There’s a good reason not to sweat
Commando tells the story of young Chandu, who’s name changes in the subtitles to Chander about halfway through the movie. Either way, I’m simply calling him Commando, in honor of his arch nemesis being named Ninja. The movie begins when Commando is but a boy, and his father is the commando of the family, prone to taking his young son out on early morning workouts that involve singing, at least half a dozen different track suits, running, judo, horsing around on the playground, karate, riding horses on the beach, riding bikes, shooting rifles, getting punched repeatedly in the face by his father, and doing push-ups that look less like push-ups and more like a little kid making sweet, sweet love to the ground. Perhaps this is an allegory for young Chandu’s love for Mother India, but I don’t think it’s a proper way for a boy to behave toward his mother. So let’s just chalk it up to appalling push-up form and leave it at that.
Commando’s father is played by some doughy guy I thought at first was Mithun Chakraborty, Mithun Chakraborty, known to the world primarily as Jimmy, the king of disco from Disco Dancer. Upon closer inspection, though, I think it’s justs ome doughy middle aged guy, which doesn’t speak well of Mithun. As soon as they off Commando’s father, however, Commando himself is played by Mithun.
Commando’s father is killed protecting Indira Ghandi from a quartet of assassins wielding sparkler guns, one of whom happens to be Bob Christo, who was “International Hitman” in Disco Dancer. Somewhere in the world, there is a factory that produces Bob Christos, because every Asian country seems to have a guy that looks almost exactly like him (maybe it’s his son or father) playing exactly the same role. Commando was made in 1988, so presumably the events that happen later in the film are set in 1988. Since Commando is young when his father is killed, we have to assume at least a dozen years or more pass between this and the rest of the movie, which would put the event somewhere in the middle of the 1970s. Yet Bob Christo is wearing a stylish Ocean Pacific baseball cap (which, Beth pointed out to me, he wears in at least one other movie as well). I guess the man was just a trend-setter, or possibly a time traveler. Anyway, I always expected that assassins gunning for major political figures would somehow dress in something cooler than a blazer and an OP baseball cap.
But whatever, Bob Christo is too awesome for me to judge. He is to India what Al Leong is to America. He was born in Australia and worked as a civil engineer, set builder, and model up until 1980, when he was in Mumbai awaiting the approval of a work visa. He’d gone to Mumbai to pass the time while the paperwork crawled through official channels, and remembering an article he’d read about the Indian film industry, decided he would try and meet Indian actress Parveen Babi (Deewar, Shaan, and Abdullah, among many others). When he somehow stumbled into the part of a heavy in the 1980 film Abdullah, which also starred Raj Kapoor and Zeenat Aman. Christo’s fate was sealed. He is listed as appearing as “The Magician,” which makes good sense for a guy with a shaved head and pointy goatee. From there, Christo’s stock as the go-to evil white henchman soared, and he appeared in at least dozens — and quite possibly hundreds (the online edition of The Hindu national newspaper pegs the number at 230) — of roles between 1980 and 2003, before retiring to become a yoga instructor. So if you are ever at the Golden Palms Spa in Bangalore, be sure to stop by for a session so the guy who dusted it up with everyone from Mithun and Amitabh can stretch you a bit.
Anyway, when Commando grows up, he becomes what this movie calls a commando, though apparently the discipline and structure of the Indian commando squads is considerably more lax than what I might have thought. He also works out now while wearing acid washed jeans, suspenders, and a red tank top, which might explain why he isn’t really in that good shape. Mithun is assigned to the garrison in charge of security at a munitions factory that is frequently the target of terrorists from “a neighboring country,” which is Hindi for “Pakistan.” Here, we get plenty of examples of the worst security detail in the history of security details, even worse than when the movie The Soldier moved a vat of weapons-grade plutonium, clearly marked “Weapons-Grade Plutonium,” on the back of a flatbed truck with only one guard and one county cop car to watch over it. Security is so bad at this weapons factory that no one even notices that the acting manager and the head of security are both in league with the dastardly terrorist and disco mogul (they are eee-vil discos) Mr. Marcelloni, played by the always-welcome Amrish Puri, doing his best “crazy eyes” for this film and decked out in attire that seems to have been purloined from the wardrobe of Captain Harlock, where Harlock had left it for a long time on account of his judging the outfits to be “a little too flamboyant and foppish.” You’d think that the factory in charge of manufacturing most of the weapons for the Indian government would be under closer scrutinization, but no one seems to pay that much attention, and the commandos there all seem to be mercenaries rather than actual members of the army.
