surprisingly lackluster: Commando

In a recent discussion about 70s Bollywood, mere dost over at Teleport City mentioned that he was looking to combine two great tastes that taste great together: Bollywood and ninjas. I've believe I've mentioned my tendencies towards the researchy, and this is the kind of query that keeps me up past my bedtime. Fortunately, it took me less than 30 seconds to find Commando and send the recommendation on its merry way. And though ninjas are not something I ever seek out, I figured that they were likely to correspond to things I do enjoy, such as spies, villain lairs, or crass, fake-pretend Japanese elements; when a little more research revealed that the star was Mithun "I am a disco dancer" Chakraborty, I gladly hopped on board.

Bad idea.

Commando could have been so much more. Somehow the people in charge of this project managed to squander the following rich resources and wound up with a mediocre, half-arsed, unengaging snooze:
  • Mithun as a nation-saving soldier who has a love interest played by Mandakini (whom I've never seen before and I am shocked to discover is somewhat of a star, because she kinda stank here) and an espionage colleague played by Kim (a.k.a. Rita from Disco Dancer)

  • a supporting cast of Amrish Puri (as primo bad guy, of course), Shakti Kapoor, Om Shivpuri (a.k.a. Mr. Oberoi from Disco Dancer), Dalip Tahil, Satish Shah, Tom Alter, and Bob Christo

    (Note Bob's hat. Remember, it's 1988. Quite on-target, actually.)
  • ninjas, led by a guy named Ninja, who is also a would-be prime ministerial assassin (see above; I like that it isn't actually an Indian who tries to shoot Indira Gandhi here)
  • silly "special effects" like pink blood, clearly model cars in chase sequences, and Himalayan backdrops that are really just hills with snowy peaks painted on top

  • a snake on a plane (quite literally - although that does also work for a metaphor for how big a flop this was for me)
  • original music by Bappi Lahiri - that is, when it isn't gigantic plagiarized chunks of Star Wars* - which actually is one of the stronger points of the movie, even when the lyrics descend into "commando, commando, commando" or "it's a dance dance party."
I can't put my finger on what went wrong. There was so much potential for giddy stupidity here, and it just didn't work. I think the major missing ingredient - one that made Disco Dancer so awesomely ridiculous - was that no one here seemed to be having any fun and nothing was done with any glee. Even when a lot of effort seemed to be put into something, it was done lifelessly. I kept wanting to pause it and yell "Once more, with feeling!" The dancing was flat, the costumes unnoteworthy, the fights a giant muddle. Maybe the whole cast and crew were on Nyquil during shooting. Mithun seems to have aged decades in the few years between this and Disco Dancer, and his generally droopy expression throughout the movie sums up the impression it made on me.

Of course, with a team like this, there were a few delightful moments, but they were in passing and never cohered into an enjoyable arc. For example:

If the only reason your parachute is attached to your body is because you're holding its straps in your fists, isn't it likely to dislocate your arms?

Despite having a wild Mithun pawing at her leg and a knife looming of her body that I, for one, wouldn't want a knife anywhere near, our heroine remains calm. More than I could do. (This little sequence is pretty strange, actually. They're escaping ninjas or some such, and she's just complained that she can't run any further. He tells her to sit and proceeds to slash her skirt up the front with the knife. My guess it's to help her run better, but no one alludes to that. Her complaint was not skirt-specific and could just be because of her shoes or just being tired. The subtitles give no explanation about any of this. Anyway.)

Not long thereafter, still on the run, hero and heroine discover the shell of a crashed plane ("This plane must have crashed a few years ago," he helpfully points out) and take shelter for the night. Somehow it's filled with hay, and even though they're soaked from the rain, they find dry kindling to start a fire, which manages not to spread anywhere in the hay-filled plane.

Was 1988 too late to be doing the shopping cart and the robot?

There's a loony sequence within a car chase in which our hero and heroine are being aided in getaway by Satish Shah (his character is named Ram Chong and lives in a village with fake-pretend Chinese people, at least I think that's who they are, but it doesn't really matter, of course), who owns a red car dedicated to Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar (who do sing in this soundtrack, of course), and the continuity and cuts between the live footage and the bits filmed with models are awful. I can accept that Satish's wacky comic-relief car has a switch marked "parachute" that deploys a parachute and enables the car to float down safely from a mid-air jump, but having a wooded road suddenly change to a rocky cliff is too much.

The one consistently amusing aspect of this movie is the subtitles. They were crazy, and I loved them. The subtitler had an unconversational, stilted feel for the English language** and, more to the point, was also more often than not a bad writer, peppering us with things that didn't need to be stated, or certainly not stated like this. Some of the madness probably comes from the actual dialogue and was just translated faithfully, but I can only blame what I can actually understand.
  • "I have to give a good new for you."
  • "I have surely to go with gun convoy today."
  • [dialogue] bad guy: "The route by which we are going are very dangerous. Our convoy will be passing through the area of terrorist."
    heroine: "You mean original terrorist!...I will go for sure. I have never seen a terrorist."
    bad guy: "But Asha, these are dangerous people."
    heroine: "So what? I am a dangerous woman."
    A rich exchange, don't you think? I'd like to start calling Teleport City "original terrorist," as a mark of Bollywood in-crowd bad-ass-iness, but I'd also like TC to remain Cheney-free, so no go.
  • "Why is this entire happening?"
  • "I think the matter is very deep and serious."
  • "...the headquarters where Asha is being captivated"
I've said it before, and I'll say it again and again until somebody gives me the job: please have one of India's millions of fluent English-speakers read the subtitles before the movie is released.

