A burgeoning Arnie rises to the challenge with a film that transcends cult status among action movie fans
A year after shooting to superstardom as a relentless cyborg assassin in James Cameron’s The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger would return with a bigger profile, bigger budget and bigger expectations. It wouldn’t prove a problem. Arnie had faced greater obstacles in his life, had achieved the kind of feats no one could ever have imagined possible, leaving behind a small Austrian village of approximately 2000 people and earning the title of Mr. Universe by the time he was 20. This was the first of several bodybuilding awards that saw the future governor of California star alongside Incredible Hulk actor Lou Ferrigno in breakout documentary Pumping Iron, a movie that first endeared Arnie to the American public.
Arnie’s next logical step was into the realms of acting, but as 1969’s dissonant cult monstrosity Hercules in New York would attest, it wouldn’t prove easy. In fact, back before he broke into the mainstream as Conan the Barbarian, Arnie was told several times that he would never make it as a mainstream player. “I have to say that I’m very fortunate that I’ve had this extraordinary career. Not only in acting and in show business but also in bodybuilding,” he would explain. “That I was able to bridge over to acting even though the majority of people in Hollywood said it would never happen because of my accent, because of my body being overly developed, and because of my name — that [people] wouldn’t be able to pronounce. All those kinds of excuses. So, I did not listen to the naysayers and was just going after my vision. I was very happy it then worked out.”
Boy, are their faces red!
Forget your Seagals, your Van Dammes and even your Oscar-nominated screenwriters like Stallone, the action genre was epitomised by one man during the late-1980s, perhaps the biggest, most recognisable phenomenon in all of movie history, and his legacy will never be matched. Sure, his delivery was awkward, his acting as wooden as the biggest oak in the forest, but Arnie was box office, plain and simple. If you couldn’t drag a passable performance out of him producers were sure to find someone who could.
Directed by Mark L. Lester, Commando is an exercise in tongue-in-cheek hypermasculinity that has little time for depth or logic. This is bulging biceps, spurious espionage and moustachioed gymnasts twirling to their laughable demise as our hero bumbles his way through an entire army single-handed. In terms of errors in continuity, I could write a book, protagonist John Matrix proving so indestructible he’s able to take cover behind rose bushes without suffering so much as a scratch, utilising the kind of mindless gung-ho tactics that would have seen America conquered long ago if he were in fact the best in his field as so much exposition would have us believe.
“I was at the ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Playboy Mansion party, sitting in my pyjamas next to Joel Silver,” Lester, who had just directed Stephen King adaptation Firestarter, would recall. “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… they had Schwarzenegger, and when they told me the basic story I thought it sounded great. They just didn’t have a script that worked. So Joel brought in Steven de Souza, who had worked with him on 48 Hrs., and he wrote a new treatment that we then developed the script from.”
The film’s implausibility doesn’t stop with Matrix. Despite a catalogue of tactical errors on his part, the gang of mercenaries assigned to kidnap his daughter, triggering the movie’s rescue mission concept, are so careless you wonder why they were hired in the first place. The pre-credits set-up features so much illogicality it’s positively mind-boggling. Why would two trained assassins, dressed as garbage men, gun down a target at the crack of dawn in a heavily populated suburban area, a time when the majority of residents are quietly stirring their morning coffee? If they’d used silencers, maybe, but they use Uzis in an ostentatious display of violence that would have attracted crowds instantly, even stopping for a second unnecessary spray of bullets as their victim’s torso dances to the rhythm of two full clips. And you best get used to dancing goons. This movie is a veritable Salsa on steroids.
Bennett: John, I feel good. Just like old times. What’s it feel like to be a dying man? You’re a dead man, John!
John Matrix: Bullshit!
In the next scene, one of those same men assassinates another target in the middle of the afternoon, stealing a car, ramming him through a plate glass window and racing off into the busy afternoon traffic (that’s what you get for leaving the keys in the ignition of a showroom model, I suppose). In the prologue’s final scene, the movie’s main villain is blown-up on a boat in a staged assassination that would have left anyone but Superman dead in the water. And why is he blown up anyway? None of the other mercenaries felt the need to stage their own deaths? As a kid, it always confused me, but at least it leads to the priceless introduction of one of action cinema’s most ludicrous, watchable and downright quotable villains.