Marcelloni’s evil plan involves stealing munitions from the plant so he can give them to terrorist cells that will use them in ways that will incite Indian-on-Indian violence and drive a wedge between the Muslim and Hindu populations of Hindustan. To accomplish this nefarious scheme, he has employed the assistance of Ninja, who runs a ninja training camp where the ninjas swing on monkey bars and jump on trampolines. Considering that the entire idea behind ninjas is that they should seamlessly blend into their surroundings, having a bunch of guys in the recognizable black outfits, masks, and hoods probably isn’t going to help them mix with the locals. But then I guess a decked-out ninja in India isn’t going to be any more or less conspicuous than the same in downtown Los Angeles.
Commando suspects that something is up, but he is stymied by management, which means this is one of the first films to feature a highly skilled commando who is constantly hamstrung by a middle manager in a comfy sweater. If this was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s commando, he would have just thrown a saw blade at the guy’s head, chopping off the top of his skull and affording Arnold the chance to say something probably involving “the top of your head.” But Commando is more polite, so he simply accepts the abuse while attempting to woo the daughter (Asha, played by Mandakini) of the plant owner (played by Om Shivpuri, who we last saw hassling Mithrun as the evil Oberoi in Disco Dancer).
This all sounds pretty complicated, but by Bollywood standards, that’s a straight-forward plot, and before too long, Commando is part of a convoy that gets attacked by Ninja and his ninjas. Although the head of security orders his commandos not to resist (what’s the point of armed commandos, then?), Commando disobeys and whups out some serious kungfu fury against the ninjas. I don’t know why no one else questioned the fact that the head of security would order the armed guards to lay down their weapons and do whatever the ninjas say, but that’s just life in the world of Commando. Asha is also along for the ride, because the promise of terrorists and horrible death is more than she can bear to let pass her by. Although she describes herself as a “dangerous woman,” her danger seems to manifest itself primarily through screaming, though she does have pretty miraculous powers that allow her to survive a fiery car crash without a scratch, as well as allowing her to appear barefoot in one shot and wearing shoes in the next.
This is a pretty damn good fight scene. It was also pretty good the first time I saw it, in American Ninja. You might think that American Ninja is a little low on the food chain to have people ripping off entire scenes, but you would be wrong. You could take this whole sequence, hold the film negative up against the American Ninja negative, and everything in every frame would match save for the darkness of the hero’s skin. Fight choreography in Bollywood films has always been, let’s say, bad. Even modern films have pretty wretched fight choreography (I recently watched Dhoom and was stunned by how awful the fight scenes were in such a high-profile film). I don’t know why India never hired away all the quality Hong Kong talent the way the United States did. By Bollywood standards though, the martial arts in Commando are pretty good, and they manage to be on par with at least the lower end of the Hong Kong spectrum from the early 80s. Plus, Commando uses one of those four-pronged tire irons (there must be a word for those) as a throwing star!
Commando and Asha are forced by ninja pursuit to flee, only defeating the ninjas by jumping off a small cliff into a river. The ninjas are worried about getting their outfits wet or causing their shuriken to rust or something so they call off the pursuit. Commando and Asha end up either in Pakistan or China. It’s hard to tell which. I think it’s China, with lots of Indian guys wearing fake pointy Chinese eyebrows and Fu Manchu mustaches. Marcelloni’s men pursue Commando and Asha, until our heroic duo enlist the aide of a “hilarious” fat guy who, for some reason, is living in the wilds of China where no foreign person would have ever been allowed to settle by the communist government. He also loves Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar and mistakes our heroes for the popular Hindi film music duo, leading to him agreeing to help them escape via use of his antique car that, for reasons no one will ever bother to explain, is equipped with James Bond gadgets like oil slicks and smoke screens. And, umm, the ability to fly.
