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Hipster Holy Grail: Commander / The Last American Soldier (1988)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

If you're an ironic movie fan, let me make this clear: Commander (aka The Last American Soldier) is not the movie you should watch at your weekly bad movie night.  Sure, I know it looks like a bad movie.  It's got a lot of stupid moments in it and the acting, music, and dialogue are frequently laughable.  But it's a textbook case of a Not Actually Bad Movie.  It sets out to be an action epic and that's exactly what it is.  I would say Commander is maybe 70% good action scenes, 10% melodrama that's more depressing than it is ironically hilarious, and only 20% bad movie.  I recommend it, but you have to know what you're getting before you plan an evening around it.

My Rating: 4 / 5 (Not Actually Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

Roger Craig (Craig Alan) is a Rambo-esque soldier in Cambodia.  Surprisingly, his back story is never given in very much detail.  All you really gather is that he used to be an elite soldier in one of the various US excursions into Southeast Asia and he stayed behind after his unit left to go home.  Now he wanders around fighting bad guys (translation: Soviets) wherever he can and rescuing POWs in his spare time.

Since he's his own operation, Craig shouldn't technically have a rank, but everybody calls him Commander.  So, I'm not trying to make a joke by calling him the title of the movie from hereon out.  That's just what his character is actually called.

Commander has two buddies who help him on his exploits, and I wish I picked up their names so I could refer to them properly.  They're never given any clear personality or characterization other than Buddy 1 and Buddy 2, so I'm going to make it up for them.  I'll say that the bald one is named Bull and likes to be clean and organized, but has to settle for the ramshackle life he lives ever since his family was killed in a government-sponsored raid on his home five years go.  Bull likes to fish and build birdhouses in his downtime, and he tinkers with gadgets whenever he sees them.  The other guy with the beard and messy hair is Bear, and he's the Oscar to Bull's Felix.  He enjoys jazz, painting, and drinking too much.

When the movie opens, Commander, Bull, and Bear are hiking through the jungles of Cambodia and stalking a convoy of soldiers who are transporting a truckload of POWs.  Commander plants an explosive charge in a dirt road and orchestrates a roadblock to trap the soldiers in place.  He blows up one of their jeeps, then Bull and Bear join him in mowing down all the soldiers in two minutes flat.

They escort the POWs back to Thailand, where Commander has made a home in a peaceful seaside village.  There he spends his downtime with Cho Lin (Tanya Gomez), his pregnant girlfriend, and her elderly mother who's suffering from PTSD.  The three of them are not exactly the picture-perfect family, but they work well together and clearly love one another.  Naturally, they'll all survive to the end of the movie, right?

While this is going on, we cut away to an Evil Military Office where the bad guys are stewing.  A cruel Soviet officer named Vlassov (David Light) is fuming because Commander keeps wiping out his men and freeing prisoners.  Vlassov has been on Commander's ass for awhile now, and even though he seems to know everything about Commander's identity, he just can't track him down.  Fortunately, one of the Cambodian officers under Vlassov's thumb has deduced the general area where Commander's village is located.

Back at the village, Commander gets a phone call.  Or something.  I mean, I hate to just say, "he gets a phone call" when we're talking about a literal village with no electricity or plumbing.  But it's hard to figure out the right way to word it.  He has a desk set up with a bunch of radio equipment, and his buddies tell him that there's a US officer broadcasting a message on the radio for him with an important secret message.

I'll be the first to profess my ignorance of all things military, but is that actually how this works?  Like, if you don't know exactly where somebody is, but you know the general area, is there actually a "private" radio channel you can just broadcast onto at random and hope that the guy you're trying to reach hears it before anybody else does?  Seems like a recipe for disaster, but I dunno.  Somebody with a grip on mid-'80s military tech will have to explain to me what's going on in this scene.

Anyway.  Commander gets a call from Patterson (Larry Brand), his old boss.  Patterson invites Commander to come to a nearby American base where he asks for help with an important mission.  It seems the Soviets have some newfangled Super Radios on a high-tech battleship stationed nearby, and Patterson needs somebody to go on board and steal them.  He could get some of his own men to do it, but he heard Commander was in the area.  Commander agrees to the mission as long as he gets "passports and some money" for himself, his girlfriend, and her mother.  (No specific terms; just "money."  Fair enough.)

Then the movie immediately cuts to the battleship.  I have to give it credit - the movie is way too long, but it doesn't have any downtime.  When Commander says he's about to do something, he goes and does it.

This sequence is a pretty good one.  There's nothing so unique or hilarious that I need to point it out; it's just a cool sequence wherein Commander sneaks around a ship and covertly kills like two dozen guys.  Then he steals the Super Radios and blows the battleship the hell up.  Not bad.