Commando‘s homoerotic aura, one that’s led many fans to suggest that the film is dripping with gay subtext, is singularly epitomised by Matrix’s star-crossed nemesis, Bennett, a flabby Freddy Mercury lookalike with a YMCA moustache and a penchant for tight leather pants and chainmail vests. The character never looks capable of taking on our hulking protagonist, though his wild-eyed ravings and spurious macho spiel more than make up for it. Bennett is played by Australian actor and 80s mainstay Vernon Wells, a cult figure with a glorious ability to ham it up as the dastardly heel. Roles as a mutant biker in John Hughes’ surreal teen romp Weird Science and an immortal turn as Mel Gibson’s fiercest foe in 1981’s dystopian Mad Max sequel The Road Warrior, offer similarly over the top performances, but neither can hold a candle to Bennett for sheer magnetism.
Bennett is key to Commando‘s endurable charm. Whether purposeful or a simple by-product of the muscle-obsessed 80s (and almost certainly the latter), it all derives from the barely suppressed homosexual attraction that seems to exist between our two adversaries, one that drips from every tensed muscle and quasi-impudent expression. So much sexual tension exists between Matrix and his pudgy portrayer that quasi-love interest Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), seems almost peripheral. It really is that flagrant. Bennett is motivated by the kind of ‘if I can’t have you, you die’ attitude usually reserved for erotic psycho thrillers such as Fatal Attraction, and he can be so intimate, playing with his knife as if polishing his penis with the semi-subdued madness of unrequited love.
[A restrained Matrix sees a mysterious figure emerging from the sunlight]
Matrix: Bennett, I thought you were…
Bennett: Dead? You thought wrong. Ever since you had me thrown out of your unit, I’ve waited to pay you back. Do you know what today is, Matrix? Pay Day!
Wells was quick to refute any notion of conscious gay subtext, claiming, “I never found that there was anything within those characters that was sexual,” though co-star Chong had a very different take on the subject. “[Matrix and Bennett are] like lovers,” she would claim, picking up on the obvious sexual tension amid so much musclebound ignorance. “The outfit they had on [Wells], I mean, HELLO, he looks like one of the Village People. Arnold is the ideal, and you know, if you can’t be it and can’t love it, you want to kill it. That really confusing sexuality comes through and it manifests in violence.”
When we first meet Matrix he’s a man of simple pleasures, a retired woodsman who enjoys sharing ice cream with his daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano) or feeding mountain deer so trusting they casually eat from the giant’s hand and are obviously chained to a bush. It’s such an excruciatingly maudlin set-up that speaks to Reagan’s ‘family values’, one transformed into a near-spoof thanks to our leading man’s utterly hopeless acting abilities (his reaction to having ice cream playfully smeared on his face is rewind priceless). But don’t let the bumbling dick-slap persona fool you, for when pushed Matrix is a one-man killing machine, an elite black-ops commando, and not the listless dunderhead who appears onscreen.
Matrix can smell, that’s right SMELL choppers approaching from a mile away, possessing a Jedi-like ability to snap a man’s neck on a crowded passenger plane while convincing polite and slightly smitten air hostess’ that the guy is merely sleeping, all of it achieved with the classic Arnie pun, “He’s DEAD tired.” The opening shots of Arnie accentuate the one thing the actor had in abundance: muscles, and you better get used to gorging on them in all of their bulging, vein-ridden glory. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti fetishiszes the movie’s star attraction to such a degree that it’s all just a little homoerotic, a hypermasculine meatfest dripping with the bigger is better philosophies of the Reagan 80s, and nobody personified that image quite like Schwarzenegger.
Despite such shameless exhibitionism, Matrix is far less intimate when engaging with his sexually motivated scourge ― the projection of intimacy has never been the actor’s strong point ― but he often flaunts his sexuality as a means to lull his nemesis into a false sense of security. During their iconic final battle in the murky bowels of a South American hideaway (the kind that’s inexplicably tinged with neon), Matrix turns up the flirtation in a thinly-veiled ruse to free his daughter. “Come on Bennett, throw away the chicken shit gun,” Matrix goads. “You don’t just want to pull the trigger, you want to put the knife in me, and look me in the eye and see what’s going on in there when you turn it.” Just watch Bennett’s reaction. He almost shoots his load, and I’m not referring to his pistol. Moments later, Matrix rips a phallic length of piping off the wall and launches it at Bennett, penetrating him in a not-so-subtle display of physical innuendo. This after Bennett promised to shoot our hero not between the eyes, but BETWEEN THE BALLS!!!