All right, let’s pause and take a breather. I know I’ve lapsed into plot summary, which I try not to do, but this is a special case since there’s just so much ridiculously crazy shit in this movie. So far, you have ninjas, including one named Ninja; you have the number one most vital weapons plant in India staffed at the management level almost entirely by terrorists; you have a fat guy with a flying car, fake Chinese peasants, cobra attacks, automotive parts shurikens, kungfu, and a criminal lack of even the most basic security measures taken to safeguard India’s cache of weapons. You have a villain in what looks like a holiday sweater, a villain in a sparkling “queen of the fops” get-up, and a villain with an amazing pompadour mullet. And standing between them and the realization of all their evil plans is Commando, doing his best to suck it in and look like he didn’t pack on twenty pounds in between Disco Dancer and this.
But wait, there’s more! As punishment for disobeying the direct order not to do what he was employed to do (fight ninjas), Commando is assigned to deliver another cache of weapons. Alone. To some random warehouse. Does no one question any of this? Isn’t Sonny Deol out there somewhere going, “You call this commando work?” Needless to say, the warehouse is crawling with ninjas, and Commando must fight his way through them while someone attempts to steal the weapons truck, leading to a chase scene that is almost identical to the one where Indiana Jones chases the truck with the Ark of the Covenant in it. Not one, but two fruit stands get knocked over!
The gist of everything is that Marcelloni wants to frame Commando as a traitor, steal some weapons, and then assassinate the Indian prime minister. It turns out that Marcelloni, Ninja, and the current head of factory security were the other people who tried to kill Indira Ghandi way back when and succeeded instead in killing Commando’s dad. In order to force the factory owner to go along with the plan, Marcelloni kidnaps Asha and spirits her away to a sprawling lair atop a Himalayan mountain. Now it’s up to Commando and one other guy to sneak across the border, storm the compound, rescue Asha, kill everyone involved in the terrorist organization, and then foil Ninja’s attempt to kill the prime minister. You’d think at this point someone would alert the Army or something, but whatever. To help Commando, he is put in contact with a female secret agent who has infiltrated the terrorist organization disguised as — you guessed it — a dancer. If Bollywood film has taught me anything it’s that all dastardly Pakistani terrorist organizations make a habit of hiring Indian dancers to amuse them.
The finale lacks ninja action, but it makes up for it with plenty of other insane stuff cribbed from James Bond movies, or possibly from Where Eagles Dare. Clad in matching, padded red vinyl vests, Commando and his friend Dilher Singh parachute in while just holding on to the straps of the parachute rather than actually wearing it, scale the walls of the fortress (which is as much Piz Gloria from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as it is the Nazi castle from Where Eagles Dare), hook up with spy Zum Zum (played by Kim, who was last seen here as the love interest in Disco Dancer), and lay waste to the entire compound, including holding a room full of conspirators (most of whom seem to be unarmed) at gunpoint, then mowing them down gleefully with a rain of machine gun fire. Schwarzenegger’s commando would be proud. Then everyone heads outside for a wild showdown in and on top of one of those cable cars that can’t be placed in a spy film without someone having a fight in and on top of them.
This is some good stuff, and I savored every second of it. For starters, there’s our hero. It’s only been five years in between his appearance in Disco Dancer and his appearance in Commando, but Mithrun looks like he’s aged twenty years. His face is starting to sag, the bags and black circles under his eyes are even more prominent than they were in Disco Dancer, and he looks to have packed on plenty of extra pounds. Someone was letting his mom feed him by hand a little too often. Maybe that gut he keeps unsuccessfully trying to suck in is just extra emergency rations, or maybe it’s so big because that’s where he keeps the burning fire of his pride and patriotism for India. Whatever the case, he’s not in the best shape. Funny thing is, if he’d grown a thick mustache, I would have accepted the extra pounds without a second thought. I expect chubby guys with mustaches to be saving both India and the Philippines. But when a guy doesn’t have a mustache, for some reason I can’t explain, I expect him to be better built if he wants to save the country. Mithun’s sole contribution to the craft of acting in Commando is a facial expression that hovers somewhere between befuddled and constipated. Who cares, though, because he gets to shoot rocket launchers, get in sword fights, leap over cars, and do kungfu. Despite his rather “tater skins and beer” physique, he pulls off the action scenes pretty well.
