Color, 1987, 102 mins. 9 secs., 91 mins. 45 secs.
Directed by Bruno Mattei
Starring Reb Brown, Christopher Connelly, Louise Kamsteeg, Luciano Pigozzi, Alex Vitale
STRIKE COMMANDO 2
Color, 1988, 96 mins. 8 secs. / 90 mins. 18 secs.
Directed by Bruno Mattei
Starring Brent Huff, Richard Harris, Mary Stavin, Mel Davidson, Vic Diaz
Severin Films (Blu-Ray, DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Like any good movie trend, Italy embraced the Vietnam action film in the 1980s with the same zeal it gave to post-apocalyptic and Raiders of the Lost Ark knockoffs. The leader of this pack by a long shot was director Antonio Marhgeriti, who kicked things off in 1980 with The Last Hunter and kept chugging along with Rambo-inspired films like Tiger Joe, Tornado, and Commando Leopard, which adopted the template to whatever jungle adventure location happened to be handy. Very late in the game (but still beating out stragglers like Braddock: Missing in Action III), director Bruno Mattei and his regular screenwriting cohorts, Claudio Fragasso and Rossella Drudi, decided to ride that wave with back-to-back combat action films, Strike Commando and Strike Commando 2, which feature entirely different casts but a shared love of gunfire and things blowing up all over the screen.
During a nighttime reconnaissance mission to a base in the Vietnam jungle, commando team leader Sergeant Ransom (Yor, the Hunter from the Future's Brown) and his men are caught off guard and sabotaged by an explosion ordered by Colonel Radek (Manhattan Baby's Connelly). After barely surviving and floating down river, Ransom gets in contact with his superiors and demands a rescue as he becomes regarded as a savior by the locals who find him. Aided by a grizzled French soldier, Le Due (Baron Blood's Pigozzi), he agrees to lead the most physically able villagers to safety with a promise to send back choppers for the rest once they arrive. Their journey turns out to be fraught with danger as Ransom uncovers a Russian operation in the vicinity, which leads to a tragic amount of bloodshed and an escalating quest for retribution.
"There's no one who can touch him in your whole damned Army!" is a typical spoken sentiment in this shameless patchwork of '80s Vietnam films, right down to copying the whole "pop out of the water spraying bullets all over the place" device that had already been parodied to death by this point. Of course, that's part of the charm here as the film veers at high speed through every war trope in the book but with that special Mattei and company spice we all know and love. Nowhere is that more evident than two scenes involving Brown's young savior, a village boy who gets regaled with odd Disneyland propaganda that leads to exactly the tearjerker resolution you'd expect. Along with the usual Mattei eccentricities, this one stands out thanks to its bizarre final act that includes some major time jumps and a violent epilogue in Manila that must be seen to be believed. Connelly doesn't have to do much in this one besides look concerned and bark orders, so it's up to Brown to carry the show here as he shows off his physique about as much as in Yor and gets to come up with lots of creative uses for grenades. However, the MVP here might actually be Alex Vitale (Urban Warriors) who has a field day as violent Russian thug Jakoda, whose anti-American raving is matched only by his physical strength. You really haven't lived until you see his two showdowns with Brown, which are pure action trash movie gold.
The following year, Mattei and his collaborators stuck around in the Philippines to shoot a direct sequel, this time with Ransom played by Brent Huff (Gwendoline) and easily the craziest casting coup of the Mattei / Fragasso cycle pulled off by roping in none other than two-time Oscar nominee Richard Harris. The result is just as nuts as you'd expect, delivering more wild action sequences including a very entertaining riff on the truck chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark for extra fun. The tone here is more of a breezy adventure movie than the barely connected predecessor, with Ransom sent into the heart of the Burmese jungle to save his old commanding officer, Major Jenkins (Harris), who was initially thought dead after a fiery nighttime confrontation. Teaming up with the feisty bar owner Rosanna Bloom (Stavin), he has to deliver a valuable stash of diamonds for Jenkins' release from the hands of drug-running Russians. As it turns out, the whole thing is more complicated than it appears with a particular snag involving local drug kingpin Huan To (Filipino exploitation legend Diaz). Also, there are ninjas.
Though not as physically imposing as Brown, Huff steps into the heroic shoes here well enough with his stoic screen presence and willingness to do a lot of his own stunt work making him a solid substitute. The part doesn't call for any real thespian skills here, so it's up to Harris to bring all the dramatic gravity necessary here with a more dedicated and nuanced performance than the part probably calls for, especially with things exploding around him every couple of minutes. He certainly wasn't sleepwalking for a paycheck here, and the end result is an amusing tonal patchwork of the ridiculous and the almost classy depending on which cast member is on screen. It's all highly entertaining and a perfect Saturday night movie if there ever was one, so plan your double feature viewing here accordingly.
Essentially sent straight to U.S. home video from IVE apart from a handful of very nominal theatrical screenings, Strike Commando was prepared in two versions, an Italian 102-minute cut used to sell the film at Cannes and a tighter 91-minute version that drops some dialogue scenes to get to the action a bit faster. Both versions are present on the Severin Blu-ray and DVD editions, which were released in tandem with the same formats for the sequel. The sequel didn't get anything close to the same level of love on home video back in the day, just getting a handful of VHS releases in Europe and Japan; the one was also prepared in two versions, an extended and theatrical cut, both of which are on the Severin Blu-ray and DVD editions. Both features have been given excellent new remasters with 2K scans from the original negatives, easily outclassing the fuzzy copies that have been floating around until now. Nothing to quibble with here; they look great from start to finish. The standard English tracks for both films sound nice with DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono tracks, featuring yellow optional English SDH subtitles; the Italian tracks are also included, but given that the subtitles don't really match much and have SDH designations all the way through, they're more of a curiosity you'll probably sample for a little bit. The extended version of the first film has some bits of dialogue that were only in Italian, so those are presented with subtitles where needed.
Extras for the first film start with "War Machine" (19m45s), in which Fragasso chats about doing uncredited co-directing on the film (as usual for much of his Mattei collaborations), his first time shooting in the Philippines (thanks to Pigozzi, who had "fled" there from Italy) despite his total lack of familiarity with the area, the cinematic ground forged there earlier by Apocalypse Now, a scary helicopter moment during location scouting, the process of casting the film and mixing Italian and Filipino crew members (with the cross-culture cooking and hallucinogenic liquor consequences that ensued), and the military cooperation that provided all the necessary vehicles. Then in "All Quiet On The Philippine Front" (13m11s), Drudi talks about the false belief that women don't enjoy action and war films, the requirement to imitate Rambo: First Blood Part II as much as possible, the narrative tropes she enjoyed exploring in the script, and the deliberately "cartoonish" nature of the main villain. Also included are a very lethargic and spoiler-laden "In-Production" promo trailer, plus the much better official English trailer. For the second film you get "Guerrilla Zone" (16m42s) with Fragasso covering a lot about his working relationship with Harris (who was as hard drinking as his reputation and spent most of his time in his hotel room), the division of duties between himself and Mattei on the production, the disciplined work ethic of the Filipino crew including some fearless stunt men, his later experiences doing horror movies in the Philippines with After Death and Zombi 3, and the major crew member who kept blowing all of his earnings at Manila casinos over the weekend. In "Michael Ransom Strikes Back" (14m29s), Huff starts off talking about his girlfriend Candice Daly shooting After Death at night in the same location before going into the challenge of keeping his physical appearance up in the extremely humid location and the great gusto blackjack aficionado Stavin brought to her performance (as well as their friendship that still endures today). A trailer is also included.
Reviewed on July 10, 2021