Movie Misfires: Commando (1985)
It's an action-movie classic, but how realistic is the gun use? You can probably guess...this is a rough one
Commando is a hell of a movie. All the tropes that have been done ad nauseam in low budget action movies for the past 35 years: the hero who only gets cosmetically cool flesh wounds, but nothing serious; bad guys who can’t hit anything while the good guy has laser precision firing from the hip, a retired super military badass is called back into action one last time after the rest of his old team have been systematically assassinated; insane risks taken with no fear and very little chance of success—it’s all here.
A lot of action-movie haters like to pin these tropes on Rambo, and while that series certainly established plenty of its own outlandish tropes, most of the credit has to go to Commando (and pretty much everything Chuck Norris did in the 80s).
Commando came out in 1985, a wild year for cinema that produced many movies that older millennials regard as classics, like The Goonies, St. Elmo’s Fire, Just One of the Guys, Legend, Cat’s Eye, The Breakfast Club, Fright Night, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Weird Science, Clue, Real Genius, Fletch, Spies Like Us, Rocky IV, Silver Bullet, Teen Wolf, Re-Animator, plus genre flicks like the James Bond installment A View to Kill, and westerns Pale Rider and Silverado.
It also saw Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando go head-to-head with Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II.
The films had a similar budget, but the Rambo sequel went on to wild international success, starting a whole cultural fascination, a toy line, and even a cartoon. Sly’s star was certainly on the rise that year, having already been bolstered by the massive success of Rocky IV, which was, at that time, the highest grossing installment in the series.
In fact, it does seem like Commando is biting off Rambo at certain times, which we’ll talk about later. I have no idea if this is true, but I swear up and down that a lot of the same gunfire and explosion sound effects were used in the both movies. Both stars may have even used the same exact M60E3, fired from the hip while shirtless in both instances.
So, right off the bat, let’s get something straight. There is not one damn thing that accurate about the firearm use in this movie. Nothing.
This is a universe in which Arnold can face off against a literal line of enemy soldiers armed with AK-47s, sweep his M60 back and forth one-handed, and kill the all, while not one single bad guy even bothers to try and bring their rifle to the shoulder.
It’s pure fantasy that is awesome just for its audacity.
The bad guys are a guierilla army? A drug cartel? A warlord? I can never remember, and always forget halfway through the movie—if they ever explained it at all. But the point is, they’re all super bad guys from a fictional South American country.
So the whole plot, as I can figure it, is John Matrix is living a peaceful life of luxury after retiring from the special forces in a gorgeous cabin out in the mountains of—somewhere—with his daughter. There’s no mention of the daughter’s mother. Ever. So this warlord guy, he recruits a member of Matrix’s old special forces team, whose goons then go around killing every other surviving member of the team. They do this to force Gen. Kirby to go seek out Matrix to warn him, thus leading that bad guys to him. Gen. Kirby sucks. And apparently Matrix doesn’t even have a phone. And they couldn’t just, like, send some kind of covert warning—they had to show up in a damn helicopter.
Then we get to the heart of it. The bad guys attack Matrix’s cabin and take him and his daughter captive. They want Matrix to assassinate the president of the fictional country and hold his daughter hostage to persuade him to do so. They put him on a flight to this fictional country, where he immediately kills the bad guy keeping track of him and sets it up to look like he’s sleeping for the entire 11-hour flight before exiting the plane via the landing gear by dropping into a swamp on takeoff. Totally plausible.
So now he’s on a clock. He has 11 hours to get to the bad guy’s hideout and save his daughter before the flight lands, the dead guy is discovered, and the bad guys know he’s not doing the job for them.
As Matrix tracks down the stateside members of the goon squad and tries to beat the location of the hideout out of them, he picks up a lot of police attention and a sidekick in a young flight attendant who can luckily do everything, from fire rocket launchers to fly small aircraft.
My absolute favorite part is when Matrix decides to go shopping. He and his sidekick break into a gun shop, and luckily, this gun shop also doubles as a front for an arms dealer? There’s a big ass secret room behind the wall with a huge arsenal of machine guns, explosives, and rocket launchers. The explanation? Apparently this is what every gun shop in LA was like back in ’85. How did Matrix know about it? He just felt under the counter for a secret door-opening button and got lucky.