Opposing him is Amrish Puri as Marcelloni, making googly eyes and wearing fabulous majorette jackets. Western fans may not recognize the fact, but they know Puri best for his role as the wicked cult priest in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Sadly, he doesn’t pull Commando’s heart out and show it to him in this movie, but since there are ninjas and flying antique cars, we’ll let that pass. Puri is always a dependable bad guy, and whatever Mithrun lacks in charisma or presence is more than made up for by Puri’s eye-rolling, scenery-chewing hamfest of an acting job. Now this is how you play a villain, all bellowing and fist-pounding and letting loose with the, “Mwaa-ha-ha!” Without a doubt, this man is my all-time favorite Bollywood villain actor (just wait ’til we get to him in Mr. India, where his acting is even more sublime).
The henchmen and supporting cast are all solid old India hands. I thought at first that the evil middle manager in a sweater was played by the same guy who played Sam, the evil king of disco in Disco Dancer. But I guess the mustaches confused me, because Sam was played by a dude named Karan Razdan, who had practically no career in Indian cinema (considering the average career seems to consist of like two hundred films). Lately, however, he seems to have mounted a bit of a comeback as a director and writer. Unfortunately, the evil middle manager Mr. Bhalla is played by a guy named Dalip Tahil, who doesn’t look a whole lot like Karan Razdan once you remove the moustaches. But whatever. I’m still going to pretend that the evil disco king eventually grew up and became a facilitator for terrorists. None of this changes the fact that, while Amrish Puri is the main villain, Tahil’s odious Mr. Bhalla is the bad guy you can really hate. After all, terrorist masterminds in Freddie Mercury jackets are sort of exotic, but we can all relate to having a boss who’s a prick. Unfortunately, we can’t all go out and commando his ass with rocket launchers and ninjas. Actually, despite all the exotic tools of death on display in this film, Bhalla is apparently killed by falling into a pool.
As the female lead, Mandakini has very little to do other than smile, look cute, and scream in fear. It seemed like they were going to set her up to be a Zeenat Aman style bad-ass, but all she ever ended up doing was hanging around other people who did all the blowing up of bad guys. She is cute, though, and I look forward to seeing her again in Dance Dance, from the same people who brought you Commando and Disco Dancer, only with breakdancing. More active but in a much smaller role is Kim as Zum Zum, who like in Disco Dancer, plays a woman who knew Mithrun as a child and grows up to encounter him again. This time, it’s because her father was killed alongside his father in that failed assassination attempt, causing her to become a spy while Mithrun became Commando. As is always the case in Indian film, she is undercover as a dancer, something they do almost as often as female cops in America have to go undercover as strippers or prostitutes. Kim performs well, though her dancing is questionable (seriously — The Robot?) and I miss her shiny gold go-go boots.
Rounding out the cast from Disco Dancer is the always-dependable Om Shivpuri as Asha’s father. He doesn’t really have much to do in this film other than say, “I will never betray my country!” while looking indignant, but he’s a welcome addition to the cast never the less. Hemant Birje has a role as Dilher Singh, Commando’s friend and apparently the only other member of their elite force who can ever go into action. He’s not good for much until he starts blowing things up during the finale. Oh yeah — Commando also has a mom who goes insane when her husband is killed, and spends the movie rocking back and forth in a mental hospital until the end, when for some completely unexplained reason, she is in attendance at the conference where Ninja plans to kill the prime minister.
