A Trip through the Armory

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Commando (1985)

The bad guys in Commando have the world figured out.

They have lost power, and they want it back. To get it, they need a specific weapon, which powerful people have kept safe and hidden. They don’t know where, but they know something better. So the bad guys kill the weapon’s old colleagues, predicting the military, fearful for the safety of its prize, will rush to protect it. Their plan from there depends on only two assumptions, both of which prove accurate: fathers will protect their daughters, and this weapon can kill everything in its path.

The villains may err in assuming an instrument honed for covert action will be indifferent to the target, though you tend to wonder how much the weapon really cares. They may have failed to provide sufficient assurances about their captive’s safety. Yet they grasped the overall logic. This isn’t “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” The bad guys really give this a decent shot.

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There are ways of being right. Making accurate judgments about the world is one. Being a gigantic dude is another. Before we learn his character’s name, Schwarzenegger emerges from the cover of Atlas Shrugged, axe in hand, in a sequence explicitly nodding to fascist aesthetics. When we see him go to work to rescue his daughter, we watch him “scything down ranks of lesser players.” His peers put up a real fight, or in the case of Sully, they pose a real pain to capture. Yet even the two close contests end with his opponents speared through the chest.

So often, villains fall prey to arrogance, yet here, they did not underestimate their opponent. Commando even suggests Bennett has orchestrated the film just to get a chance to see Schwarzenegger’s Matrix again. He wants the chance to prove a point, by taking down a symbol. And he knows it would mean something.

He doesn’t pull it off—though in his defense, no one has. Synonymous with violent action films for two decades of American cinema, impossibly wealthy, twice elected governor of the country’s most populous state, Schwarzenegger cut a figure so large senators tried to pass an amendment to let him become even more powerful. Today he walks unhindered by either a credible series of accusations of sexual assault or his less serious but confirmed sins as a serial and elaborate adulterer. And he stepped from the governor’s mansion right back into major films, to resuscitate franchises and sensibilities adrift in his absence.

The thing is, I like Commando. That’s not enough. Schwarzenegger resonates at our particular cultural moment as a singularly atavistic figure, for reasons directly connected to and preceding the character we see on-screen. One of two prevailing errors in this awful year is mistaking “I like it, and I want to keep it” for an argument.

All kinds of entertainments make people uncomfortable with the social perception of their personal appreciation. Reasons get thrown out to preserve cognitive dissonance, most of them thin cover for an entitlement. Few works, however, are essential, and “a culture that crumbles into dust when some unabashedly cruel aspect of it is removed is not a culture worth preserving in the first place.” Existence and attachment do not provide arguments with independent moral force. Social progress entails, for anyone with a stake in the status quo, the loss of some things we hold dear to, for failings we can no longer defend.

Sufficient reasons exist for Arnold’s dismissal. Perhaps we should learn to say no. The second prevailing error is the idea that this gets us anywhere.

He does not care.

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The first person to lay out the logic of a situation to Arnold gets shot in the head. The villains who size up Arnold and make accurate observations about the world die shamed and broken. When this happens, Commando expresses a worldview.

It also sets a tone, and one recognizable enough for the film to nod to its own obviousness. Cindy, a woman of color, correctly calls what she sees in front of her “macho bullshit.” Yet Commando‘s self-awareness marks a concession to etiquette, not a searching examination, and the former might be the least you can ask of the powerful. After all, “if your arguments didn’t amount to a wriggling out of the very critique that you’re making, would you still make them?

Commando doesn’t feel it has to apologize, and Arnold doesn’t either. Cindy, who Matrix has kidnapped, delivers one of the most charming “I have had it” speeches in cinematic history, demanding an explanation, and he brushes her off. Words fail to find purchase in others, and they also fail to suggest anything credible about the people using them. The militias in Commando, the private army of the exiled authoritarian thug, sneer bragging lines about cutting throats. Bennett, who knows what he has set in motion, finds them ridiculous, and adds, “if Matrix was here, he’d laugh too.” Sully, who tries to talk like someone cool, gets dropped off a cliff. “I lied” are the last words he hears.

No one’s explanations matter. When local police capture Matrix, he makes a futile attempt to invoke the higher authority of his military backers. It doesn’t work. Most action and thriller films plot around the enforcement of laws, which would stop the action and pause the thrills. Even by this standard, Matrix is on a lunatic crime spree, and a loud one. It doesn’t matter that he’s right, that General Kirby exists and that there is a timeframe. It doesn’t matter if they’re wrong. He’s in the cage. They don’t have to listen to him, just like he didn’t have to justify himself to the woman he kidnapped. And the vindication he would have received in the form of an apology, if he even escaped accountability, would be no comfort at all.