He loads up a convertible Caddy with all kinds of gear, but goes back in for a few more guns, when the cops show up and arrest him. They put him in the back of a gigantic paddy wagon instead of a squad car for some reason. And here’s the dumbest part of this movie, which is saying a lot.
The sidekick picks up this gigantic four-barreled rocket launcher thing (it’s a prop meant to be a 66mm M202 FLASH launcher) and fires it, and realizes she’s holding it backwards as it blows up a storefront behind her. She flips it around, and fires it AT THE TRUCK MATRIX IS RIDING IN!
She fires the rocket with such precision, using the launcher she fired backwards a moment ago, that it hits the ground, like, right next to the moving truck on the road, flipping it over, but apparently not causing any damage to the two cops in the front, or to Matrix, who crawls out and hops in the Caddy.
“Where did you learn to to do that?”
“I read the instructions.”
The Big Assault
He finally gets to the bad guys’ island compound. Once his sidekick lands the sea plane that they steal off the coast somewhere, Arnold strips down to a speedo and hops into a raft…that I guess the plane just happened to have on board, or maybe he stole it from the Navy SEAL supply store earlier. He rows to shore, showing off his lats, and then proceeds to paint himself and gear up. This is all done in quick, close-up shots.
First it’s brand new, unbroken, full leather combat boots. Then there’s a super elaborate combat vest, followed by shotgun shells inserted into a carrier, and then—I swear to god I watched it three times—he uses paracord to ties two grenades to a D-ring on his vest BY THE FREAKIN’ PINS.
I guess the idea is that he can just grab a grenade, pull it and throw without having to use his other hand to pull the pin. But that’s putting an awful lot of faith in that little pin staying put. In reality, spec ops guys often tape the pins on their grenades down so they don’t get caught on anything. Remember how Woody Harrelson lost a buttcheek in The Thin Red Line?
Then its a huge combat knife in a sheath on the vest. Then he loads a Desert Eagle Mark I, with the floorplate of the magazine nearly falling off and stows it in a hip holster. Then comes the black greasepaint that he applies in stripes on his face, both arms, and we later learn, his entire torso. So much more efficient than, say, a camo shirt.
With all that gear, he’s also carrying a custom Remington 870 with a 20-inch barrel and mag tube, a Valmet M78/83 machine gun, a full-size Uzi, that giant quad rocket-launcher thing, huge binoculars with electronics of some kind built in (from the in-binocs view, it looks like there are supposed to be range-finder readouts, but the numbers just scroll meaninglessly), and what look like two Vietnam-style claymore satchels.
And no magazines. Not one.
Watching him climb up the hill from the beach is freakin’ comical. If it weren’t for the rousing score, all the clanking and rattling would be music enough. But lucky for Arnold, we can see at least the shotgun is rubber for that scene, as the barrel is completely filled in.
An interesting note about that shotgun—while it changes several times due to continuity errors, the interesting muzzle isn’t a custom barrel clamp, but actually an LPC laser sight unit. It was made by Laser Product Corporation, which would later become Surefire. That’s the same company that supplied the primitive handgun laser sight for Arnold earlier movie, The Terminator.
After some quick recon with those sweet high tech binocs, Matrix inserts his swaying mass of gear (super hilarious watching him like half crouch walk across a small stream hauling that rocket launcher and machine gun like luggage).
He moves around, hiding behind trees, and corners, planting claymores and taking out a bad guy here or there with his knife. The claymores have some kind of flipper switch with a red light on them, which I assume is the fictional detonating device he’s using. Apparently that gun shop had these too.
Two guards almost catch him planting a claymore, and whoosh! He takes them out with two throwing knives pulled from behind his back that you didn’t see him gear up with and whose sheaths aren’t there later!
Then there’s a part I didn’t even remember until a recent viewing. Matrix calls out, “Como esta?” to a guard, and when he turns, I swear he shoots him in the chest with a freakin’ Russian ballistic knife!
Now, that’s what they were called, but its a common misconception that the Soviet Union developed knives that could launch their blades several meters for their special forces.
In the early to mid-1980s, spring-powered ballistic knives were being sold in the U.S. in magazines like Shotgun News and Soldier of Fortune and it looks like that’s what Matrix has…which that gun shop also had just laying around.
