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30 Years Of ‘Commando,’ The Ultimate Schwarzenegger Movie And The Reagan Era’s Id

In 1985, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a giant buff dude, but he wasn’t quite a star. He’d been in two Conan movies and was fresh off The Terminator, and was well on his way to bigger things, having succeeded mainly in proving that he could look like Arnold Schwarzenegger on film, which was a desirable quality in and of itself. Commando, from director Mark L. Lester (who’d directed Firestarter, his first major studio picture, the year before), feels like the first, and the ultimate “Arnold Schwarzenegger Movie.”

How beautifully ’80s is Commando? Lester agreed to direct it while sitting next to Joel Silver at a Playboy Mansion pajama party.

I was at the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Playboy Mansion party, sitting in my pajamas next to Joel Silver. He said he had this script, and maybe I could direct it. I said, “Fabulous, can I read the script?” He said, “No, if you read the script you’re not gonna want to do the movie.” [FilmmakerMagazine]

Mark Lester didn’t need to read a script, because Commando had Schwarzenegger, and Schwarzenegger was enough.

Commando is raw Schwarzenegger. Everything Arnold would eventually come to be — the family-friendly father figure of Kindergarten Cop, the goofball from Twins, the A-list action hero of Total Recall, and the simultaneous Cool Dad/Murder Robot of Terminator 2 — exists in rough draft form in Commando. It’s like seeing garage footage of Guns N’ Roses the first time they truly rocked.

America loves Schwarzenegger, but never more so than in the ’80s. We’d finally gotten over Watergate and were sick of self-examination, and Ronald Reagan, a former B-movie babyface, tapped into a collective desire to feel like the world’s white hat again. Being a superpower was a good thing! We had to be big and strong to protect the world from communism! Arnold Schwarzenegger — big, strong, shameless — was a movie star so tailor-made for ’80s America that it didn’t even matter that he was an Austrian whose father was a Nazi. Arnold never reflects, and is virtually unshameable, because he’s never embarrassed. Arnold is always the hero in his own story.

In Commando, Arnold is the unqualified fulfillment of everything we wanted him to be — invincible (because he was so big and strong!), uncompromising, clever, merciless towards bad guys, up to any task, but desirous only of peace, quiet, and family. Solving any problem was merely a matter of acting manlier. Perhaps because of this, Commando is also one of the most blatantly homoerotic films ever made (with all due respect to Rocky 3). Commando is Reaganism’s id.

Black and White

The first scenes establish the easy, breezy morality of the Commando universe. The first scene involves a guy waking up in bed with a hot lady. (Were action sequences interrupting hot ladies in bed a thing before the ’80s? Michael Bay proudly continues this tradition today.) Hearing the garbage truck, he goes outside to make sure they pick up his trash. “I was afraid you’d miss me,” he tells the garbage men, led by Bill Duke.

“Don’t worry… we won’t,” Duke says, at which point the fake garbage men pull out Uzis and shoot the guy in the chest about 30 times. He falls down and Bill Duke calmly walks up to him and shoots him about 12 more times in the chest, just to be sure.

In the very next scene, Bill Duke is in a Cadillac dealership. As the salesman tries to convince him why he should get vinyl seats instead of leather, Duke runs him over while driving the car out the front window. LESSON: These are bad guys. Very bad guys. It’s going to take a really good guy to defeat them.

This leads to Arnold’s introduction, one of the most homoerotic sequences ever captured on film. We see Arnold’s glistening bicep before we see his face, all while a weird, porny synth track plays (courtesy of James Horner, who’d win an Academy Award two years later, for Aliens).

It turns out, Arnold is just carrying entire tree trunks around his property, as one does. This leads into a magnificent montage sequence that takes “idyllic existence” well beyond parody. Arnold, playing “John Matrix” (a name about as close to “Joe Good Guy” as you could get), and his daughter Jenny (“Jenny Matrix”), played by Alyssa Milano, get into tickle fights as string music swells. She pushes some ice cream into his face and he laughs and laughs. He teaches her karate, and then they begin hand-feeding deer, a scene that never, ever fails to crack me up.

