According to IMDb, SUBURBAN COMMANDO had a limited release on June 21, 1991, before a wider one in October. Therefore, it is my misfortune to have decided to categorize it as a Summer of ’91 release.
Nah, I’ll be okay, but you will not be surprised to hear that this second Hulk Hogan vehicle from New Line Cinema is even dumber and shittier than NO HOLDS BARRED, and not as entertainingly so since it’s a family comedy instead of a brain damaged underground fighting movie. But I made it through and I know what it is now and at least I was able to see the big screen debut of one of today’s most acclaimed actresses in television and film.
The premise is that you got a bounty hunter guy from a poorly explained, generic bootleg Star Wars rip-off sci-fi universe who lands on earth and lives with a bad movie’s idea of a normal suburban family. ALF with muscles and worse jokes. In the opening you have some cheap looking Star Destroyer knockoff model shots as the great hero (or maybe anti-hero? it’s not really clear) Shep Ramsey (Hulk Hogan, GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH) flies in to save the president (Nick Eldredge, “S.I.D. #1,” Hill Street Blues) from their dollar store Darth Vader, General Suitor (William Ball, one episode of The Streets of San Francisco) who’s just a regular unimpressive dude in a black outfit and cape, no mask.
I know it shouldn’t bother me, but this type of sci-fi world in a comedy where they go “Oh, you know, like a Star Wars type thing” and the only spin on it is “everything is lazier and shittier” – I hate it so much. It makes me feel kind of gross. At least make up some weird aliens or come up with a joke or something. Nobody wants to look at this shit. The one and only thing I like about this terrible section of the movie is that it’s a quasi-dramatic science fiction scene where all three important characters are balding middle aged men. You don’t see that everyday.
Well, I suppose I also mildly appreciate that all the guards have super long ponytails hanging out from their helmets. I guess we can count that as two good things.
Although Shep has cool jet boots and metal gloves that he uses to punch a bunch of guys, the General turns into a lizard and kills the president and all Shep can do is jump into a vent and fly away. But he doesn’t give that much of a shit about his utter failure and asks his boss (kind of like the hologram in CAPTAIN EO but just a TV screen) what the next mission is. Shep even suggests a couple things like “all right, how ‘bout a big bug hunt with creatures that bleed acid,” which you see, it is a reference to a certain sci-fi action movie from the director of another sci-fi movie starring a muscleman that will be coming out later in this summer. (It’s funny because it’s ALIENS, he’s talking about ALIENS. Do you get it?)
Shep’s boss wants him to take a vacation, so he gets mad and smashes a thing on his spaceship and it’s going to take time to recharge, so he crash lands in an abandoned sci-fi themed roller disco on Earth called the Landing Pad.
Now what will happen? This guy doesn’t know how Earth people act! And he’s really strong! He says things like, “Earthlings – I hate Earthlings,” so the joke is he’s racist against all humans, instead of only being “racist to a point” as the real Hogan described himself in the infamous recording where he made horribly demeaning comments and racial slurs about his daughter’s boyfriend. Shep figures out to hide his space armor and steal a guy’s clothes (and have the guy’s dog eat at a restaurant – long story) and goes to rent an apartment which is actually a converted part of a house because this is SUBURBAN COMMANDO and movies don’t know there are apartment buildings in the suburbs.
The home belongs to Charlie Wilcox (Christopher Lloyd right after BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III and Back to the Future… The Ride) who, like Flipper Purify in JUNGLE FEVER, is an architect angry about being passed over for a promotion. But he’s too wimpy to go through with his plan of confronting his credit-stealing, prick boss Adrian Beltz (Larry Miller, PRETTY WOMAN). Here’s a rare joke that made me laugh: Beltz asks Charlie how his wife is doing, but uses the wrong name. Charlie corrects him that it’s Jenny (Shelley Duvall, Frankenweenie). Beltz checks a file on his computer, which indeed says his wife is named Jenny, and says, “You’re right.”
Jenny doesn’t have enough to do in the movie, nor does her daughter Theresa (Laura Mooney, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE). But Jenny is very accepting of and helpful to her new housemate from space who claims the reason he doesn’t know basic normal human shit is because he’s from France. And then Shep just wanders around participating in a string of dumb comical episodes like he runs into a mime doing the invisible wall thing, and he says “Must be a K-7 force field” and then “helps” him the mine by tossing him. I’ve never been able to determine why movies in the ‘80s and ‘90s were so angry at mimes, and I’m even less clear why a mime would be performing this cliche in a litter-strewn alley at night. But later it happens again and the mime says something about not going out at night anymore, and that’s one of a couple different lines I’m convinced they added in after someone on set complained that what they were doing made no god damn sense and then they decided if they just have a character point out that it sucks it doesn’t count as sucking.