It may seem strange that a movie of this nature would harbour such a homosexual undercurrent, but it all makes perfect sense when viewed through the era’s sociopolitical lens. The 80s played host to the rising AIDS epidemic, which in itself led to a string of movies that were given the ‘gay panic’ label, Jack Sholder’s controversial A Nightmare on Elm Street sequel Freddy’s Revenge and Richard Harmon’s, Eric Red-penned road thriller The Hitcher just two examples of an industry high on sensationalism. Homosexuality, once a dirty secret suppressed by gay and straight men alike, was suddenly out in the open, and not in a flattering way. If bigots already felt validated in questioning the freedoms of practising homosexuals at a time when the nuclear generation was nearing curmudgeon territory, then the fear of a rapidly disseminating virus was enough for them to reach for the pitchforks. It amazes me how people can feel justified in questioning the personal freedoms of any living being, but under Reagan’s Christianity-propped, right-wing philosophies it all became just a little puritanical. There was something in the air back then, an irrational fear which intoxicated even the most liberal and passive, and though it may not be the filmmaker’s conscious intention, Commando could easily be read as ‘Bennett is the disease, Matrix the cure’.
It’s somewhat ironic that Commando would become famous for its homosexual undertones, as it was prejudice that inadvertently steered the film in that direction. There’s a distinct lack of sexual chemistry between Schwarzenegger and Chong throughout Commando, Matrix and Cindy’s relationship failing to conjure even a solitary kiss. Chong, who has a real knack for comedy, is excellent in those terms, playing off Arnie’s deadpan delivery in a way that sets her apart from the legions of itty bittys suckling at the teat of Hollywood testosterone, but that’s where the connection ends. This lack of chemistry wasn’t a creative choice, more a reluctance from the studio to alienate large parts of their demographic. In fact, there was a sex scene between Schwarzenegger and Chong that was ultimately scrapped. Much like Beverly Hills Cop, which paired black action star Eddie Murphy with white female co-star Lisa Eilbacher, Commando holds off on the romance because a large percentage of Americans were turned off by black and white sexual relations.
Arius : Are you trying to… frighten me?
Bennett : I don’t have to try. When Matrix finishes the job, he’ll be back for his daughter. Now whether she’s alive or dead doesn’t matter. Then he’ll be after you. Now the only thing between you and Matrix [points to himself] is me.
Arius : It is YOU that is afraid, Mr. Bennett. YOU are afraid of Matrix.
Bennett : Of course. I’m smart.
“We saw dozens and dozens of your typical beautiful blonde actresses for weeks trying to find somebody who could play opposite Arnold. We read everyone you could imagine, and the scenes would just lie there flat. Then there were a lot of actresses who didn’t even want to act with him, because they thought they were too prestigious. I never heard of any of them again,” Lester recalled. “By the time [Rae Dawn Chong] came in we just about hired her on the spot, because we finally had someone who brought real comedic flair to the part. We had to cut the love scene though – originally there was a sex scene between her and Arnold, but in those days the Southern theatres wouldn’t play a movie if it had interracial sex, so that was out.”
A sad state of affairs, but Commando doesn’t suffer for its lack of a traditional female love interest. In fact, it probably benefits. For one thing, it makes a stronger character out of Chong, who takes on more of a buddy role for the most part. The necessity of ditching the sexual angle also resulted in a couple of relationship-building scenes being scrapped from the theatrical cut, and as the director’s cut will attest, they’re pretty hopeless. As well as affecting the theatrical cut’s breakneck pacing, they’re a little stale with the humour turned down, Arnie far from comfortable in the realms of romance. To be honest, a movie as gloriously and transparently ludicrous as Commando just doesn’t need those scenes. The less baggage onboard the better.
Commando was Arnie’s first real test as a marquee attraction, and he understandably struggles at times. He’d more than held his own in the Conan movies, The Terminator putting him on the map as a truly mainstream draw, but both performances owed much to smart casting. Schwarzenegger’s Teutonic accent, rather than proving a hindrance, was befitting of both a character who reigned on the 10,000 B.C battlefields and a mechanical destroyer bereft of emotion. Cameron, in particular, exploited the actor’s positive and negative attributes to devastating effect, forging a colossal monster which thrived on a lack of humanity, something that Arnie’s broken pronunciation and stiff demeanour further accentuated. In those movies, Schwarzenegger had exceeded all expectation, but with Commando the honeymoon period was over. The actor had to impress as a somewhat established figure in a more generic action movie that wasn’t as acutely catered to his strengths. He had the muscle, but you need more than muscle if you’re to survive as the genre’s marquee star.
