For many years now, the reputation of 1985’s Commando has risen exponentially. Once regarded as a cartoonishly over-the-top B-movie masquerading as a studio picture starring an actor best known for his bulging biceps rather than his thespian prowess, Commando has now been embraced as the prototypical Ah-nuld flick. The insane body count, defiance of physics and gravity, the simple kidnap-and-rescue plot, and the unstoppable nature of its leading man makes Mark Lester’s film the greatest video game movie ever made that was not based on any sweet, sweet game cartridge. Unfortunately, that is not the film I’m writing about today.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s filmography can pretty easily be divided into multi-level tiers. There’s the top-tier: the first two Terminator films, True Lies, Total Recall, Predator, Conan the Barbarian. I begrudgingly admit that both Twins and Kindergarten Cop deserve spots in the top tier as well. Neither has aged particularly well, but they were huge hits and I watched the hell out of them growing up.
The lower-tier mainly consists of his post-Governator work, but there were certainly some clunkers in his so-called salad days: Conan the Destroyer, Last Action Hero, Junior, Red Sonja, Batman & Robin. The rest of his work has its defenders as well as detractors, so it gets a bit stickier when we move into the mid-tier.
As stated above, Commando was very much regarded as mid-level Schwarzenegger fare until it steadily rose in the ranks and can now sit quite comfortably at the proverbial top-tier table. I attended a rare post-Disney acquisition screening of Commando at a near-packed venue and the response was magnificent. There are similar arguments to be made that films such as The Running Man, Red Heat, End of Days, Eraser, The 6th Day, and even Jingle All The Way could conceivably go either way. One film that must remain smack dab in the mid-tier, however, is 1986’s Raw Deal.
Armed with an irresistibly hokey soundtrack/score and a jarringly straight-faced sensibility amidst ludicrous plot elements, John Irvin’s Raw Deal suffers from a severe lack of fun. Even the poster for Commando incongruously states “Let’s Party!,” an indication of the tongue-in-cheek approach the following mayhem-infused epic would fail to deliver. Having truly broken through with The Terminator (1984) two years earlier, Raw Deal marked his second post-Terminator starring role. Sure, he’d been the title character of the Conan films, but now he was an A-list action star carrying a multi-million dollar film. This film was, arguably, the first time Arnold was expected to “act.”
I owe my father a great debt. At a very inappropriate age, I’d hazard about nine, he introduced me to Predator, Total Recall, and Commando. Not only did these formative viewings make me an unapologetic Arnold fan, but they also blinded me to his shortcomings as an actor. It’s been widely reported that Arnold was very conscious of his own screen persona and how to maximize his character’s impact in order to make the film work. Hearing an infamous story about Sylvester Stallone from the set of Victory(1981) in which Sly insisted that he be the player to score the winning goal even though it’s generally understood that goalkeepers do not score winning goals, it’s fascinating how these huge stars took umbrage with anything that would disrupt their carefully constructed image. For Schwarzenegger, he would often tell screenwriters to write him short, witty one-liners and let his muscles do the talking. Aligning himself with strong filmmakers, this tactic often led to his best work. Having seen Raw Deal, it’s abundantly clear that deviating from this carefully constructed pattern can be problematic, to say the least.
Mark Kaminski is actually quite a role for any actor. Although the plot is familiar, there’s an intrinsic watchability to the “will he or won’t he be caught” storyline of any movie in which a character is assuming a false identity. I could see this script working with a stronger (acting-wise) performer who could be suave and deceptive while also conveying a likable charm. Instead, we have Arnold, who is absolutely likable but lacks the necessary skills to make his acceptance into a Chicago mob gang believable. He doesn’t seem comfortable with the amount of material he’s been saddled with, which amplifies his weaknesses when delivering large swaths of dialogue. The character, a heroic former FBI agent, is the kind of role that was typical of 80’s action stars. They’re rough and tumble guys, but they have good hearts and would never commit the cardinal sin of adultery or use their abilities for illicit or monetary gains. In that regard, Kaminski is a role that should work for Schwarzenegger, but it’s hampered by his limited acting ability (which I do believe got much better over the years) and a script that's too preoccupied with making certain its leading man is practically an angel. It tries too hard by coming up with contrivances that hinder the character from ever doing anything morally wrong, including sleeping with another woman. I could see a much more layered portrayal of this character where he makes decisions that are morally wrong but ultimately serve the purpose of his mission.
The script is problematic, to say the least. Which is all the more surprising considering the talented writers involved, whose combined work includes iconic Sergio Leone films, Serpico, Joe, Saturday Night Fever, The Dogs of War, Running Scared, but also Orca, Staying Alive, and Mandingo (although I have a soft spot for all of those films, shoddy as they may be). The story makes sense, on the whole. Former FBI agent turned small-town sheriff goes undercover to infiltrate a mob gang and bring them down from the inside, but there’s a clunkiness to the writing and editing that feels as though there are scenes missing. Characters come and go, portraying, at best, archetypes; at worst, stereotypes. The plot moves along in the broadest sense by employing cliché after cliché.