Unfortunately, while he's away on this mission, Vlassov leads a squadron into Commander's village and wipes it out.  Cho Lin is seen shooting a few guys before they can attack her, and then the camera cuts away before we see what happens next.

Commander delivers the Super Radios to Patterson at a rendezvous point in the jungle, and Patterson says he's going to hang out here for a little while to inspect the equipment and find out what makes it so Super.  He's also awaiting orders from the Pentagon as to whether or not they should take the Super Radios home or just blow them all up.  It's kinda stupid.  Why would you bother to steal them in the first place if you were only 50/50 on keeping them?  Indecisive pricks.

So, Commander basically says, "Hang tight here, I'll be back in a bit for those passports and an unspecified amount of money," and then goes home.  When he finds his village slaughtered, he has a freakout and starts looking for Cho Lin's body.  He doesn't find her, but he does meet up with one of his buddies, an elderly dude who is just barely hanging onto life.  He tells Commander that the Soviets have taken Cho Lin, and then he dies.

Now, either I missed something here or Commander is really talented at deduction, because his next thought is, "Hmm, Vlassov is holding Cho Lin for ransom and will kill her unless I bring him the Super Radios."  Somehow, he's totally right about this, despite not receiving instruction from Vlassov and despite the timing of Vlassov's attack not really matching up to Commander's raid on the battleship.  But whatever, we have a plot to continue.

He goes back to Patterson - who is wiring up the radios for destruction - to reclaim the equipment and take it to Vlassov.  They have an argument, but Patterson reluctantly agrees to turn a blind eye while Commander does his thing.

In the next scene, Commander walks up to Vlassov's base and kinda just shoves his way past all the guards.  They seem more confused than anything else, so nobody shoots at him.  He and Vlassov argue briefly, and then Commander tells Vlassov to meet him at a field up the road, alone, in a couple hours.  Vlassov agrees to play along, because it's not like they're a bunch of soldiers fighting a war or anything.

Cut to some empty field.  Commander is waiting near a pile of boxes and Vlassov drives up in a jeep with Cho Lin.  They march right up to each other in a dramatic pose out of a western and have a staring match.  Then Commander realizes that Cho Lin is slumped over and he runs to check her out.  He takes her pulse and realizes she's dead.  By the time he turns around, Vlassov is surrounded by sixteen soldiers who have materialized out of nowhere.

Vlassov tells them to arrest Commander, but Commander is full of Rage Strength.  He has a pretty good freakout here where he basically just clobbers all of the soldiers, one-by-one, as he tries to get to Vlassov.  They eventually subdue him, and then Commander reveals that the boxes are empty - the Super Radios are hidden somewhere else.

Vlassov takes Commander back to his base and starts torturing him to figure out where he's hidden the goods. These scenes are appropriately uncomfortable to watch.  First they tie a bag around Commander's head and fill it with water, and later they gang-whip him with swatches, but Commander refuses to talk.  After he's bludgeoned into unconsciousness, they toss him in a POW cell.

He comes to and realizes that Bull and Bear have also been caught.  They briefly talk about a plan until Commander explains that he's got some poison pills hidden on his person.  When he takes them, he will appear dead for about twelve hours, and then he'll wake up again.  In typical "let's cut to the chase" fashion, Commander immediately pops the pills, "dies," and then gets tossed into an open graveyard / death pond by the Cambodian soldiers.

When Commander wakes up, he stumbles across Cho Lin's corpse and has a moment to mourn.  Then he hunts down a weapons cache in the jungle and has a suiting up montage where he loads himself down with guns, bullets and explosives.  He also puts together an impressive looking rifle that seems to be five guns taped together, but I'll defer you to my previous comment on being ignorant about these things.  Somebody who knows guns should watch this movie and tell me what the giant thing he's holding at the end is.

Commander waits until nightfall and sneaks back onto the base.  He sneaks up on a few more guys and kills them, then hands weapons to Bull and Bear and breaks them out of the cell.

Then the three of them lay waste to the base, shooting the shit out of everything and everyone.  It's a great sequence.  It's pretty much just twenty minutes of explosions and gunfire, but there's a lot of good stunt work.  The bit players all know how to sell a death scene and you get some good falls off of towers and things like that.

Eventually, the POWs get away from the base, but Bull and Bear are both shot down by Soviet soldiers and die.  Commander briefly has a chance to mourn them, and then he goes to face off against Vlassov once and for all.

Oh, did I mention that Vlassov has climbed into a tank?  Because he's in a tank.