One of a surprisingly few jokes having specifically to do with him being an alien is when he hears laser sounds from inside an arcade and goes in to help a kid beat a space video game which he somehow believes is them really being in a spaceship? I don’t know man, I don’t know what goes through this guy’s head. Anyway he plays the game so intensely the machine breaks and all the children celebrate that he “saved the galaxy.”
Other jokes are just about him being super-strong and confused, and the movie itself is kind of confused about it. When he sees some dudes driving recklessly he rolls their car over, drags them out of it and spins the car around on its top. Even though he has to be stopped from smashing their faces in, the score by David Michael Frank (in between OUT FOR JUSTICE and SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO) plays a triumphant space hero theme the whole time.
Meanwhile wimpy Charlie reclaims his manhood after finding Shep’s space man shit in the house. First he accidentally fires a laser gun, destroying his asshole neighbor’s funny car. (But also giving away Shep’s location to the evil General Suitor (I’m embarrassed I even remember the character’s name at this point), who sends bounty hunters after him.
Charlie puts on Shep’s space armor and happens to come across some gang rapists (this suburb must be just outside of a city from a DEATH WISH sequel), who attempt to murder him for being a cosplayer or whatever, but luckily the bullet bounces off him. The intended victim tells him, “If there’s anything I can do for you, anything at all,” and lights on his crotch start blinking. I hope somebody somewhere has done a study of the history of this trope of an overlooked man being empowered by rescuing a woman from gang rapists.
In all the boner-inducing excitement Charlie leaves behind some weapon, and he and Shep have to try to reclaim it, so obviously more hijinks are foisted upon us. The rapists try to rob a bank using his freeze gun. I like this part where a frozen lady is holding two obvious stuffed dogs. I guess it’s up to interpretation whether they’re alive or not within the reality of the movie.
The dudes turn the gun on Shep but luckily he has a bottle of antifreeze that he chugs and that protects him and he says “Antifreeze!,” because if people are named Shep Ramsey in space there’s no reason why they don’t also have antifreeze and call it antifreeze.
I’ve noticed that many of the movies in this summer have a line about it being the ‘90s – for example in JUNGLE FEVER Debi Mazar suggests it as a reason not to be racist. In this one it’s why some tough biker guys who get in Shep’s face aren’t saying they’re going to fight him like he assumes. “What, are you nuts? This is the ‘90s. We’re gonna sue you.”
I also like to note if there’s stuff that’s considered more offensive now than it was then, not to shame the past but just to note our evolving morals. In this one it’s the joke that the two male bounty hunters steal a car that says “Just Married” on the back, and then a “surfer dude” stereotype worker at a surfer dude stereotype themed fast food drive-in congratulates them and calls them a cute couple. Maybe he’s progressive, but I’m guessing he’s just meant to be an out of it stoner who doesn’t notice they’re two men. Either way, they seem offended – homophobia apparently extending to spacemen. Back then I hated gay jokes like this but it never would’ve occurred to me that we’d have legal same sex marriage now. I’m glad in this one case we’ve progressed beyond my imagination.
Also there’s a part where he throws a guy upward see he busts through several floors and then his head comes up through a toilet when a lady is sitting on it. Can you imagine?
Eventually there’s a showdown with General Suitor at the abandoned roller disco, and at least when he turns into his lizard form it’s a good creature suit. Thank you for that Steve Johnson, creator of Freddy’s death sequence in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER (last seen on HOWLING VI: THE FREAKS).
In the end, this is really Charlie’s story, because Shep helps him escape but he decides he has to go back to help, telling his wife “This is something I have got to do,” and we get the idea that she’s impressed by his great courage. And he does help and the kids say “Way to go, Dad! You’re the best!” and I think we’re supposed to get a little weepy about it.
One very early ‘90s aspect is that the neighborhood kids are into skateboarding, and Shep tries to do it but falls on his ass. Then at the end before he leaves the planet he tries it again and suddenly can do a bunch of impossible flips and stuff. As far as I could tell there is no reason for him to have learned this during the movie. Also he gives one of the kids his futuristic jet-powered skateboard, which brings up a new question of why he couldn’t do this shit at the beginning.
One moment in the movie that comes closer to a funny joke than most is when he finds a little girl crying about “my cat,” he sees a cat in a tree so he bends the tree over and the girl angrily says, “That’s not my cat!”
