Commando is another of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s films that has had untold effects on society as a whole. It is the tale of John Matrix – played by Schwarzenegger – and his quest to rescue his kidnapped daughter from the clutches of a South American ex-dictator and his chainmail-wearing partner (who also happens to be Matrix’s former special forces squadmate, and who is definitely not gay). But how has Commando shaped the very world around it? How has it made us all dance a merry dance to its particular brand of whims? Read on, dear… reader.
In a similar way to Orwell’s essay on the written use of English, in the same way Bukowski managed to tear down the walls of conventional poetry and make it as accessible as it was poignant, Matrix tantalises the part of our brain that appreciates language. He toys with the very notion of what meaning is, and while he is always saying things with a nod and a wink to the audience (an invisible one, natch), he never tells a lie or goes out of his way to befuddle either his compatriots or the audience. When Cindy asks what happened to the tiny bad guy Sully, Matrix responds: “I let him go” – not only is this hilarious in the extreme, it is also a direct reflection of the situation we as an audience have just witnessed. It isn’t a lie what Matrix says, but it is worded in such a fashion to make Cindy believe Sully has been released back into the wild, where he belongs, when in actual fact he has been dropped off the edge of a cliff.
This magnificent, double-edged use of language occurs on numerous occasions throughout Commando: “He’s dead tired”, referring to a man who Matrix has just snapped the neck of (it’s hard to see why out of context, but the play on words there is ‘dead’, as the man is literally dead); “let’s take Cook’s car, he won’t be needing it”, it is a statement of fact that he will not be needing his car, but what Matrix leaves to the audience to figure out is that he won’t be needing the car because he is deceased; and of course, the classic: “Let off some steam, Bennett!” where Matrix is referring to the duality of the situation – both that Bennett (recently impaled with a length of steel piping, which has ruptured through a high-pressure steam vent behind him) has literal steam rushing from his chest wound, and that Bennett needs to calm down a bit, as he is quite angry (and clearly repressing his homosexuality).
It’s safe to say that Commando doesn’t offer us the same kind of life lessons that Predator does, but all the same it has a valuable place in the history of humanity. Without Matrix and his quips, would we have ever recognised the potential for plays on words, dual meanings or intentionally ambiguous statements? I think not. And without these lessons, it is likely that comedy in its current form would simply not exist. After all, it is the greatest comedian of our times, Stewart Lee, who stated: “The flexibility of the English language allows us to imagine that we are an inherently witty nation, when in fact we just have a vocabulary and a grammar that allow for endlessly amusing confusions of meanings.” He didn’t go on to add – but probably should have – that this would not have been possible were it not for the trailblazing wordsmithery of Commando’s Matrix.
So thank you John Matrix. You have made the world a happier place by teaching us how language can be used so effectively and how it can be tamed in order to do most of the work for us. I’d just like to let you know we appreciate it.
Every day is a school day: John Matrix’s daughter, Jenny, is played by Alyssa Milano. She went on to play Phoebe in the popular witch-based TV show ‘Charmed’.