Schwarzenegger fakes his own death and it’s never even indicated whether his wife was informed of his plan. There are no scenes of her mourning his passing; in fact she disappears after one unpleasant scene involving a cake with the word ‘shit’ frosted on top. Even though there is no way of knowing how long it takes for Kaminski to infiltrate the mob gang, it’s explained away in one sentence during the final scene that they’re back together. It’s very possible that any number of things could have happened because of his sudden departure. She could have remarried, rebuked him upon his return, even committed suicide because of her already depressive state. This represents lazy and simple-minded screenwriting at it’s worst.
Perhaps this film would have benefited from more dynamic direction, or at least a funkier sensibility. John Irvin is a talented, workmanlike filmmaker. Starting with The Dogs of War (1980), he had quite a run in the early 80’s, scoring box office success with Ghost Story (1981) and gaining critical acclaim for Champions (1984) and Turtle Diary (1985). From Raw Deal onward, it appears he had officially “gone Hollywood.” Sometimes this works: Hitchcock, Ang Lee, Preminger, Kotcheff, Verhoeven, Cameron, Ridley and Tony Scott, etc.. These are filmmakers who either came from independent cinema or other countries and were able to flourish, at least temporarily for some, in the extremely homogenized environment of the Hollywood system. After Raw Deal, Irvin directed Hamburger Hill (1987), a fine film that is arguably a more accurate depiction of Vietnam warfare than the recent Platoon (1986), but lacks the operatic intensity of Stone’s film. His follow-up, 1989’s Next of Kin, is a patently ridiculous little ditty that is enormous fun and could be a distant, hillbilly cousin to Raw Deal, considering the way it deals with similar themes. The last gasp seems to have come with the forgotten Eminent Domain in 1990 and 1991’s Robin Hood, a cheaper version of Prince of Thieves which beat that film to release by a month and stars the asshole from Sleeping With The Enemy (1991). It seems that he needed to take some time off to recharge his batteries since it was three years until his next film, the highly-rated Widows’ Peak.
The direction in Raw Deal is simple and to the point, but it lacks a certain flair. A more dynamic director might have had a bit more fun with the mob element, but in this case it feels like manufactured sleaze. For Irvin, it’s a perfectly serviceable approach to the material and his handling of the action scenes is crisp. An extended set piece involving mobsters in disguise robbing a police precinct followed by a town car chase/battle is highly enjoyable. Although Raw Deal sets itself apart from Commando thanks to its plot, the destruction of a gambling den and the final 30 minutes come closest to matching Commando’s aesthetic. In the former, Kaminski destroys the makeshift casino with his bare hands, then doubles down by driving a tow truck through the front door of the building, effectively disrupting a rival mob boss’ operation. The last 30 minutes, utilizing a fabulous electric guitar-laced, fist-bumping soundtrack and The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” show Schwarzenegger, like in Commando, gearing up with a ridiculous amount of weaponry and a bevy of henchman being mowed down like so much cannon fodder. It’s in these moments that the film becomes what it could have been.
The supporting actors perform amiably, given that they have very little to work with. Although Kathryn Harrold is fine as Monique, her presence in the film is often confusing. Her entire plotline, an indebted, sometime-employee of the Patrovita mob, could be excised without much consequence. She develops feelings for Kaminski, which he won’t act on; informs on him, which leads to nothing, and overall has very little to do with the plot, acting as filler at best. I kept expecting her to be an undercover agent or something like that, but no, just some floozy, no offense intended.
Ed Lauter, always effective as some kind of police officer, makes very little impression with a nothing role. Sam Wanamaker and Paul Shenar play their roles effectively as the mob boss and his second, respectively. They don’t stand out in the vast world of movie mobsters. Victor Argo, credited here as “Dangerous Man,” does a solid job in his single scene as a mob hit man tasked with eliminating a state’s witness during a relatively well-choreographed opening involving much carnage and blood squibs. Joe Regalbuto is appropriately smarmy as a Special Federal Prosecutor. The two bright spots are Darren McGavin and Robert Davi. For McGavin’s part, he acts circles around Schwarzenegger, bringing genuine gravitas to the role of an FBI agent willing to break the rules to wreak vengeance on those who deserve it. Robert Davi is great, playing a hard-as-nails mob enforcer who doesn’t believe Schwarzenegger’s bullshit for one minute. A sequence where he and Schwarzenegger rough up a deadbeat in a gay bar is distinctive in that Davi is very convincing when he tells Schwarzenegger not to interfere with his business unless he’s willing to accept the consequences.
Raw Deal was a disappointment at the box office but represented only a minor bump in the road for Schwarzenegger, whose star would rise to almost unthinkable heights a few short years later. As a relic of the 80’s action boom, it’s an enjoyable but rather bland affair, enhanced by the occasional action scene and bullet-riddled finale.