And then it leads to a dumber joke than that. But the significant thing about the scene is that the little girl is, I’m pretty sure, Elisabeth Moss (US, THE INVISIBLE MAN). She’s definitely in the movie, credited as “Little Girl,” and this sure looks like her to me.
I would like to offer one last illustration of how much this movie sucked for the time and not just because it’s old now. Some of the hip hop albums that came out in the summer of ’91 include De La Soul Is Dead, O.G. – Original Gangster by Ice-T, Mr. Hood by KMD, The One by Chubb Rock, Efil4zaggin by N.W.A, Funke, Funke Wisdom by Kool Moe Dee, All Souled Out by Peter Rock & CL Smooth, The Ruler’s Back by Slick Rick, We Can’t Be Stopped by Geto Boys, Breaking Atoms by Main Source, A Future Without a Past by Leaders of the New School, the self-titled debut of Cypress Hill, and I Need a Haircut by Biz Markie. The Low End Theory, A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing, Death Certificate, Organized Konfusion and 2Pacalypse Now would all come out before the end of the year. So if you’re familiar with any of those albums I’d like you to keep them in mind as the state of the art at the exact moment the following opening credits rap ”Nice Place To Live (But I Wouldn’t Want to Visit)” by J-Rock featuring Hulk Hogan was presented to the world:
But hey! This is another one that had a video game! Starts as a space ship game and then super-deformed Hulk Hogan hops around a Super Mario Brothers version of Earth collecting coins and fruits and shooting at guys? Once again, this is a weird vision of suburbia: tall buildings, an amusement park, knife-wielding mohawk dudes, spikes and pits everywhere?
If SUBURBAN COMMANDO really had a limited release in the summer, I’m not sure how it did. When it officially opened in October it was rightfully smashed by the classic RICOCHET, among others, and ultimately made less than its modest budget.
Hogan, of course, continued to be one of the most iconic wrestlers of all time, but his movie career did not flourish. Unless you count his bit parts in ROCKY III or GREMLINS 2 he never made a single movie fit to even be on a shelf on the same side of the room as his ring nemesis Roddy Piper’s THEY LIVE. Shit, I’m not sure he even had a HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN. Other than the TV show Thunder in Paradise he pretty much did more bottom-of-the-barrel family comedy garbage: MR. NANNY (1993), SANTA WITH MUSCLES (1996), 3 NINJAS: HIGH NOON AT MEGA MOUNTAIN (1998). I think THE ULTIMATE WEAPON (1998) is his only non-TV straight action movie, so I’ll have to give that a chance some time.
Lloyd had THE ADDAMS FAMILY coming out shortly, so this didn’t crash his career. Duvall followed it by working with Steven Soderbergh (THE UNDERNEATH), Jane Campion (THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY) and Guy Maddin (TWILIGHT OF THE ICE NYMPHS), though she did more cheesy comedies after that. The third anthology children’s show she created, produced and hosted, Shelley Duvall’s Bedtime Stories, started in ’92. Theresa Wilcox, who played the young daughter, has mostly worked as an animation voice. She’s only had one role since the ‘90s, but it was as “Therapy Cat Lady” in SOUL, so that’s not bad.
This was the debut of screenwriter Frank A. Cappello, who has gone on to do some pretty good movies. He directed AMERICAN YAKUZA, wrote and directed NO WAY BACK and HE WAS A QUIET MAN, and even co-wrote CONSTANTINE.
Burt Kennedy was a highly decorated WWII veteran who wrote for radio programs and used his army fencing training to get into movies, including the 1948 version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS. He got a writing contract with John Wayne’s production company, wrote 7 MEN FROM NOW and THE TALL T for Budd Boetticher, and stayed at it long enough to write WHITE HUNTER BLACK HEART for Clint. He directed a ton of westerns, including RETURN OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! and HANNIE CAULDER. And SUBURBAN COMMANDO was his last feature. He at least got to return in 2001 for a short called Comanche – the story of a horse that survived The Battle of Little Big Horn, with Kris Kristofferson, Wilford Brimley, Angie Dickinson and Gerald McRaney. Good save.
Cultural references: Jenny loves The Marsha Warfield Show (an NBC day time talk show with a ten month run that overlapped with the filming of this movie). Beltz is familiar with the differences between GODZILLA, RODAN and MOTHRA (as we learn from a decent joke about him being racist and not knowing what else to talk to his Japanese guests about). Opening credits rap references “clap on, The Clapper” and “Madonna, lambada.” Movie seems to be sponsored by RC Cola.