All of this brings us finally to the mysterious Ninja, played by a guy named Danny Denzongpa. Denzongpa has an interesting career that began in the Army, then led him a variety of small roles, usually as a villain, before he was cast in the role as the lead heavy in Sholay. Unfortunately, a conflict of schedules required him to bow out of that film, and the part went to Amjad Khan instead, who was made an instant mega superstar as a result. Still, it’s not like Denzongpa had a bad career despite starring in films like Commando. He’s still acting regularly and enjoys a wide degree of respect and acclaim. Plus, he’s an accomplished singer, having performed numbers along with Asha Bhosle, Kishore Kumar, and Mohammed Rafi, presumably while they were all sitting in a flying car piloted by a giggling, fat white guy. As Ninja, he looks convincing. At first, with my poor eyesight and his ninja outfit, I thought they’d gone and cast an actual Japanese actor in the role of Ninja, because he was looking sort of like Tadashi Yamashita back when he was rocking the luscious mane of hair and a mustache. Mustaches have really been throwing me off in this movie. He hardly has any lines other than, “Hello, I am Ninja,” but he looks good in his red ninja outfit and performs well in the fight scenes, and that’s all we can ask.
Commando comes to us courtesy of writer-director Babbar Subhash, India’s one-man answer to Cannon Films. He did not write, direct, or produce a whole lot during his career, but what little he did do is pure exploitation film gold. Besides Commando and Disco Dancer, the man gave us the aforementioned Dance Dance (which stars Mithun Chakraborty, Om Shivpuri, Amrish Puri, Dalip Tahil, and Mandakini) as well as The Adventures of Tarzan, a Bollywood take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ lord of the apes, which also starred Hemant Birje, Om Shivpuri, and Dalip Tahil. So basically, the man had a core crew with whom he worked on most of his films, and the results were almost always completely bonkers. He’s a pretty bad director, but he gets the job done in that sort of crude and awkward way one expects from low-budget action exploitation directors from the 1970s. There are bad edits, poorly framed shots, and other technical problems, but anyone whose been watching similar films from other countries will be familiar and perhaps even comforted by the workmanlike barely-competent direction.
Additionally, Bappi Lahiri did the music for almost all the films, and his work is nothing if not horrible. Although I applaud his various hits in Disco Dancer, including that disco love theme to Krishna and the one that used the chorus of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” his music in Commando is decidedly less memorable. In fact, for the most part it’s downright awful. The only musical highlight in the entire film is the fact that any time someone leaps into action, they steal the score from Star Wars. This may throw some people off, but if you’ve watched enough old kungfu films, you’ll realize just how often music from Star Wars gets appropriated.
The dancing in Commando is as inspired as the music, and this is one of the few times I’ve given in to the temptation to skip ahead a bit. The musical numbers lack all of the color, delirium, and pageantry one expects from a Bollywood musical number and instead feature a chick walking around while some guys in fatigues lounge about in the background. Luckily, there are only four of them. Commando and Asha have a musical love number set against the majestic backdrop of the Himalayas, except the song is awful, they spend most of their time falling down, and the Himalayas are actually foothills with mountaintops drawn awkwardly onto them in post-production. They also have a dance at her birthday, then Commando dances with Zum Zum in the only halfways entertaining musical number, seeing as it contains people doing The Robot and there’s a shirtless guy in hot pants and a tie for no real reason. And then there’s the number based around them escaping from China or wherever the hell they were supposed to be. It’s only sort of a musical number, really, as the focus is far less on the stupid song and more on the fat guy’s magical car that can shoot fire and transform into a toy. The opening is sort of a musical number, but I count that more as a training montage. And the evil manager and Asha visit an evil disco owned by the evil Mancelloni, but that only lasts a minute. After the candy-colored madness of Disco Dancer, it’s all sort of a let-down. I was really hoping the ninjas would get involved in at least one musical number. No dice.
But like I said, I didn’t go into Commando hoping for the usual merry old Bollywood time. I went in hoping to get a hilariously over-the-top ninja movie, and on that level, Commando does not disappoint. By 1988, Hong Kong was well into the New Wave, and performers like Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Ching Siu-tung, and Tsui Hark had revolutionized martial arts choreography and filmmaking, elevating it from the depths to which it had fallen when the Shaw Brothers Studio began to falter and creating films that melded breathtaking, revolutionary action and stunt choreography with world-class direction and production values. Commando would not find any company among these films.
