Strike Commando & Strike Commando 2 Blu-ray Reviews
Blu-ray Release: June 22, 2021
Audio: English and Italian LPCM 2.0 Mono (both films, all cuts)
Subtitles: English HoH
Run Time: 102:09 (Strike Commando extended cut), 91:49 (Strike Commando theatrical cut), 96:08 (Strike Commando 2 extended cut), 90:18 (Strike Commando 2 theatrical cut)
Directors: Bruno Mattei & Claudio Fragasso (uncredited)
Italian exploitation cinema was largely built upon mimicry of local or international hits. Out of mimicry grew tradition and significantly Italian flavors of horror, western, thriller, and comedy, leading modern fans and critics to look back on the work of many previously ignored filmmakers with newfound respect. But not every cult Italian director can be Lucio Fulci or Sergio Martino – some of them were every bit as low-rent, exploitative, and creatively bankrupt as they were accused of being in the 1970s and ‘80s. Bruno Mattei is the reigning king of this brand of true Italian trash, having never made a misunderstood or secretly good movie over his nearly 40-year career as director.
Mattei chased almost every fad, sometimes decades after they had since stopped being relevant. His long filmography includes Nazisploitation movies (SS Girls [Italian: Casa privata per le SS, 1975]), nunsploitation movies (The Other Hell [Italian: L'altro inferno, 1981), women in prison movies (Women’s Prison Massacre [Italian: Blade Violent, 1983]), late stage spaghetti westerns (White Apache [Italian: Bianco Apache, 1986]), and even hardcore porn. His Jaws (1975), Terminator (1984), Predator (1987), and Dawn of the Dead (1978) rip-offs – Cruel Jaws (1995), Shocking Dark (aka: Terminator II, 1989), Robowar (Italian: Robowar - Robot da guerra, 1988), and Hell of the Living Dead (Italian: Virus - l'inferno dei morti viventi; aka: Night of the Zombies and Zombie Creeping Flesh, 1980) – are among the most shameless in the pantheon. He was infamous for shooting more than one film at a time on the same set or reusing sets, footage, and music from other movies.
At worst, Mettei’s work is a bore, but, at the height of his copyright infringing powers, he makes singularly entertaining facsimiles of recognizable films. These exhibit just enough skill and reckless disregard for cast & crew safety to set themselves above the rankest sewage flooding through the ‘80s straight-to-video pipeline, yet rarely exhibit an iota of creative insight into the copy/paste plots, dialogue, and set pieces. While I personally tend to prefer Mettei’s gonzo horror riffs, it’s hard to overlook the pure so-bad-it’s-good energy of his two attempts to remake George P. Cosmatos’ already well over-the-top action sequel to Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood (1982), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) – Strike Commando (1986) and Strike Commando 2 (Italian: Trappola diabolica, 1988).
Sgt. Mike Ransom (Reb Brown) is a one-man war machine on a screaming-for-vengeance mission against brutal Vietcong, merciless Russians, double-crossing U.S. officers and acres of bullet-blasted Philippines jungle. (From Severin’s official synopsis)
Strike Commando is the platonic ideal of a late ‘80s Italian STV rip-off. Mattei and screenwriting collaborators Claudio Fragasso (who, as often happened, worked as an uncredited co-director) & Rossella Drudi essentially find/replace large sections of Stallone and James Cameron’s Rambo: First Blood Part II screenplay, changing minor details to save money and adding bits from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), minus Colonel Kurtz stuff) and Stallone’s other 1985 hit, Rocky IV (Alex Vitale basically plays a commando version of Ivan Drago). It is, of course, filmed in the Philippines, where Mattei, Fragasso, and a number of other Italian schlock-meisters went to retire. The local government was supportive, the local talent was cheap, and the local foliage was lush, adding free production value to any jungle-set exploitation film. In this case, the filmmakers took the excuse to expand the number of scenes where Ramfaux interacts with “Vietnamese” villagers, leading to some admittedly promising narrative beats that are hampered by the filmmakers’ inability to write compelling characters and rampant cultural insensitivity (Rambo is far from what one might consider a politically correct movie in 2021, but ‘80s American filmmakers were still at least somewhat concerned with the portrayal racist stereotypes, especially following backlash against Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter in 1978). For good measure, Mattei reused footage from Antonio Margheriti’s Apocalypse Now-inspired The Last Hunter (Italian: L'ultimo cacciatore, 1980).