In closing: Teleport City himself has recently said that boring is the real kiss of death for a movie, and I have to agree. Even here, despite not getting any of the elements to work well, the movie took no refuge in the last resort of "so bad it's good" - it wasn't so sloppy or under-resourced that hilarity or spectacular badness ensued - it just had no fizz of any kind. I don't know how they made everything so dull, wasting potential for both good and bad. I don't know if anyone will believe me, and I can understand why: the ingredients promise a loopy good time filled with excessive jingoism, bad 80s clothes, ninja fights, dizzying disco dancing, and campy Amrish villain fun. But it doesn't work. If you want to see for yourself, drop me a note and I'll send you the DVD.

* My advice? If you're going to lift music from another movie, try one that hasn't been seen by the entire planet.
** Please know that I think Indian English/es has/have absolutely nothing to do with the strange language in the subtitles.


Sharon said…
*Why* would you subject yourself to a Mithun Chakraborty movie??? Why???
babasko said…
oh wow now thats cool, i´m just watching "love love love" and there we too have bob christo with the same hat...evidence will follow
babasko said…
AND the starwars score..
D said…
I second Sharon's comment... why? why? I love the Indian Film Industry but some movies are beyond the pale... and yes, I wish someone would realise that subtitles are not a joke and need to be well written! Of course, sometimes (if one knows hindi) it's simply hilarious to just read the subtitles.
Keith said…
You and I are going to have to part company on this one. True, if you are looking for Bollywood spectacle, this movie will let you down. But if you are looking for ridiculous Hong Kong/U.S. style ninja antics, this movie is a definite score. I mean, right from the start, you have young Chandu doing push-ups that look more like he's making sweet, sweet love to the ground. Then they're on a playground. Then they're doing judo. Then they ride bikes, then horses. Always in different clothing. The kid's morning workout must be 12 hours long. Then you have tire iron shuriken, a ninja named Ninja, that flying car, ninjas on trampolines, ninjas fighting to the Star Wars theme, the Raiders of the Lost Ark truck chase in which not one but TWO fruit carts get overturned, cobra attacks, a villain with freaky eyes and a wardrobe stolen from Captain, there was too much great stuff for me to even keep track.

So yeah, as a pure Bollywood film fan, I can't see this movie working (music numbers are dreadful, for one thing, except for that first disco/kungfu fight) for you. But if you tend to waste tons of time watching old ninja and kungfu films, this is a great success (I'll rattle on in detail when I write a full review). And the choreography, at least for Ninja, was pretty good by the standards of, well, 1970s kungfu films.

As for the OP hat -- yes, the film is from 1988, but since that scene is set when Chandu is a young boy, that must put the scene in the early 1970s, which means that dude was way ahead of his time and a great trend setter.

So I guess agree and disagree. Bollywood glee and revelry? Not the movie for you. Cheap Hong Kong style ninja action? Oh hell yeah.
Keith said…
Oh yeah --- during the 70s and 80s, it was extremely common for cheap kungfu films to steal the score from Star Wars (i've heard it in no fewer than five films), as well as raiders of the Lost Ark, Battlestar Galactica, and the collective works of Kitaro.

So yeah -- I think appreciating Commando really does require an appreciation for the genre to which it belongs, as it has much more in common with them than with other Bollywood films.
Sharon and D - I may be done with Mithun after this! It's one of the hazards of being self-taught - I have no idea what to avoidyaar (sorry, in my head that's just one word, thanks to Main Hoon Na), so I stumble along. Usually I don't get things specifically because I think they will be bad, but I did indulge that here, but as it turns out, I just didn't have much fun with it, unlike Disco Dancer, which I find funnier and funnier each time I re-watch a scene or two.

TB - your secret is safe with me.

Keith - yeah, I think the genre thing about sums it up. I know absolutely zero about the kinds of things you're comparing it too, so I guess it's understandable that this wasn't fun for me. I did laugh quite a few times, so it wasn't a chunk of my life I'm desperate to reclaim or anything. I needed to watch this with someone who was fluent in it, so to speak. Not my kind of Bollywood - maybe because, as you say, it's hardly Bollywoody at all.

That said, I really am glad you liked it, and I am counting the minutes until your review, which I'm sure will be truly inspired.
Keith said…
You can't abandon Mithun just yet -- I'm going to buy his breakdancing movie next week.

And man, he really had to suck it in in Commando, didn't he? Someone was letting his mom feed him by hand a little too much.
Ooooh. Breakdancing. Yes, that will be required. Name please?
crazyhorse said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
crazyhorse said…

you haven't seen the real mithunda stuff.

he won the National award for the 1977 MRIGAYA (not a standard Bollyflick) and that was my first Mithunda flick.

I loved him in Hum Paanch (1980), Ghulami (1985) and Agneepath (1990) as well.

The reason why he has a whole bunch of these silly C-grade stuff is that in the late eighties, he went and bought a hotel/resort in Ooty, making it his adopted home, and then insisted that the Mumbai filmmakers who wanted to cash in on his "Disco Dancer" fame come to Ooty to shoot him. In turn, he did offer them huge discounts on hotel bills, but unerstandably, only the despo chaps took him up on this.

But do check out the ones I mentioned--you won't be disappointed.

Other notable mentions are Sitara (1980)--lots of RMA-value for you, Beth and of course, the deeply moving Bengali film, Tahader Kotha ("Their Story"). The subtitles are pretty good on the latter (since I don't understand Bengali myself).

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