Thursday, 22 November 2012

REVIEW: The Commander (1988)

Directed by Antonio Margheriti, though here credited as Anthony M. Dawson, The Commander is the third in a triptych of Spaghetti War films, following Code Name: Wild Geese and Commando: Leopard. Co-produced by West Germany and Italy, the films were dubbed into English and, in true exploitation style, were initially cheap rip-offs of the Hollywood Wild Geese series.

Though perhaps near incomprehensible to the casual viewer (is there any other kind with this type of film?), the film deals primarily with the aftermath of a cruel South Asian warlord’s violent takeover of an existing corrupt establishment. He drives up the price of his drug shipments, which catches the attention of Colonel Mazzarini (a, even by his mostly low standards, slumming-it Lee Van Cleef). Mazzarini enlists a team of commandos (Lewis Collins and Manfred Lehmann amongst them) to get rid of the warlord. Somewhere along the way, some plastic surgery, a shipment of weapons, a camp Donald Pleasence and a floppy disc full of top secret information get wrapped up in the plot which strings together a series of double crosses and action sequences.

When Sergio Leone made A Fistful of Dollars, it is intended, from a financial point of view at the very least, as a quick and cheap Western rip-off that would be tricked into American cinemas and return a fast buck. Unexpectedly, the film became a hit and established itself as a classic in the emerging Spaghetti Western genre. Italian B movies have since gained a cult following, largely due more to their much higher quotient of sex and violence rather than their quality. Is there anyone who really prefers Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters to Dawn of the Dead or Lamberto Bava’s Demons to The Evil Dead? What made Leone a rare breed was that his films were aesthetically innovative and much riskier than their often sodden American counterparts, to say nothing of the fact that many of his films attained the level of art. With Margheriti and The Commander, we have a Reagan-era action movie knock-off, which clearly aspires to be like films that weren’t any good in the first place.

In the 2000s, Quentin Tarantino took a break from making good films and started a campaign to popularise defunct exploitation and grindhouse films. Quickly tiring of turgid and egotistical knock-off homages like Kill Bill, Death Proof, Planet Terror and Machete, we moved into watching the real things, which goes some way towards explaining why anyone would release or watch The Commander. With tongue firmly in cheek and ready to watch everything with an ironic eye, an audience should find sleazy enjoyment in The Commander. But the film is a laugh-free mess of a film with unexciting action sequences, typically bad performances, clich├ęs presented as if they were innovations, all put together by filmmakers who had no interested in stretching themselves. That is not to say that these kinds of films are all devoid of some guilty pleasures. Silent Night, Deadly Night, from the same label, is a good example of a dodgy, once-controversial film that nevertheless has some surprises of its own. But The Commander is one of those very poor films with which audiences will have to forgive too much and celebrate too little if they are ever going to make a case for its entertainment value.

Never mind that the film openly riffs on Vietnam and America’s military power and that America’s apparent right to intervene in other countries is presented uncritically and that the film is yet another tiresome example of the kind of extreme right-wing militarism that began to infect the multiplexes in the 1980s (Rambo: First Blood Part II, Commando). The film has enough flaws without getting into the politics behind it. The plot, if one exists, is near incomprehensible and the action sequences are cheap. The ending is presented as if it is clever, but it manages to be both contrived and predictable. The filmmakers’ tricks to hide the low budget are all transparent as when they cut away to an obviously decontextualised shot of a ball of flame in order to avoid having to blow up a real helicopter. Elsewhere, the model-work is distractingly obvious. Beyond this, the action sequences are rather repetitive, with someone firing, rolling and firing again, all with little or no visual flair. The characters are void of personality and the dialogue is either superfluous, such as one character’s annoyance about being told where to take a piss, or tin-eared. As bad cinema, that awful term, it excels.

Is a certain degree of quality not something that should be demanded of every film? Why celebrate dumb cinema as if lack of ambition and care were commendable? Is it common sense not to be taken in or is it just snobbery? The Commander raises many difficult and interesting questions, ones that are of particular interest now that it has been released on DVD.   

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