Given the fact that Rambo: First Blood Part II was already basically an exploitation cash-in built upon the reputation of a much better movie (itself based on a book by David Morrell) and had turned the John Rambo character into a literal cartoon character and action figure, it’s hard to imagine that Stallone, Cosmatos, or Carolco Pictures were too upset about their concepts and characters getting swiped by a STV Italian outfit, though this does bring up the fact that it can be very difficult to tell one Rambo rip-off from another. Strike Commando’s appeal is found in its weird mix of absolute tedium (it’s incredible how long Mattei, acting as his own editor, lingers on shots of absolutely nothing), laughable so-bad-it’s-good moments (Reb Brown’s scream, for example, is always hilarious), and unhinged battle scenes. Even working with a better than usual crew, Mattei is mostly incapable of staging interesting action, but the sheer scale of the explosions and how close they come to killing stuntpeople and actors makes Strike Commando a literal guilty pleasure, as in one feels guilt for deriving pleasure from such neglectful practices.
If you’re the type who likes to approach all trash-bag exploitation movies from an intellectual point of view, Strike Commando is interesting as an Italian impression of the textbook jingoist Hollywood screed of the 1980s. Mattei’s films were rarely political in nature, unless he could use them in a transgressive way that would guarantee ticket sales (i.e. Nazisploitation and nunsploitation), and he treats the Cold War trappings – corrupt military leaders, cynical killing machines as heroes, sexless love interests, extended torture scenes, and child-like admiration of Americana – as abstract story requirements, like the scene in a vampire movie where the villain is stabbed with a stake or recoils from a cross. They aren’t included because the film intends on making any point about the American military or the Cold War – they’re just things you’re supposed to do in Rambo knock-offs. That said, Strike Commando is more concerned with the safety of non-NVA Vietnamese than the typical Rambosploitation release.
Strike Commando had a token theatrical release, but was made with the video market in mind. Stateside, early fans first experienced it via VHS from IVE. A VHS quality 1.33:1 transfer was later shuffled onto a DVD from budget label VideoAsia as part of a ten movie “Mercs Soldiers of Fortune” collection. Severin’s Blu-ray marks the film’s 1080p HD and 1.85:1 aspect ratio debut. The transfer was mastered from a new 2K scan of the original film negative and is certainly the best the film has ever looked, outside of those fabled theatrical screenings. As a bonus, they’ve included two cuts of the film – what they’re calling the 91:49 minute theatrical cut and a 102:09 minute extended cut (Wikipedia lists the theatrical runtime as 102 minutes and imdb.com lists the US cut as 104 minutes, but I don’t know enough about the movie to argue which is “correct”). A longer version of a film is almost always worth celebrating, but, geeze, this is a Bruno Mattei movie we’re talking about, do you really want more of that? Anyway, this is a very good-looking transfer brimming with the vibrant greens and blues of the lush Filipino jungle. Other colors are similarly impressive and the strong black levels help boost dynamic range without crushing delicate hues. The occasional mushiness of wide-angle details appear to be largely inherent in Riccardo Grassetti’s photography and negative damage seems limited to some vertical lines over the opening/closing credits and minor dirtiness throughout the otherwise natural grain.
Severin has included both the Italian and English dubs in their original mono and 2.0 LPCM audio. Some Italian productions were shooting with synced sound by the mid/late ‘80s, but I seriously doubt Bruno Mattei was recording set sound while shooting a quickie action flick in the Philippines, so let’s assume that both tracks are largely dubbed. That said, English is being spoken by the bulk of the American and Filipino cast, so I’d recommend going with the English track, especially if you plan on watching the extended cut, because there is no Italian dub for the extra scenes (the sound quality also dips into a lot of aural buzzing where extended scenes are concerned). Luigi Ceccarelli’s John-Carpenter-meets-team-aerobics music is sparingly used, but gives both tracks a bump in range.
War Machine (19:45, HD) – A new interview with co-writer/co-director Claudio Fragasso, who comes to us from the editing hub of his new film, Karate Man. After a little self-promotion, he talks about shooting in the Philippines, Francis Ford Coppola’s influence on the local filmmaking community following Apocalypse Now, assistance from the Filipino army, filming mishaps, and shares some anecdotes about the cast.
