They Were Heroes: A Strike Commando Double-Feature
“We’re like… easy targets.”
The first time I ever saw Bruno Mattei’s name, it was in relation to another Severin release, the ripoff-tastic Shocking Dark, which was literally released in some countries as Terminator 2, even though its structure is almost a beat-for-beat remake of Aliens but in Venice instead of outer space, because why not?
Since then, I’ve seen a couple of the Italian schlockmeister’s other films, so I had some inkling of what to expect when it came time to watch Strike Commando and Strike Commando 2, which at least didn’t get released as Rambo’s Revenge or something. The first flick (which actually got a token theatrical release in my own stomping grounds of Kansas City) even pokes a little fun at the director’s tendency for… homage, let’s say, in a pre-credits voiceover which assures us that, “Any similarity to persons living or dead – especially dead – is purely accidental. Yeah, very accidental. Like one in a million, maybe.”
The person doing the talking is Michael Ransom (not, we repeat, not John Rambo) and he’s played by Reb Brown, better known to most of us as Big McLargehuge himself from Space Mutiny. Brown has played in lots of other movies, and was no stranger to Italian knock-offs like this, having also appeared in flicks like Robowar (also directed by Mattei), not to mention playing none other than Captain America himself in a few late-70s TV movies. Probably my personal favorite of all his roles was in the genuinely great (fight me) Howling 2: Your Sister Is a Werewolf.
He’s fantastic as Michael Ransom, in that very Gristle McThornbody kind of way that only Brown can be, and for most of the movie he’s what makes Strike Commando tick. Whether he’s extolling the virtues of Disneyland to the doomed kid from the village that rescues him or shouting “our father who art in heaven” as he jumps off the back of a boat about to explode, he’s a big, goofy delight the whole way through.
The movie itself, on the other hand, often feels restrained compared to some of Mattei’s other endeavors, even if it finds its footing in some of the most unlikely places. The descriptions of Disneyland, which take on the proportions of Big Rock Candy Mountain, are a particular high point. (“They got tons of popcorn there. All you gotta do is climb a tree to eat it.”)
The whole production is about two reels too long, and the ending feels weirdly tacked on, even while the entire movie has also been building toward it. Fortunately, the tacked-on ending may also be the film’s best moment, as the delightfully cartoonish Russian villain makes a triumphant reappearance complete with metal teeth. “Those Russian dentists make some pretty good dentures,” indeed.
“Restrained” is not a word that can realistically be used to describe Strike Commando 2, which unfortunately loses one of the original’s biggest assets even as it adds ninjas and Raiders of the Lost Ark “references” (for which I mean shots, costuming, and plot points lifted whole cloth) and Richard Harris – yes, the one who originally played Dumbledore. Replacing Bold Bigflank as Michael Ransom is Brent Huff who is, among other things, the director of the 2013 documentary Chasing Beauty.
Huff is perhaps more credible in the role than Slab Bulkhead would have been, especially with this version of Ransom engaging in a lot more things that vaguely resemble martial arts fights. He also shares nothing in common with the previous iteration of the character, save that both are supposed to be super good soldiers who were once Strike Commandos who served in Vietnam.
This time out, he’s much more of a wise-cracking, roguish asshole in the Han Solo vein than Splint Chesthair’s more earnest iteration in the last picture, while also being the more put-upon, plays-by-his-own-rules hero we were used to in action movies by 1988. This jokier take on the character fits with the film’s overall goofier tone – and if you weren’t already aware that it was goofier, the near-constant cartoon music will let you know.
This is also the kind of movie where I’m pretty sure some stuntpeople probably died while working on it. Not because the stunts are particularly spectacular (though there are a few good ones) but because the stunts and pyrotechnics are virtually nonstop and I have difficulty believing that this film crew was terribly concerned about safety.
Besides a bunch of scenes stolen from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the picture also lifts liberally from countless other flicks, including Predator. See, for instance, a go-nowhere scene where Ransom thinks he spots someone in the trees.
The plot, such as it is, involves team-ups and double-crosses that would probably be predictable even if they weren’t borrowed beat-for-beat from other, usually better movies, but there’s plenty to like in Strike Commando 2 as it throws everything at the wall time and again.
I mean, it’s hard not to have fun while watching an Italian movie, being shot in the Philippines, where a lift of the Arnold Ernst Toht character from Raiders wears a white suit and hat everywhere and bosses ninjas around while Richard Harris attempts to maintain some semblance of dignity and a character named “Rosanna Boom” (played by former Bond girl Mary Stavin) practically shouts every quip she says.
However, and I mean no disrespect to Mr. Huff when I say this, Reb Brown is sorely missed this second time around. There is, after all, a reason why we put our faith in Blast Hardcheese.