After using the super stealthy weapon, Matrix just runs out into a freakin open field without even peeking around a corner and draws fire from a guard in a tower, who of course, misses multiple easy shots at an unsuspecting target. Matrix drops his rocket launcher to return fire from the hip with the Valmet, killing the guard instantly, as alarms begin sounding.
He literally just keeps running across the field, and dropping the rocket launcher every so often to shoot at the mass of soldiers coming at him. Eventually, he just keeps running, somehow slings his rifle, and detonates the claymores with a remote pulled from his vest.
And apparently the claymores, which are anti-personnel mines full of ball bearings and a wad of C4 meant to tear up soldiers, are super claymores, since they completely destroy the multi-story buildings they were planted next to. I mean, the explosions are great by Hollywood standards. Lots of bright fire and such…but it’s so painfully obvious the building are just plywood set pieces built to be blown up that look like they were packed with barrels of gasoline.
We see him plant two claymores, but like, six buildings are destroyed, including the guard tower, which blows up FROM THE TOP DOWN!
Well, at least he doesn’t have to haul those satchels anymore.
The rocket launcher is then used to take out a Jeep full of enemy soldiers and to blow open the gate to the main compound, and then tossed aside. I will give them credit, at least they kept to the round-count of four with the launcher. The sidekick fired two rockets, and Matrix fired two. Still, wouldn’t an RPG with a couple rockets been a better idea? Or better yet, an AR with an M203 underneath?
Matrix then proceeds to mow down scores of bad guys who run straight at him across open fields with the never-ending magazine on his Valmet, tossing a grenade every once in a while.
Seriously, he fires that Valmet from one magazine for like two freakin minutes in full auto. It presumabely runs dry and he switches to his Uzi. Remarkably, the small magazine is spent in roughly the real-life time it would take in full auto, and he switches to his Desert Eagle to waste a few more bad guys—and it sounds like a cannon.
The next time we see him, he’s crouching and making his way through hedges, popping up every so often to fire a shot with the 870.
Finally, a lucky grenade toss into a nearby flower bed actually sends Matrix flying and does him some damage.
He makes his way into a garden shed and strips off his vest to tend to a shrapnel wound in his side, which involves pressing his hands to it for a few seconds and grimacing. This is when we find out he’s gone full body greasepaint. And I swear, he tosses aside the knife that was on his vest, but he has ANOTHER knife on his belt.
The bad guys surround the shed and annihilate it with several AKs and an M60E3. BUT Matrix has been clinging to the ceiling the whole time, avoiding getting shot, and kills the first guy through the door with a pitchfork to the chest. The next guy gets scalped with a precisely thrown circular saw blade, and another blade goes into a guys chest. Next guy gets an axe to the crotch. Yeah. And then the next dude gets his arm chopped off with a machete. Apparently the filmed Matrix beating the guy with his own arm, but decided it was too….much.
Then comes Arnie’s Rambo moment. He picks up the M60E3 and goes to town, just mowing down scores of bad guys, firing one handed with his right and feeding a magically self-replenishing ammo belt with his left. Somehow, he picks up his discarded shotgun and slings it, before proceeding machine gunning. I timed it. He fires the thing for 44 seconds straight and mows down I don’t even know how many soldiers.
The next phase of his plan? Wander around the mansion stronghold with the M60, calling out, “Jenny!”
With the M60 empty, he switches to the shotgun, but also starts firing M16s (the guards in the mansion have M16s for some reason, while the outside guards had AKs) from dead guards with one hand like they’re pistols.
He finally uses the shotgun to take out the main bad guy, who is armed with a cool short-barreled Steyr AUG. But there’s still his old teammate, Bennet, who has his daughter trapped in the mansion’s basement. Benett shoots Matrix in the right arm with a pistol, causing him to drop the shotgun.
But of course, Matrix talks him into a “It’s me that you want! Come on Bennet, throw away that chickenshit gun. Come on, Bennet. Let’s party.”
Then it’s all hand-to-hand and one liners until Bennet’s dead, Jenny is rescued, and a bloodied, dirty, and shirtless Matrix walks out of the smoldering compound with his daughter on his hip just as the military backup arrives.