However, if you set the time machine back a decade or so — which seems to come with the territory when you’re dealing with a Mithrun film — Commando clicks nicely into place alongside solid 1970s kungfu fare. The energy, writing, and stunts are all way better than what you get in those Tang/Lai/Ho abominations I so dearly love — which, if you’re only familiar with Commando and the quality of filmmaking on display therein, should serve as warning for you never to wander into the fertile, ninja-and-manure-covered fields of Godfrey Ho, Thomas Tang, and Joseph Lai. Commando boasts a lot of action, both armed and unarmed, and the ninjas show up for three scenes of pure gold. The first is simply a glimpse of them at their training academy, which is the same training academy ninjas seem to have no matter which country made the movie. Lots of rope swings, trampolines, monkey bars, and stuff like that. If you saw that now-famous video clip of Al Quaeda guys in hoods at their training camp, you know what a ninja training camp look like. At least it makes sense for ninjas. After all, they are frequently swinging around and scaling walls and whatnot. I never did understand what value Al Quaeda guys were suppose to get from monkey bars and jumping over that wall.
The other two scenes are choice fights in which ninja mayhem reigns supreme and in full glory. You’ll not find finer ninja action this side of Sho Kosugi, though I suspect that the real inspiration for this film was Michael Dudikoff’s American Ninja. In fact, as odd as it may seem, it is this film’s similarity in places to American Ninja that make it uniquely Indian among most ninja movies. Ninjas in the 80s were often cast as terrorists or drug runners or gun smugglers. Whatever the popular crime of the week happened to be. And almost always, the motivation of the hero came from one of two things: either he fought the ninjas in the name of revenge (pretty much all Sho Kosugi movies) for the ninjas or someone else killing a loved one, or he fought the ninja to protect the sacred secrets of ninjitsu (a bunch of those Lai/Tang/Ho films).
But Commando is motivated by something rarely seen in a ninja film: patriotism. Once again, we have an Indian action film in which the righteous and noble Indian hero must defend his motherland from the evil Pakistanis…err, I mean a neighboring country. Commando is very explicit in stating that Muslims are not the enemy, as Indian Muslims are as awesome as their Hindu neighbors, and instead that it’s Pakistan in particular that is responsible for everything awful in the world. It’s really no different than the equally jingoistic American films from the same era, which saw the Russians as being so troublesome that we eventually had to send Rocky over there to lift up an ox cart and run through the snow. Commando is serious about his patriotism, though. As a young boy, he pauses to salute the Indian flag and do flips off an Indian army recruitment billboard. Initially, his opposition to the ninjas is purely political and patriotic. Luckily, this being a ninja movie, he like the American Ninja, eventually discovers ample reasons to make the fight personal. If only Commando, American Ninja, and Sho Kosugi could team up, the world would be free of all problems.
Never mind that these ninjas are as noisy as a herd of elephants and couldn’t possibly sneak up on anyone. Never mind that their swords look to be some weird amalgamation of katana and Indian style saber. All that matters is that they backflip all over the place and go nuts. In addition, Commando has several one-on-one fights with Ninja, all pretty good. The fact that Commando logs solid ninja action alongside so much other absolutely bizarre nonsense makes it easily one of the best ninja exploitation films ever made. The musical numbers are lame. The plot is full of holes so big that Commando could drive a truck covered in ninjas through them. Everything is slapdash and cheap looking. The special effects are horrible. But man, who gives a crap about any of that when you have a slightly out-of-shape Mithrun running around in a Michael Jackson vest, fighting a guy in a Captain Harlock jacket and facing off against backflipping ninjas? Plus, Bob Christo rocks the OP baseball cap across the decades. The action in Commando is totally insane, and while it may fail to impress as an example of Bollywood filmmaking as people expect Bollywood filmmaking to be, it is a resounding triumph within the realm of really stupid ninja exploitation films from the 1980s. The choreography isn’t in the same league as the best from Hong Kong in the 80s, but it easily keeps pace with American movies and some of the junkier martial arts films of the 1970s. With a movie like Commando, I almost hesitate to review them, because I know I’m going to forget to mention so much of the stuff that goes into making the movie cool. But I guess that leaves room for your own discovery.