Gun For Hire: Commando Squad (1987)

Matty tangles with Fred Olen Ray’s mercenary directorial assignment and unearths a real peach. 

Fresh from his CineTel twosome of Armed Response (1986) and Cyclone (1987), and just before he was bumped from another CineTel actioner, Bulletproof (1988), in favour of a different director, Fred Olen Ray was contacted by Trans World Entertainment. Despite initially loathing their previous Ray team-up, The Tomb (1986), Trans World’s contempt had turned to adulation after The Tomb raked in a boatload of cash for the company on video. In short, Ray was deemed a hot commodity, and just as CineTel were buying him out of his Bulletproof contract, Trans World offered the helmer a two picture deal. One was to be a sequel to William Malone’s Creature (1985) (which ultimately became Deep Space (1988)), the other COMMANDO SQUAD: a cheap n’ cheerful action programmer designed to ride the coattails of a certain Arnold Schwarzenegger movie that had recently done great business at the U.S. box office. 

Commando Squad was to shoot first and Ray has always made it very clear that it was a begrudging mercenary assignment through and through — although as early as 1992, his opinion on the project had started to soften.

“You know, it’s funny,” Ray reflected in Draculina [1], “You get to a certain point in your career and you say “I’ve worked this hard and I’ve come all this way” and then all of a sudden you feel like you’re in your backyard again making The Alien Dead (1980). It was somewhere around Commando Squad…At the time, I said I was only doing it for the paycheque and that I hated it. And I said it was the low point of my career — little did I realise the low point was yet to come! But as I look back on it, and if you like that type of movie, Commando Squad isn’t bad.”

Indeed, Commando Squad isn’t bad at all.

It’s actually rather good. 

As a piece of action, the film delivers on the meat and potatoes. There’s plenty of shooting and explosions; a couple of cool stunts like high falls and car chases; and a pair of scenes in which Commando Squad’s DEA agent heroes, Cobra’s (1986) Brian Thompson and ex-Playmate Kathy Shower, prowl around the brush, blasting bad guys, are precise and exciting. Having been ensnared following a botched undercover sting, Thompson’s suspenseful escape attempt in particular bristles with a twitchy, tense vigor and serves as a thrilling example of how adroitly Ray employs a multitude of styles across the film’s duration. 

In addition to the gristle and toughness of the action, Commando Squad finds Ray flirting with the sort of neo-noir stylistics and western trappings that characterised the brilliant Armed Response. The former is conjured in the film’s moody and atmospheric opening, as Shower’s narration (which becomes increasingly bemused as Commando Squad rattles along, perfectly capturing her character’s weary ‘someone’s gotta do it’ attitude) segues into the wet-slicked streets of downtown Los Angeles during a back alley bust. The latter transpires when we shift to the dust-strewn Mexican bordertown that a cartel has taken over, and is enhanced by the casting of western legend William Smith as the film’s primary antagonist, and Ray’s good luck charm, Ross Hagen, as a six-shootin’, stetson-wearing henchman by the name of Cowboy. Both styles are lensed with crisp authority by cinematographer/general filmmaking workhorse Gary Graver (Commando Squad was the first of a colossal amount of creative unions with Ray).

Grit and sturdy tech credentials aside, the real appeal of Commando Squad is nestled within its screenplay. While lacking the snotty, counterculture edge of his better-known work, Blood Diner (1987), Michael Sonye’s script is packed to the gills with his usual incidental quirkiness. It’s a mode that sits comfortably with Ray’s own never-completely-serious disposition, and he tackles Sonye’s oddball goofiness with an aplomb that belies his once claimed disdain for the material. The resulting sights are wonderfully, infectiously silly: the hulking Thompson baby-talking to a mouse; a kindly ol’ comic book store owner, played by ‘40s B-Queen Marie Windsor, outing herself as a covert weaponsmith; and a surreal, smirk-inducing moment of comeuppance in Commando Squad’s last reel, when the mortally wounded Smith tumbles into a hitherto unseen table stacked with Panama hats. Because of course. However, it’s the sheer vibe of Sonye’s writing that pleases. 

As with his and Ray’s preceding writer/director collaboration, Star Slammer (1986) (Cyclone doesn’t count ‘cos Sonye only appeared on screen, alongside his band, Haunted Garage), Commando Squad is at its best when we’re chilling with its colourful villains. Granted, Smith’s non-reveal as the mastermind behind the coke ring that Thompson and Shower have to thwart is a bit of a damp squib, preempting a similarly flubbed beat in Ray’s later, otherwise excellent Operation Cobra (1997) (where another supposedly virtuous character’s involvement in nefarious misdeeds is let slip to us but still pitched as a surprise in the plot), but it’s tremendous fun watching the perennial heavy huff on Cuban cigars and growl at his flunkies. The perma-grinning Hagen is suitably reptilian, and the rest of Smith’s dastardly throng are rounded out by Mel Welles, Russ Tamblyn, and a deliciously oily Sid Haig, who, as a Brucie Bonus, is dressed as if he’s raided the wardrobes of Miami Vice

Commando Squad opened in Los Angeles on the 12th of June 1987, which, if IMDb is to believed, was a week after Cyclone’s theatrical debut. In L.A., Commando Squad unspooled on a double bill with Trans World’s Catch the Heat (1987). As Ray wrote in his landmark tome, The New Poverty Row: Independent Filmmakers as Distributors:

“L.A. is not a city where exploitation pictures can normally get a screen… [And amazingly] within a week, Catch the Heat was pulled from distribution while [my] little $750,000 movie continued to play for a total of eight weeks!”

Here in the U.K., Commando Squad was released straight-to-video by MGM/UA in December 1988, the same month that Ray’s signature opus, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988), landed on British cassette via Colourbox. 

Interestingly, connoisseurs of Ray’s distinguished output might notice several narrative and structural parallels between Commando Squad and his subsequent action epic, the ace Active Stealth (1999) — so many, in fact, that you could consider it a loose remake…

Commando Squad (1987) Poster

[1] Draculina, No. 14, December 1992, Fred Olen Ray & David DeCoteau interview with Steve Voce  

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