Now, given how good the action has been so far, and considering how talented Commander is at slaughtering people, and compounding that with the blood lust he must be feeling after all of his friends and family have been killed, you're really hoping for a big, knock-down, drag-out fight where Vlassov dies in an incredible way.  Unfortunately, Commander drops the ball here.  All that happens is that Commander sneaks up on the tank, breaks Vlassov's neck, and drops a grenade into the tank.

I'm not saying that having your neck broken by a psychotic, revenge-obsessed jungle warrior is a nice way to go, but man, how anti-climactic is that?  A neck break isn't a particularly fun thing to watch.  It's literally the cheapest, easiest way to kill somebody in a movie, because you don't need any special effects.  You don't even need blood.  You just need to have the victim go "Bleah!" and then you dub in the sound of a chicken bone snapping.  That's the kind of death you give to Guard #3.  You don't do that to your main villain.

Sigh.  Oh, well, at least the rest of the raid was pretty good.

Now, this really should be the end of the movie, but Commander mysteriously goes on for another ten minutes.  After he sneaks away from Vlassov's base with the POWs in tow, Commander sees Patterson flying a military copter and climbs aboard.  Then they see another helicopter chasing them, so Commander takes control a mini-gun and they have an aerial battle for awhile.  Eventually, Commander shoots the other helicopter down and they land.  Patterson tells Commander he can take him back home, and Commander says, "Nah, there's still POWs left for me to rescue."  And he wanders off into the jungle to go find another fight.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

So, let's look at that ending again.  That very last part where Commander says he's going to keep fighting is fine, but why the hell is there a helicopter battle right before it?  It's well-shot and fun to watch, sure, but there's not very much tension since it's completely gratuitous.

This is basically my main gripe with Commander.  The movie is just under an hour and fifty minutes long and it really should have been only eighty or ninety minutes.  Most of the bloat comes from these kinds of action scenes that are just tossed into the movie randomly.  (For example, one I haven't mentioned yet is a scene where a dozen guys try to sneak up on Commander's village early on, but he sneaks up behind them and stealthily kills them all.)  I know how weird it sounds to complain about this - "Why are there so many scenes of Commander being a badass?" - but it really is too much of a good thing.

Commander would be a treat at ninety minutes.  That's short and fast enough that you can enjoy the spectacle and occasionally laugh at some of the bad acting.  At an hour fifty, you start to feel tired.  It's almost like a monkey paw wish.

I'll have to admit, I was actually a little disappointed at how competent the action scenes were.  The opening action sequence is just silly enough that you think it might be a hilariously bad movie.  Then that's followed up with some hammy villain acting and bad dialogue, and you start to get the wrong impression of what the movie's going to be like.  I was floored when it turned out to be a good action movie.

Overall, this was a pleasant surprise.  Despite my complaints about the run time, it moves quickly and never feels slow.  Commander wastes time in the best possible way: by blowing shit and/or people up.  I think Commander himself gets in something like 200 kills by the time all is said and done - he's pretty much just laying waste to the scenery non-stop, and he keeps finding new and exciting ways to do it.  (Did I mention that he has throwing stars yet?  He totally does.)

By the end, even the campy, video-game-esque music was winning me over.  I enjoyed this movie quite a bit, and I would happily campaign for a restoration so we can watch it in crisp, HD beauty some day.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

So, here's the weird thing.  Commander technically gets the full obscurity bonus of 50 points because it has less than 100 ratings on IMDb, but the version of the movie I watched on Youtube has over 2,500,000 views.  That puts me at a bit of a loss on assessing its true hipsteriness.  Either that page count is misleading or the masses who have seen this don't like to rate movies.  Or maybe there's just one idiot who's been refreshing the page every two minutes for the last year.

Anyway.  There's no pedigree bonuses this week - there's no familiar hipster names among the production company, director, and star.  But that's actually good news for hipsters, so it gets a fifteen point "You've probably never heard of it" bonus.  It also gets another ten point bonus for having somebody in the cast that's got the same name as somebody much more famous; you can name drop this one as your favorite "Ken Watanabe" movie and then say, "No, I mean the other Ken Watanabe."

The content is a bit of a mixed bag.  Overall, the plot is not very hipstery.  (Personal vendettas contextualized by genocide are not usually in the hipster purview.)  But it is a grainy action movie from the '80s, which is extremely hipstery.  Those kind of cancel each other out, so I'll call the content a wash, except for a five point bonus for being an obvious Rambo knock-off.

Finally, I'll give half a recommendation bonus.  Ordinarily that's worth 30, but this time it's only 15 since the movie is a bit too long and not quite the comic adventure that hipsters may want.

All of that adds up to a very commendable 95 hipster cred out of 100, which is the most I've ever given and will probably remain a record for awhile.

Where You Can Watch

If you don't mind a grainy transfer and some Chinese subtitles, you can watch this for free on Youtube.