If you wanted to turn Reagan’s signature phrase, “trust, but verify,” into a visual metaphor, you couldn’t do much better than deer feeding after karate class. John Matrix is Hulk Hogan telling you to stay in school and take your vitamins. He’s so unimpeachably good that if he ends up killing a few hundred third world-henchmen it’s only because he had to. BE KIND, BE PREPARED, BAD GUYS MIGHT BE PICKING UP YOUR GARBAGE.

They sit down at the table and Arnold picks up Alyssa Milano’s Tiger Beat, gives it a look, and says “Why don’t they call him Girl George? It would cut down a lot of confusion I think.”

Oh, dad.

The American James Bond

Mark Lester has said that Arnold’s one-liners were inspired by James Bond. Of Arnold’s acting, co-star Rae Dawn Chong, who plays Cindy, said, “I think Schwarzenegger copied Sean Connery in that way of always having a smile at the corner of your eye.”

Arnold’s James Bond, however, has been thoroughly Americanized. Where we’d normally meet Bond in a tux at a swank society event, we meet John Matrix in a muscle tee, chopping wood at his homestead. Just like Reagan on his ranch or George W. clearing brush at his farm. (Seriously, why do Americans love to see our heroes doing yard work so much?). James Bond was all smooth talk and guile – John Matrix can match him for quips, but he’s all about brute strength and living off the land.

When Matrix’s old commander, Kirby (James Olsen), shows up at his house with some guys to protect him, the bad guys attack. Taking cover next to a wounded good guy, Matrix tells him, “Keep an eye out, they’ll be coming. And remember: you’re down wind.”

“Down wind?” the guy says incredulously. “You think I can smell them coming?”

“I did,” Matrix says. Because Arnold can smell bad guys like a rhino.

The bad guys succeed in kidnapping Matrix’s daughter, leading to a scene where a bad guy starts calmly telling him what’s what. “If you want your kid back, you better cooperate, right?”

“Wrong,” Arnold says, and shoots him in the head. Arnold does not negotiate with terrorists.

Shoot first, ask questions later. Where James Bond preferred small guns and sports cars, the lasting image of Commando is Schwarzenegger holding a rocket launcher. When Matrix coerces Rae Dawn Chong into following the Porsche driven by a weaselly henchman named Sully (David Patrick Kelly) in her MG, the first thing he does is rip out her passenger seat with his bare hands.

At first, it looks like this is his strategy for being able to duck down and stay low while they follow Sully. But a few minutes later, he’s sitting up in it like it was a regular seat. Far as I can tell, Commando simply felt it necessary to communicate that Arnold is too big for tiny, girly cars. Remember, this is the guy who would go on to popularize the Hummer, ran over cars with a tank to promote a movie, and has been known to tool around Santa Monica in a five-ton Unimog, a modified military transport.

Arnold, in 1998
Getty Image

Schwarzenegger, in 1998

Arnold, like America, just loves gigantic cars. And hates tiny ones.

Schwarzenegger Vs. Foreign Knock-Off Schwarzenegger

Much has been made, and rightly so, of bad guy Vernon Wells’ (you may remember him from The Road Warrior) peculiar wardrobe — the choker, the chain mail shirt, the leather pants. “Freddie Mercury on steroids” is a popular description. This bolsters another popular theory, that Bennett is actually gay for Matrix, a theory Rae Dawn Chong supports (and one that Lester, Schwarzenegger, and Wells all laugh at, but downplay).

It’s certainly hard to deny a certain creepy sexuality between Matrix and Bennett, especially in the final scene. Matrix goads Bennett into throwing away his gun and his hostage for one last knife fight. It’s hard to say which is more sexual, Matrix’s pitch or Bennett’s response.