Commando for this moment places Matrix in a situation where he lacks control over his fate. His earlier capture involved men who knew who he was, who brought him there for a purpose; his present situation does not. There is the real possibility that this is it; his daughter is certainly dead. And describing the situation with precision won’t help him. He hasn’t drawn the obvious lesson from his own existence.

Arnold’s not much of a reader, and when Cindy frees him with a rocket launcher, he can’t figure out how she did it. He has never had to read a manual. It comes with being powerful. Colonel John Matrix wins because a police van gets flipped over. Or he wins because he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Schwarzenegger gets to do what he wants. These are two ways of saying the same thing, and Commando‘s clear what it thinks about saying anything at all.

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How often do you get that lucky? Outside of Arnold, no one has a great time here. There’s a man in this telephone booth when Schwarzenegger flips it over. Throughout, he kills people with the environment around them, dropping or impaling or collapsing buildings. All he needs to do to get what he wants is to look to the natural order of things, which bends to his whims.

When Commando labels itself as “macho bullshit,” it flatters us but masks its own belief. Commando can grant a concession in the form of a description about the world because it doesn’t think the judgment has any value. Commando, which consistently makes fun of the villains for talking tough, revels in the indignities of their comeuppance.

What someone says does matter once in Commando, however, in the final confrontation. Bennett has Matrix’s daughter, a gun, and distance. Arnold agrees Bennett has won. He can’t stop Bennett from killing her, whether through force or through an argument that it would be wrong. So he adjusts his approach.

Bennett, stop screwing around and let the girl go. It’s me that you want. I have only one arm, you can beat me. Come on, Bennett, throw away that chicken-shit gun. You don’t just want to pull a trigger. Put the knife in me, and look me in the eye and see what’s going on in there when you turn it. That’s what you want to do, right?… Come on, let the girl go. It’s between you and me. Don’t deprive yourself of some pleasure. Come on Bennett. Let’s party.

Arnold isn’t civil, this isn’t reasonable, and the prediction is inaccurate. Bennett accepts, and throws away the gun.

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Matrix can convince Bennett to do this because he has a story to tell about trials of manhood, to someone he knows will listen. And Bennett does so because Matrix matters to him. The only effective communication in Commando concerns the significance of what’s taking place, and it changes someone’s power over the situation.

It doesn’t end well for Bennett, and when General Kirby finds his prize intact, he pitches a sequel. He knows an effective team means whoever surrounds Matrix, and he has no choice but to reach out—there are fictional South American countries to destabilize. Yet he’s making an argument about logic and consequences, and it fares the same as every other polite request in the film.

Kirby likes Arnold, and wants to keep him, but he doesn’t convince. Unlike the good general, anyone is free to reject Arnold—or to acknowledge him with a wink. There are ways of being right.

Yet if arguments premised on personal attachment will (or should) fail to find traction in discourse, then it is important to remember discourse has only a weak reach beyond its confines. Both “I like it, and I want to keep it” and “it should go away” mistake dismissing something for defeating it. Arnold isn’t going to change; he taunts the man he’s reached out to after ending him. He doesn’t care.

What reductive interpretations lose is the opportunity to make arguments in the terrain where language can most make a difference. For if power authors events, discourse assigns them meaning. Cultural criticism at its best honors this responsibility. Someone finds something more in what most of us might find it easier to write off entirely. In the right hands, Zero Dark Thirty can do better than its detractors at making the case against what it depicts. Nicki Minaj can put her body front and center in a video to show “her power, not as a sexual object but a sexual subject.” Mad Men can demonstrate what it means to box lefty. Terminator 2 can remind us that “being a man isn’t about expensive toys or mistreating women, it’s about the ability to be a stable, invested presence in someone else’s life.”

Even art that has “an allergic reaction to even pretending to understand what it takes to be a cop” can speak on events that require precisely that knowledge, if one reports with a careful ear. This effort is far more wrenching when one leaves culture behind entirely, yet the methodology is the same. Arguments about meaning give us a mode, a way of being, an attitude to shaping the world with tools and history we might otherwise have discarded. And when a religious minority writes about what Orson Scott Card gave him growing up and what he refuses to let him now ruin, when a woman writes about the first video game to treat her like a human being, we can see the reassertion of control. And a vision primed for reclaiming can even elevate clearer victories.

Arnold emerges from the woods in the iconography of a movement premised upon applying aesthetics to politics; their results are why no one should argue for translating the lessons of art to life. Powerful and beautiful things alike struggle to supply meaning on their own. This is their weakness.

Though they can transcend it, we need not let them. Commando ends when the man who always promises to return decides he’s had enough. Power has done what it will. And it has taught us. It always does. It’s ours, too, once it acts, because we have an equal right to decide what it meant, anywhere we find it.

It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’.

The only person who learns anything in Commando studies a weapon.

2 thoughts on “A Trip through the Armory

  1. Pingback: December Notebook | Accidental Jellyfish

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