In one of my classes today, I was covering the end of Frankenstein. If you’re unfamiliar with the novel, it doesn’t end as spectacularly as most film versions. As Mary Shelley writes it, Victor Frankenstein dies from a prolonged sickness brought about by the anguish of dealing with the monster he created and what that monster has done to his life by murdering those around him. Then, the monster shows up and tells Captain Walton (to whom Frankenstein was telling his story) that he has no reason to live either and will go commit suicide. Surely enough, he ventures out into the Arctic ice presumably to die.
As I was recapping this for my students and we were discussing what parts of this scene represents, I went off on a little bit of a tangent as to what Frankenstein would be like if it were a 1980s-era Schwarzenegger movie (with Schwarzenegger as the monster). Walton, probably played by a relative unknown although this would be a great part for a Cobra-era Stallone, sees the monster run off. “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” he screams before telling his men to turn the ship around and follow the monster while he goes below to suit up.
A few moments later, Walton comes back armed to the teeth and says, “It’s payback time. THIS IS FOR VICTOR!” and starts opening fire with a vast array of automatic weapons (which I realize were not invented in 1816, but this is a motherfucking action sequence so you can suspend disbelief). The monster is gunned down in a hail of bullets — I think I compared it to the scene in Predator where Jesse Ventura gets his guts blown out and Bill Duke mows down half of the Amazon in rage — and there is a heroic song by Stan Bush or 707 to take us through the closing credits.
Of course, this never did happen and will never happen, but it is a testimony to how my mind has been warped over the years by viewing too many action movies. That’s not an unusual thing, of course — every boy in my generation had at least one G.I. Joe figure in the 1980s and at some point before we left elementary school we graduated from Star Wars and cartoons to R-rated violence and gratuitous bloodshed with a high body count.
For me, it started when I was in the fourth grade with Commando.
I honestly don’t know why I was over my friend Evan’s house the day I first saw Commando or why I managed to walk in on the middle of the movie, but I do remember walking into his living room where a bunch of boys were sitting watching television and a Western Airlines plane was taking off from LAX. A few moments later, this really huge guy climbed out of the back of the airplane and jumped from the landing gear into a swamp.
From there, it was on. I watched John Matrix go on a search for the island headquarters where Nick Tortelli from Cheers was holding his daughter (an early era Who’s the Boss? Alyssa Milano) hostage, aided by a helpful flight attendant (Rae Dawn Chong) and equipped with the type of training one only receives in an elite branch of the military that allows someone to be a one-man army.
Needless to say, we were all hooked.
Then again, how could you not? Commando is quite possibly the perfect example of an ’80s action movie. Yeah, I know you can turn to The Terminator or Rambo: First Blood Part II or Missing in Action for something with a little more story and a lot more staying power, but Commando is the ultimate “I’m going to blow shit up” movie and the perfect movie for kids getting their first taste of an R rating. For the next two years or so, before our attention turned to professional wrestling and then we were in junior high and therefore too cool to “play” on the weekends, my friends Evan, Tom, and I (among others) used just about every line from this movie every time we took out our water pistols or baseball bats (which were “rocket launchers”) and played “army” or “war” in our basements and backyards.
In fact, there’s a scene in Commando where Schwarzenegger, after rowing onto Dan Hedaya’s private island armed to the teeth, has hidden in a maintenance shed and kills two guys, first by ramming a pitchfork through one guy’s chest and then by throwing a circular saw blade like a frisbee and scalping the other. Tom and I were so influenced by this scene that one day, when we decided to tape record ourselves playing out whatever secret mission we were on, we did the “Let’s arm ourselves” scene and added “pitchfork” and “axe” to the list of guns and ammo that we’d learned about by checking out books on guns and ammo from the public library.
There was even an army surplus store in Sayville — Thunder Ride, a few doors down from Carvel — that we used to go to every once in a while because they sold camouflage and we hoped that they had a secret button that revealed the arsenal of a small army. I don’t think that they had the space for that, but I think that anyone who has seen Commando and walked into a sporting goods or army surplus store shortly thereafter wishes he could recreate the shopping scene. And that you could end someone’s life by throwing a giant freaking pipe through his torso and uttering one of the best lines in movie history.
In fact, in addition to “Let off some steam, Bennett!” there are two of the all-time greatest action movie lines in the middle of Commando …
“Remember Sully, when I promised to kill you last?”
“That’s right, Matrix. You did.”
“You scared, motherfucker? Well, you should be, because this Green Beret is going to kick your big ass.”
“I eat green berets for breakfast, and right now, I’m very hungry!”
I know, right?
Surely it wasn’t the best idea in the world for our parents to let us watch a movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger treats a Sandanista-like paramilitary force like clay pigeons, and I am sure that if they saw some of the scenarios we came up with (especially one where we created an obstacle course that included jumping out of the high branches of one of Tom’s trees while screaming “Wolverines!” — yeah, I know, different movie), we would have been barred from seeing one another and had our eyes forcably opened in front of hours and hours of The Brady Bunch or something else nice and gentle. Similarly, I’m sure that if Sayville’s Video Empire was still around today and I was nine years old, I wouldn’t be able to walk up to the counter with the box to Raw Deal, say “1729” and walk away with the movie without question.
Then again, we were getting out of the house and using our imaginations, no matter how “bloody” the situation or “massive” the body count. None of us had video game systems yet, so the cartoon violence had to be worked out somewhere. And what it led to was years of going to the movies with my dad to see every single Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, and Seagal piece of crap that was out.
I feel like this, along with “Stay (I Missed You)” and Megaforce, helps make up a huge portion of my “origin story” where popular culture is concerned. There will definitely be more firsts (I haven’t even touched on comic books or teen movies), but because of the amount of time I spent watching action movies in the 1980s and 1990s and because of how much of that time was spent watching them with my dad, I feel like this was definitely one of the most important. It was a watershed moment of my youth, or for lack of a better term, Commando was my first hit, my first high … and you know what, they’re right. You never forget it.