The Commander (1988)


We come to the end of the three movies Lewis Collins signed on to do with producer Erwin C Dietrich, and I’ve warmed to him a bit. A smile from him seems more hard-won than a smile from some other random action star, and you know he was bothered about making things look legit, from his side at least (he joined the Territorial Army and would’ve progressed further, but for his celebrity status). People who appeared in at least two of the three they made together – Klaus Kinski, Lee Van Cleef, Manfred Lehmann, Hans Leutenegger, Frank Glaubrecht, Thomas Danneberg and John Steiner – so if you’re going to watch all three (and you could do a lot worse, even though they’re all directed by the same guy and are therefore pretty similar stylistically), be prepared to think “hold on, they were enemies in the last movie, what happened?” several times.


“The Commander” also benefits from really being paid attention to in the first third, because it’s a touch on the difficult side to figure out what’s going on and what the various people are fighting for. But let’s have a go! The military of some unnamed Far Eastern country are selling drugs to various unpleasant Europeans, and a fellow by the name of General Dong has decided to earn himself a promotion with a bullet, and takes over the manufacturing, deciding to double the prices, which upsets the Mafia representative who’s come to make a purchase. Also, just to make sure you’re on board that this guy is definitely a villain, he rigs the Mafia guy’s helicopter with explosives and blows it up in mid-flight – no reason, other than the miniature special effects guy had a spare helicopter to use. This upsets our principal villain, Colonel Mazzarini (Van Cleef) who’s part of some cartel with the Mafia guys. Or he sold guns to Dong’s predecessor and doesn’t like the change and the price hike. Honestly, I’m not sure, because I was a bit distracted by his butler, one of the great Italian B-movie “That Guy” actors, Paul Muller (“Vampyros Lesbos”, “A Virgin Among The Living Dead”). One of the wonders of this sort of cinema is seeing people whose styles do not match at all acting alongside each other – from Ernest Borgnine and Klaus Kinski in “Code Name: Wild Geese”, to Van Cleef and Muller in this, it’s a fascinating mix.


So, Mazzarini decides to hire super-badass mercenary Major Colby, who isn’t into being a drug dealer but has zero morals, so happily takes on the task of pretending to deliver some guns to Dong, in return for piles of drugs. The actual plan, though, is to get close to him and blow up one of his drug refineries, in retaliation for the killing of the guy at the beginning. I think. I try and keep notes on these things, but this bit was pretty confusing, as it happens at the same time as the other main strand of plot (more on that in the next paragraph). This is pretty similar to “Code Name: Wild Geese”, and even re-uses a bit of footage. Act 2 is Colby assembling his team and beginning the arduous journey to Dong’s compound – his team is a pleasantly multi-ethnic / nationality group, with perhaps the oddest choice being John Steiner (who played a Scot in “Kommando Leopard”) with a French accent so shocking that even cheesy 80s sitcom “Allo Allo” would have rejected it for being a bit too fruity.


Much like “Kommando Leopard”, Collins has to share leading man duties with Manfred Lehmann, who played the Priest in that movie. Here, he gets what I consider to be the A-plot, first as Mason, one of Colby’s old friends who’s killed in an anti-drug operation, then as Hickock, a spy who’s given plastic surgery to look like Mason, infiltrate Colby’s group and ensure the drugs are all destroyed (he also get the love interest B-plot).Lehmann is a totally decent actor and has had a fine career in Germany, and is the only person who really has much of an arc in this, with Colby beginning and ending the movie as a super-intelligent, super-badass soldier of fortune who’s always two steps ahead of everyone.


Hickock’s CIA handler is none other than Donald Pleasance, who does most of his scenes in a nondescript office building (wonder if he was annoyed that, for instance, Van Cleef got a free holiday to the Italian Riviera to do his?), and he’s the most obvious comic relief in the movie (although there are others). Talk about a style clash, as Collins smiles twice and is otherwise utterly serious – whether he’s charisma-free or just has a different sort of charisma is a question I shall leave you to answer, dear reader. The comic element is the most obvious difference between this and “Kommando Leopard”, which had no laughs or levity at all. It’s a bit jarring to go from jungle fighting to Pleasance clowning around with a cigar, but it’s not boring, I suppose.


Add a really entertaining final fight, as our “heroes” storm the drug compound, and this is a solidly entertaining slice of action. It’s not all perfect – a cobra kills someone virtually instantly, when it would take ages normally; there’s a weirdly choreographed mud fight that goes on forever, and there’s also an enormous “haha all our friends are dead” near the end. But still, it’s a decent, entertaining movie. Great cinematography as well, although none of the sets are as good as the ones they found for “Kommando Leopard”, which I think is my favourite of the three.


