The moment I unsealed my Blu-ray copy of 'Commando,' the sharp stink of testosterone and '80s machismo filled my home theater. I have to admit to spending many a middle-school evening watching shoddy VHS copies of flicks like 'Rambo,' 'Predator,' and 'Commando' (one of my Top Ten craptastic guilty pleasures of all time). 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 its laughably indulgent violence. No sir, all I cared about was having a good time watching Arnold Schwarzenegger tear through a horde of baddies. When I last watched 'Commando' in 1995, I remember chuckling my way through the flick and enjoying it as I always had. So it was that thirteen years later, 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 realizes the colonel is missing.
To my dismay, I've apparently grown up a bit too much over the last decade to enjoy 'Commando' for anything other than its nostalgic value. While I still caught myself smirking at the veritable parade of one-liners and theatrical deaths, I grew more and more disenchanted with the entire experience as it plugged along. Perhaps I've grown accustomed to the darker action fare that evolved out of the '90s... or maybe I'd finally had my fill of aimless, over-the-top violence when I plunked down nine bucks for the fourth 'Rambo.' Either way, my twenty-first century visit with 'Commando' was a hollow experience that, at times, left me bored and disheartened. I longed for a genuine connection between John and his daughter, a glimpse of fear from our hero, or any semblance of psychological depth that would have prevented Bennett from steadily transforming into a lame villain straight out of early "Punisher" comics.
I suppose I'm missing the point. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who will forgo their modern sensibilities and enjoy 'Commando' for what it is: a decent plate of leftovers from a meal that tasted much better when it was fresh. During the moments that I managed to ignore the awful glam-rock fashion, the unintentionally homoerotic showdowns between Arnold and his enemies, and the guns-are-god mentality of the screenplay, I had a dopey grin plastered on my face. It may not be a movie I'd pull out to watch with friends (or even one I would recommend), but it did do a good job of briefly rekindling a forgotten romance with cheesy '80s action flicks.
Honestly, I wouldn't recommend giving 'Commando' a spin unless you've been a big fan for years. Clearly the byproduct of a bygone era, the film has not aged gracefully, and the results don't live up to the standards set by 'Predator,' 'First Blood,' and other '80s action classics. All in all, if you didn't like the flick before, you certainly won't now. On the other hand, if 'Commando' was already one of your favorite guilty pleasures, what I write in this review won't matter anyway.
(Note the Blu-ray edition of 'Commando' includes the 90-minute theatrical cut instead of the 94-minute Director's Cut that was recently released on DVD.)
'Commando's original source hasn't aged gracefully either. While this new 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 flipside, 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 EE 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. Color saturation even earns a welcome boost since fleshtones 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.
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. I actually preferred the original stereo track Fox included simply because my expectations for it weren't nearly as high as they were with the 5.1 remix.
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.
Aside from a theatrical trailer presented in high definition, 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 early adoption and support of high definition.
'Commando' is a blast from the past '80s actioner that never quite stirred up the emotions it once evoked in me. 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.