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.