A final word about Lewis Collins, for whom this was his last starring role – he’d go on to a few smaller TV roles after this, and often did regional theatre work, but largely retired from full-time acting in the late 90s. While “The Professionals” is still a huge part of the British national psyche (to people of a certain age), these three movies see him as a pretty wooden leading man, and one who, after losing the James Bond gig in the early 80s, probably stopped trying. I’m not saying Antonio Margheriti was the man to pull a great performance out of him, but while stoicism might be a good thing for actual military people, it’s not all that useful for B-movie action leading men.


Rating: thumbs up


Code Name: Wild Geese (1984)

Most misleading DVD cover ever?

Most misleading DVD cover ever?

For British people of a certain age, Lewis Collins occupies (still, probably) a big place in their psyches. As the former SAS paratrooper and mercenary turned anti-terrorism operative Bodie, Collins and Martin Shaw (as Doyle) kicked ass, indulged in light-to-medium sexual harassment of women and saved the day for the UK in “The Professionals”, which ran from 1977 to 1983. Loved by many, but…I never watched it. I was 7 when it finished and, so the story goes, Martin Shaw almost immediately disowned it and blocked any repeats til the mid 90s, by which time I was firmly in the grasp of the nerdy interests I still have. Collins, on the other hand, loved it, and got himself a black belt and joined the Paratroop regiment of the Territorial Army – he was also a drummer in early 60s Liverpool and turned down the chance to audition for the Beatles, the idiot.


So, “The Professionals” was a huge hit, and afterwards Martin Shaw went off to a long career in TV and film. Collins, on the other hand, had a slightly different arc, meeting with producer Cubby Broccoli  for the part of James Bond (which he lost due to being too aggressive in the audition, apparently); making the hit movie “Who Dares Wins”; then signing a contract with some German / Italian producers to make three action films which were commercial flops, of which “Code Name: Wild Geese” was the first. After that, he did bits and pieces of TV  before retiring from acting to sell computer equipment in the USA.


Collins’ director for his three Italian / German movies was Antony M Dawson (Antonio Margheriti), who also directed ISCFC non-favourite “Yor The Hunter From The Future”, and had a hand in the Andy Warhol-produced “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” movies too. I discover, delightfully, that these movies represent the end (along with ISCFC favourite “Strike Commando”) of the “Macaroni Combat” genre, Italian movies, with Spanish or German involvement, often filmed either in Italy or the Philippines – a genre that lasted from the early 60s to the late 80s. This is a long preamble to a movie which, realistically, doesn’t deserve that much, or any, research.


I’ve not even mentioned the weird casting! As well as Collins and his gang of European soldiers, there’s Ernest Borgnine as their DEA handler Fletcher; Lee Van Cleef as the helicopter pilot who signs on to help partway into the mission; and weirdest of all, Klaus Kinski with a dubbed English accent playing Charleton, the rich guy who’s funding Fletcher’s mission out of the goodness of his heart. That mission is to go into the “Golden Triangle” and destroy some opium refineries and distribution systems, so off set Commander Robin Wesley (Collins) and his guys.


Such emotion!

Such emotion!

To say it’s one-note is almost an insult to things that are one-note. They go into the jungle; kill some drug producers and blow up a refinery; some of them die; go to another place and blow something else up; more of them die; by the time of the last thing to blow up most of them are dead. A woman shows up at 35 minutes, but she’s really not that important and feels like she was inserted because one of the producers realised at the last minute it was a total sausage-fest. There’s also the twist reveal of who the real villain is, which is so obvious I was sure it was going to be a double-bluff – sadly, that was crediting the movie with too much intelligence.


Borgnine and Van Cleef have a grand old time, both seemingly doing it for the sake of a free holiday – although Margheriti directed many of Van Cleef’s spaghetti westerns, and I suppose he wasn’t that expensive to hire by the late 80s. Kinski goes nicely over the top, but his accent is so weird that it was difficult to concentrate on him. Collins, though, was a complete charisma vacuum, a stoic who betrayed no emotion at any time – if it was a character choice, then it’s a really weird one. It’s not like Collins didn’t have the range (he got his start on a sitcom) so, er, I got nothing. It’s hard to have any sort of connection to a lead character when he’s just a blank slate, I guess. There’s a thing about his son dying due to drugs, and this making it personal for him, but you’d never guess that was the case.


The thing is, its very relentlessness and curious choices make it rather entertaining. There’s very little down-time in terms of action and bizarre conversations (seeing Ernest Borgnine act opposite Klaus Kinski is just entertaining in itself), so if you give its leading man a pass, you’ll probably have a good time with this. Just don’t expect too much.


Rating: thumbs in the middle