-the-top and dumb, and I call it that with all the respect and admiration I can muster. The movie strikes the perfect balance of over the top action, clever dialogue that includes the best group of one-liners ever heard in a single film, and just enough story and acting to make it work. All of it is brought to us with tongue planted firmly in cheek. It’s just serious enough for us to care about the story, and just vacuous and loud enough for us to keep a smile on our faces for ninety minutes. Without a doubt, this is it–the movie that defines the 1980’s, and as a fan of the decade, the genre, and it’s star, “Commando” is (and will always be) one of my all-time favourite guilty pleasures.

As much as I like this movie, I’m the first to admit that it’s one of the silliest big-budget movies I’ve ever seen, but that is what makes it so great. It’s mood is most serious, but the filmmakers obviously knew that they weren’t making an Oscar-caliber film, and they played up the comedic bits and one-liners, and definitely created a movie tailor-made for action fans. The plot is incredibly simple, so much so that it really doesn’t matter. Fans don’t watch “Commando” for plot intricacies or character development. Serious Arnold fans watch this movie to see him shooting, slicing, stabbing, kicking, and punching his way to his daughter, spouting off some of the funniest one-liners I’ve ever heard, and waiting for some of the creepiest and most sadistic villains ever, namely Bennett, to face off with Matrix. Still, the movie makes sure nobody is left behind, and spells out the uncomplicated plot as plainly as possible. For example, the montage over the credits makes it very obvious that Matrix and his daughter love one another an awful lot, as if they loved each other any less he wouldn’t be as gung-ho about saving her. Nevertheless, the movie never gets bogged down in too much nonsensical, worthless plot development, just moving from one action scene and one-liner to another, and for my money, “Commando” is perhaps the best ninety minutes any red-blooded action fan could hope to spend in front of their television sets. (My Movie Rating: 3.5/5)

 

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THE IMAGE QUALITY

The original source material hasn’t aged gracefully. While this 2008 Blu-ray edition features a decent 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer that outclasses every standard DVD on the market, it still has a difficult time living up to the standards set by the best catalog titles available in high-def.

First and foremost, delineation is pretty terrible. Shadows tend to absorb every detail or reveal so much that the image looks artificially brightened. In fact, black levels are never entirely resolved and whites rarely pop — the image looks a bit faded compared to other Blu-ray releases, and it failed to impress me at any point. Contrast mediocrity aside, softness also consistently creeps into the picture. I wouldn’t mind it if it was limited to the occasional long shot, but it seemed to be a more pervasive problem. On the flip-side, there were a handful of shots in which grain seemed to have a personal vendetta against the integrity of the film. While it certainly should be attributed to the original print, the high definition presentation sharpens the grain and makes it more of a distraction than it is on the standard DVD. Last but not least, Fox didn’t bother to pull previous applications of edge enhancement out of the experience. The Edge Enhancement isn’t the worst I’ve seen, but fans with large screens will still frown from time to time when it makes itself known.

Thankfully, the upgrade to high-def isn’t a complete failure. A bold palette makes the film’s countless blasts and explosions look fantastic. Colour saturation even earns a welcome boost since flesh-tones don’t suffer from the pink and orange tints that plagued the film’s previous home video releases. Even so, detail receives the most notable improvement – skin, hair, and clothing textures all look wonderful when the photography isn’t hindered by softness. Best of all, the transfer is fairly clean – while there were speckles and print scratches here and there, I didn’t detect any troublesome artifacting or noise. All in all, this Blu-ray release looks much better than its standard definition counterparts, but it never really amounts to more than an average high-def presentation. As a counterpoint, I do have to keep reminding myself that this is probably the best this film is going to look for quite some time. (Video Rating: 3/5)

 

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THE AUDIO QUALITY

I’m starting to run out of way to say “average”… so bear with me. “Commando” features a middle-of-the-road DTS HD Master Lossless Audio 5.1 surround track that seems incapable of resurrecting its long-deceased source. Technically, this 5.1 remix only suffers from deficiencies found in the original soundtrack. The soundstage is front-heavy, the dialogue is hampered by prioritization issues, and the rear surrounds are surprisingly passive, even in the midst of action scenes. Making matters worse, air hiss, sound pops, and unnatural effects create a disappointing mess. Dynamics and LFE support are mildly impressive, but ultimately fail to engage the listener.

Considering the astounding efforts other studios have invested into revamping their beleaguered catalog titles, Fox is coming across as the one major studio that isn’t interested in thoroughly promoting high definition. The high prices and low quality of their catalog titles are a slap in the face to those who enjoy these classic films -they’re giving fans half-hearted products and pointing to the inadequacies of the source as the culprit. However, as we’ve seen in the past, any title is salvageable if its remastering team is given the proper resources. Perhaps I’m coming across as an unrealistic idealist, but Fox needs to follow in the footsteps of Sony and Disney and propel the Blu-ray format into the future. (Audio Rating: 3/5)

 

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DIGGING INTO THE SUPPLEMENTS

Aside from a theatrical trailer, the Blu-ray edition of “Commando” doesn’t include a single significant feature. Meanwhile, the Director’s Cut standard DVD has a director’s commentary, a featurette, deleted scenes, and an extensive still gallery. I have to say I’m growing weary of Fox’s current high-def strategy – the studio may make extra money by releasing a future, definitive release of “Commando,” but it seems like a cold disservice to fans that punishes their adoption and support of high definition. (Special Features Rating: 0/5)

 

 

 

SOUNDTRACK RELEASES
2003 Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
2011 Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Expanded)

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Commando” is a blast from the past ’80s actioner. As a Blu-ray release, the only emotion it evoked was disappointment. It features an average video transfer, a lackluster audio package, and zero supplements. Considering the fact that a Director’s Cut is available on DVD with a ton of bonus content, I can’t wrap my head around this meager release. I may sound too hard on the studio, but Fox needs to get its act together and find a balance between their profits and the sort of quality their fans deserve. Skip “Commando” for now and wait for the inevitable Blu-ray release of the Director’s Cut in the future. (Overall Blu-Ray Disc Rating: 2.5/5)

Adam Stolfo

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