Monday, November 4, 2013

Commando: Schwarzenegger as Heroic Nurturer/Killing Machine

Since I've mentioned Commando in previous posts I feel it is necessary to give it its own write up. In part, because Commando is an incredibly masculine movie and is in keeping with the theme of this blog, but really, I am writing about it because it is awesome. This movie is beyond the beyond- there are heaving muscles, slimy bad guys- including one who is perpetually ensconced in a chain mail tee-shirt, there's Dan Hedaya playing a South American dictator...warlord...who knows?, and, of course, there's Arnold Schwarzenegger destroying shopping malls, blowing up things and killing people in new and exciting ways in an attempt to retrieve his kidnapped daughter, Jenny (Alyssa Milano). This movie has it all. Also, it has some very pointed messages on the meaning of manhood in a specific time and place.

Vernon Wells, punk rock warlord?
That time and place is the 1980s and Commando is an unbelievably 80s film. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays John Matrix, a devoted single father who happens to be a retired Black ops Commando, hence the title of the film. He's an unstoppable killing machine who also manages to be a protector, nurturer and a kind of universal father figure to all females he encounters. This incongruity is evidenced in the opening sequence of the film, which shows Schwarzenegger doing burly, manly things like cutting down trees and then juxtaposes that with images of him and his daughter petting and feeding a faun or sitting at the table sharing a meal. This is to make clear that when things go wrong, Matrix will be tough or tender depending on the situation. And since this is an action movie, things go wrong pretty quickly. Once Jenny is kidnapped by Arius and his crew, Matrix goes wild. He jumps out of plane without a parachute, he kills with his bare hands (all while maintaining a sense of humor).

When he enlists the help of Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), a flight attendant, the nurturing nature of Matrix is evident. At first, she is terrified of him, but later she realizes that his intensity is only due to his desperation to retrieve his daughter. There is no sexual tension between Cindy and Matrix because Matrix is, of course, concerned only with finding Jenny. Yet he also is seemingly above sex. Matrix is the ultimate good guy. Though he may sometimes employ violent means, he only does so to rescue those in trouble. Matrix is masculine from a purely powerful and courageous standpoint. That he is presented as uninterested in sex further reveals his heroic nature. In many ways, Matrix is a modern day iteration of a knight.  Consider that "knighthood is a series of masculine performances,--saving ladies in distress, wearing armor, fighting with a lance" and it seems clear that Matrix is operating in a knight-like way. He takes on the role as a kind of guide and protector, even teaching Cindy to fly a plane. He is wholly good, whereas the bad guys in this film are thoroughly and irretrievably evil.

Speaking of bad guys, I'd like to focus a bit on Arius, Bennett and Cooke (Bill Duke). I've written about Sully (David Patrick Kelly) already so I think I'll leave him out of this one. Bennett is the metal mesh (armor worn by a corrupt knight, perhaps) vest wearer. He is a killing machine too, but he operates on the wrong side. Arius calls all the shots, while using a remarkably bad and very comical pseudo South American accent, while Bennett carries them out. They are the complete opposite of Matrix and they seem to thrive on being villains. Again, their presence in the film is uncomplicated. They are the enemy, the one the viewer is waiting for Matrix to come and destroy. As is common in films of this genre, they have no redeeming qualities. When Matrix does arrive, he kills them in the most over-the-top fashion imaginable. Arius, the leader, is lucky in that his death is pretty easy. He is simply shot by Matrix and then falls dramatically off a building. For Bennett, it is murder by metal pipe (lance). Matrix is so strong he rips a pipe from a wall and impales Bennett with it. It is impossible to ignore the sexual implications of this moment. Of course, Matrix eliminates any tension with a one-liner. Impalement seems to be the method of choice for Matrix, as he also uses it to kill Cooke-- punching him so hard he flies into the air and lands on the jutting points of broken wooden furniture. The asexual Matrix seems to get off using large phallus shaped objects to kill people.

The impalement imagery is interesting. The scenes in which the impalements occur are obviously throughly violent. They seem to be deliberately presented as a means for Matrix to channel his sexual energies. This is odd considering that Commando is clearly a film about protective masculinity. It's almost difficult to reconcile the contradictions running rampant through this film. However, the strange blend of incredible violence and nurturing in this film is curious, compelling and most importantly, endlessly entertaining.

Reeser, Todd. W. Masculinities in Theory

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