All Quiet on the Philippine Front (13:11, HD) – Co-writer Rossella Drudi (sitting in the same editing room) discusses the team’s writing process, which involved Mattei and Fragasso unloading ideas (including those taken from other movies) for her to parse and put to paper, and shares her thoughts on bygone action movie tropes.
US “In-production” promo (2:32, SD)
Strike Commando 2
Sgt. Mike Ransom (Brent Huff) returns to battle the KGB, rogue CIA agents, an army of ninjas, and a particularly tough bar owner (Mary Stavin) (From Severin’s official synopsis)
Mattei, Fragasso, and Drudi returned to Rambo territory a couple of years after the original Strike Commando proved profitable, armed with a larger budget, new lead actor in Brent Huff, and a surprisingly high-end supporting cast, including two-time Bond Girl Mary Stavin and Richard Harris. Having bled Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and First Blood dry of plot points, the team set their sights on making a vaguely ‘Nam-themed variation on a crop of recently popularized B ninja vigilante movies and padded space with references to Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Apocalypse Now. Given the low bar set by Strike Commando, I doubt that it’s controversial to say that the sequel is the superior experience. There’s so much more going on this time around, including bigger action set-pieces, better performances, and a dopey, but also kind of respectable attempt at shoving ninja movie antics and Apocalypse Now-shaped story elements into Indiana Jones-shaped holes. Italian knock-offs are especially entertaining while trying to pull off irreconcilable combinations like this and Strike Commando 2 is more amusingly incompatible than its predecessor. The fact that they managed to make a nominally coherent story out of so many leftovers is commendable.
The space between the entertaining parts is as listless as ever and the exposition is somehow even more lethargic than it was in the first movie, but more effort has been put into choreographing fights and shootouts. Though the cast & crew still appears to be in mortal danger half the time, it seems that some planning was put into the fisticuffs and the placement of the explosives. Heck, the bargain basement recreation of Raiders of the Lost Ark’s truck chase is borderline impressive. The improved cast makes an even bigger difference than the improved action. Huff is less fun than Reb Brown, but, names aside, he’s really playing a completely different character, anyway, and he has good chemistry with Stavin, who is actually pretty good, considering that she’s constantly yelling and playing a purposefully obnoxious combination of Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Marion Ravenwood and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’s (1984) Willie Scott. Richard Harris is, of course, Richard Harris and is a compelling presence, even when slumming it, but the chief scene stealer is character actor Mel Davidson as a Soviet version of the sadistic Nazi Ronald Lacey played in Raiders.
From what I can gather, Strike Commando 2 was never officially released on home video in America, but questionable DVDs from Spain and South Africa did make the rounds in the pirate community, so fans actually had a widescreen version of the film available. Once again, this Severin Blu-ray (which is sold separately from the first film, in case I hadn’t made that clear enough) marks the film’s 1080p debut. It was also sourced from a new 2K scan of the original negatives and includes two cuts – the 90:18 minute theatrical cut and a 96:08 extended cut. The results are roughly the same as the Strike Command disc, from film-like grain and detail, to vibrant colors. This transfer has a slight disadvantage in terms of fuzzy edges and print damage, but Grassetti’s photography is more eclectic in terms of location, lighting types, and palette.
Once again, we have English and Italian LPCM mono options to choose from. This time, it looks like some of the English dialogue was actually recorded on set or at least some actors’ performances were. That said, the English track is flatter and more muffled than the Italian one, especially where it pertains to sound effects. The English dub is missing really important aural elements, like the explosions during the opening titles or rain during the climactic fight. Stefano Mainetti's keyboard score is nice and an outstanding element on the English track, but is wildly inappropriate, leading me to assume that he composed and recorded all of it before he saw any footage.
Guerrilla Zone (16:42, HD) – Fragasso returns to discuss Strike Commando 2, working with Richard Harris, the rest of the cast, acting largely as actors’ director, so that Mattei could focus on technical direction/editing, and he praises the Filipino stunt crew.
Michael Ransom Strikes Back (14:29, HD) – Star Brent Huff recalls replacing Brown, the perils of shooting in the Philippines, dating the lead of Fragasso’s After Death (Italian: (Italian: Oltre la Morte, 1988), which was shooting on the same sets at night, getting extremely sick from stagnant pool water, and praises everyone, from Mattei to the Italian stunt coordinators and Filipino performers.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.