Similarities to Rambo 2
So, Rambo Part II came out in May of ’85, but Commando didn’t hit theaters until October. Now, I’m not saying Commando intentionally ripped some stuff off from the Rambo sequel, but it totally could have.
In Commando, Gen. Kirby is nothing if not a knock-off Col. Trautman. In the Rambo cartoon, the character even resembles Kirby more than Trautman from the movies.
There’s a scene in R2 when Rambo slowly takes stock of and assembles his gear for the mission. The gearing up scene in Commando is really similar, but just cut faster.
The scene of the shed getting shredded with machine gun fire is awful similar to the scene when Rambo takes cover in a pirate boat that gets shredded by a .50 cal machine gun.
And then there’s the knives. This may just be a coincidence, as saw-back survival knives were all the rage in the mid-80s, and had been ever since Rambo used one in First Blood (1982). That knife and the similar knife seen in R2 were designed by the late Arkansas knivesmith Jimmy Lile.
The knife Arnold uses at the end of the movie was designed by knifemaker Jack W. Crain of Weatherford, Texas, who passed away in 2016. According to a 1986 issue of Blade magazine, the knife was called the “Life Support System I” and was featured in an episode of Airwolf and The Fall Guy after being seen in Commando.
As the story states, after Lile’s First Blood knife got famous, the market was flooded with factory and custom knives with sawteeth and hollow handles, and Crain started getting many requests to produce his own version of the survival knife.
Specializing in bowie knives, Crain made his own version of what he thought a combat-survival knife should be.
The LS-1 had a 9-inch long blade that was two inches wide and a quarter inch thick and flat ground. When it was introduced in ‘82, it was offered in 440-C steel with a matte finish or 1095 spring steel with a black finish. Later, Crain substituted 01 steel for the black knives and added D-2 tool steel as an alternative in the matte. Unlike the first Rambo knife and the second after it, which had a double-row of sawteeth, the LS-1 had a single row, but offered a double as an option.
Commando Gear Up Scene:
Crain also endeavored to solve the problem with hollow-handled knives, which has caused them to fall out of favor with serious knife people since the 80s. The place where the blade meets the handle on knives like this is usually a weak spot and prone to breaking, since the knife cannot have a full tang. Crain strengthened the tang on the LS-1 and then welded it into the handle before heat treating the steel. Plus, his handles were made from a solid block of steel. He also made two other smaller knives that Matrix was supposed to carry on him at all times, but the ended up being used for the quick throwing knife scene in the final assault.
Rambo 2 Gear Up Scene:
Um, the array of guns was nice? There sure were a lot of different types of guns. No spare magazines anywhere, but lots of guns.
Pretty much every shot fired in this one is comic book nonsense, but it sure is fun.
It doesn’t fail because it’s so damn much fun.
Bonus: Arnold’s Seiko 1982 Hybrid Diver Watch
In Commando, we get a bunch of extreme close-ups of the watch Arnold is wearing, a military style analog timepiece with a digital display window at the top of the watch face, as the timer he sets after getting off the plane counts down to his deadline.
It’s the same watch Arnold wears as Dutch in Predator (1987) and was a personal favorite. It became quite popular in the 80s, with lots of cheap knockoffs with a similar configuration popping up on budget watch racks everywhere.
The watch is actually the Seiko 1982 Hybrid Diver watch—it was the first diving watch to combine analog and digital elements, so it was cutting edge for the time and picked up the nickname “Arnie” among watch enthusiasts.
Seiko’s Diver watches began to establish popularity with special forces troops beginning in Vietnam and this hybrid was an instant hit with troops in the U.S. and abroad.
In 2019, Seiko reissued the watch after it was out of production for several years in three color options. The new version has the same looks as the original, but includes a solar-powered designt hat can run for up to six months on a single charge. But it ain’t cheap. One of the updated Seiko Hybrids will run you $525 – $550.
But there’s also some Hollywood trickery involved here. If you pay attention, you can absolutely tell Arnold is wearing the Seiko throughout the movie, but those aforementioned super close-ups of the watch face counting down were of a different watch with a large digital display and two small chronograph-like dials above it, with no analog display at all.
Apparently, somebody thought the Seiko wouldn’t look good or be readable to the audience in the close-ups? Yet, it looks like they made an effort to have the watch appear like the Seiko with the same buttons and analog crown that has no business being on a digital-only watch.