“It’s me that you want. You don’t want to pull a trigger. Put a knife in me. Look me right in the eye. See what’s going on in there when you turn it. That’s what you want to do, right? Don’t deprive yourself of some pleasure. Come on, Bennett. Let’s party.”

At which point Bennett seems to actually have an orgasm at the thought of sticking his “knife” inside John.

Not to mention the symbolic value of the two main bad guys both dying via impaling. Personally, I don’t believe much in secrets or symbolism when it comes to a movie like Commando. It doesn’t need subtlety.

My personal take is that it would be impossible to make a film that tries this hard to be hypermasculine without it also being super gay. That they were so busy being super tough and manly that anyone could’ve possibly not noticed how gay Bennett and Matrix seemed for each other is one of the most beautiful things about it. Again, this is a movie that introduces Schwarzenegger with a shot of his glistening biceps. Was Bennett gay for Schwarzenegger? Probably. The entire 1980s was gay for Schwarzenegger. Straight men had posters of Schwarzenegger posing in his underpants on the walls of their dorms.

Another way to look at Bennett is that he’s the cheap knock-off Schwarzenegger. Wells has said that his wardrobe is partly the result of Wells being bigger than the previous actor who had been fitted for it. The clothes look too small because they actually were. Whatever the case, the visual effect of it is that opposite Arnold — the guy with the perfect physique, busting out of his tank tops, commando vest, and even a Speedo at one point (he had to row to the bad guy’s island in a rubber dingy, you see) — you have a doughy Australian in a too-tight chain mail shirt who looks like he spends as much time at the meat pie shop as he does the gym.

He looks like the Cheap Imitation Schwarzenegger — almost the same haircut, similar but worse physique, exaggerated punk wardrobe. (Arnold is Hulk Hogan wholesome here, to the point that he trashed Boy George and questioned rock n’ roll in the first scene.)

Bennett is the Bizarro World John Matrix, a Steven Spielbergo character right down to the bad mustache. The hero fighting an evil, knockoff version of himself is a comic book staple to this day, from Superman IV to almost every Marvel movie. And the way Mark Lester talks about Commando, the comic book parallels weren’t accidental.

I was a student of action films and had been doing these kind of pop art genre movies. In Commando, we were always thinking about bright, almost comic book kind of colors. For example, in the scene where Arnold fights Bill Duke in the hotel room, the lamps are red and green, they’re never giving off just white light. We wanted that kind of vivid color throughout the picture, in both the production design and the cinematography. [FilmmakerMagazine]

Ahead of Its Time, Surprisingly

I was a baby when Commando came out and didn’t see it until I was in college, by which time a lot of it already seemed hilariously dated. There’s the B-movie aspect of it, of course. If Commando had been made 10, or even five years later, it probably would’ve had a $100 million budget. In 1985, it cost $10 million to make, which, even adjusted for inflation (about $22-23 million) is low, especially for an action movie. And it shows.

Most of the noticeably cheap effects actually work to Commando‘s advantage. Arnold jumps out of a plane and lands in a swamp (already a hilarious stunt on a few levels), and it’s obviously a dummy. When Matrix drops Sully off a cliff,  the dummy’s legs obviously crumple.

In HD, when Arnold blows up the barracks on the dictator’s island, you can see the dummies propped up outside with sticks. They don’t move at all when the building explodes (which the film shows from about seven different angles, a technique I wish action movies would bring back).

The car stunts are the best of all. The scene where Arnold and Chong follow Sully in Chong’s MG, we see the MG crash into a telephone pole going probably 40 miles an hour, which would’ve clearly killed any human passenger. And yet there’s an immediate smash cut to Arnold looking over at Chong asking “Are you okay?”

I must’ve rewound and rewatched that scene 1,000 times. The comedic timing of it is perfect. The effects make Commando feel homemade, like something your friends could’ve shot in their backyard, a slightly more elaborate version of the Lethal Weapon sequels from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Being able to see the seams of Commando‘s construction doesn’t cheapen it, it only helps you identify all the more with the builders. “Hell yeah, I want to see Arnold shoot some bad guys with a rocket launcher too.”

It’s close to fan-fiction. And yet, it apparently didn’t seem that way at the time. Commando was actually nominated for a Saturn Award for best special effects (which it lost to Back to the Future).

The other most-dated element of Commando is, obviously, Rae Dawn Chong’s character, Cindy. Cindy is essentially the growing pains of the modern action movie personified. They clearly wanted her to be more than the damsel in distress… kiiinda… but didn’t quite know how. Thus, Cindy will say things like “I can’t believe this macho bullsh*t!” and “These guys eat too much red meat!” while Arnold and Bill Duke fight in the hotel room. But she still spends the entire fight cowering under a coffee table like a typical hysterical movie woman. (That entire scene, supposedly a life-and-death fight, is rendered hilarious by Cindy’s screams and squeals throughout). It’s like everyone was progressive enough to know that she should comment on it, but not quite progressive enough to actually change it.

Of course, Cindy does shoot a paddy wagon with a rocket launcher and fly Arnold to the Val Verdian dictator’s island on a sea plane, so she isn’t entirely scared eye candy. Yet, she enters the movie with Sully calling her a “f*ckin’ whore” when she won’t go home with him, and she has a tendency to get Matrix out of jams by pretending to be a prostitute. Why does everyone think she’s a prostitute? Because she’s a woman? Commando was so conflicted. But again, apparently, it was somewhat progressive for the times.

Time Out‘s Anne Billson compared Cindy favorably to the women in Rambo, in a 1986 interview with Schwarzenegger:

The comic relief in Commando comes mainly from the female lead, Rae Dawn Chong, who says things like, “I don’t believe all this macho bullsh*t,” as the bodies hurtle past. This is also a far cry from Ramboworld, where the female character is introduced primarily  so that she can get shot and give Rambo something else to grit his teeth about. Arnold and I begin to discuss the role of women in action movies.

“In most action movies the women are in the way,” says Arnold. “We always intended to have Rae Dawn Chong as being the funny, kind of bubbly girl, as just the innocent bystander, and whoops what’s going on here, there’s a bullet flying by, type of thing. She was always meant to be that. And then it works, if she has a real job in the movie. But if you try to throw a woman in there just to have a love scene, you’re wasting your time, because it doesn’t sell a ticket.”

Here’s another exchange from that same interview:

[ARNOLD to an interviewer who has just bemoaned her pale skin] “I think white skin is sexy. I don’t like women who get really dark, you know, the tan. It takes a little bit away from the feminine look, I think. It’s all a matter of opinion. My friends, they like blonde girls with dark skin and, er, huge tits. And I love nice round asses and I pay no attention to tits, really.”

[INTERVIEWER] “Have you ever considered classical roles, like Shakespeare?”

As for the love scenes, Commando was actually meant to have them, but couldn’t, for strange reasons:

[Director Mark Lester]: “We had to cut the love scene though — originally there was a sex scene between [Rae Dawn Chong] and Arnold, but in those days the Southern theatres wouldn’t play a movie if it had interracial sex, so that was out.” [FilmmakerMagazine]

That Commando is so dated and ahead of its time simultaneously is part of what makes it compelling. It so clearly represents a historical transition, the cinematic equivalent of horses and tanks on the same battlefield.

Outro

The rub is, Commando is goofy and fun because it manages to capture just about everything that’s goofy and fun (and yes, sort of homoerotic and sexist) about Schwarzenegger. He’s the kind of guy who can say something completely full of sh*t with just enough of a smirk on his face you forgive him. He doesn’t really believe it, but sort of wants to, and brings you along for the ride. That’s Commando in a nutshell. I love Commando. I love Commando so much that I once named a dog Bennett, solely so that I could say “Let off a little steam, Bennett,” whenever I took him out to take a dump. It’s the ultimate Schwarzenegger movie and one of the best action movies of the ’80s.

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.

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