Part of Schwarzenegger’s growing appeal as a mainstream action presence was his plethora of inane one-liners, the kind that became his calling card as he went from strength-to-strength. Dozens of borderline-risible but totally moreish screenplays were cooked up for Arnie during the late-80s and 90s, making him the highest-paid actor on planet Hollywood. Commando, in particular, is so endlessly quotable you could add pretty much the entire script to the annals of cute quip immortality. Even lines that aren’t meant to be humorous come across as such due to the film’s gloriously overblown characters and hyperbolic action sequences. Those of you who’ve read this far will no doubt be a huge fan of arguably the biggest guilty pleasure of a decade crammed with them, so you’ll each have your favourite lines. Whether it’s something as simple as, “I lied!” or more elaborate tomfoolery like, “I eat Green Berets for breakfast. And right now, I’m very hungry!” there’s something so irresistible about this screenplay and the delivery of its star attraction, making Commando one of the most memorable pure action vehicles of its era.
The Terminator‘s iconic “I’ll be back,” line, which would ultimately become Arnie’s catchphrase, was the first to unearth his one-liner charms, but Commando was the movie that identified them as his main strength beyond sheer, physical prowess. It may not be as highly regarded as movies such as Predator and Total Recall, but in some ways it was his most important, the one that unlocked the magic and forged the money-spinning template going forward. “Well, I saw [Commando] as a James Bond movie,” Lester would recall. “I remembered seeing Dr. No when it came out when I was a kid, and I loved the one-liners in that. There were a couple of those in de Souza’s script, and then we kept adding them throughout the movie as we went, partly because I got to know Arnold during the rehearsal period and learned how funny he was. We never stopped writing jokes for him and incorporating his own personality into the character.”
Arnie certainly had the personality, but having been thrust into the limelight with no real actor training, he still had much to learn. It’s obvious that the screenplay had to make sacrifices for his lack of acting nous and clunky diction at times, with moments that resemble the famous ‘Up and at them!” scene in the Radioactive Man episode of The Simpsons. Sometimes, Matrix gives abrupt one-word responses or remains off-screen entirely. Other times he trips over his lines with such oafishness that it should be jarring, but in a self-aware film such as Commando he somehow pulls it off. There are whole communities dedicated to this film and the turn of its marquee star. Non-Arnie fans typically raise eyebrows whenever he’s onscreen. Others wonder how on Earth he reached such heights based on his acting skills and sheer clumsiness. Arnie fans are just as perplexed by the fact that anyone couldn’t find him anything less than irresistible. For many, he’s special for exactly the reasons that others find him unbearable. In terms of sheer, implausible charisma, they don’t make them like him.
I don’t know what it is about late-80s Schwarzenegger, but he adds an extra dimension in this regard, even during his more innocuous moments. All those things that industry insiders had told him would work against him ― the thick Eastern drawl, the overly developed body, the wooden demeanour ― somehow worked in his favour. Despite his obvious real-life intelligence and sharp sense of humour, Arnie was impossible to take seriously as an actor back then, so a self-aware approach was the best way forward. His awkward delivery, his bumbling frame and borderline-clueless acting abilities, they all combined to forge the kind of inimitable presence never before witnessed, and never to be seen again. The man ran on sheer, unfathomable magnetism. He was, and still is, an absolute force of nature.
John Matrix: Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last?
Sully: That’s right, Matrix! You did!
John Matrix: I lied.
Whether reeling off zingers, failing to portray his so-called tactical genius or pulling off the kind of insane stunts that sling a steaming hot pipe at basic plausibility, Matrix is pure comedy gold. It doesn’t matter if he’s taking on a whole army of mall cops single-handed (surely they’re overstaffed!), leaping hundreds of feet from an airborne plane into a knee-high puddle only to emerge bone-dry, or simply bumbling about the place as his truck careens down a mountainside, he never fails to bring a smile to your face. Just watch the moment in the plane’s cargo area when Matrix is confronted by a pack of caged Dobermans (worst reaction shot in a big bucks movie?), or the moment in the mall when he ducks behind a post to avoid detection about three seconds too late ― just two of a plethora of perfunctory moments that ooze accidental hilarity.
Part of what makes Commando such an endlessly watchable experience is identifying all the continuity errors and senseless occurrences. When Matrix first comes under attack as Bennett and his cronies look to kidnap his daughter, he rushes to his high-security weapons storage unit, only the door is visibly unlocked, and even if it weren’t it wouldn’t take long to figure out the two-digit code. You could casually lean on the keypad and still have a chance of cracking it. When Matrix is arrested for bulldozing a weapons store for supplies on a curiously desolate LA street, Cindy uses a rocket launcher to surgically flip the truck, aiding Matrix’ escape without causing harm to anyone. The cops even forget to handcuff the psychopathic one-man army running roughshod over the city, which comes in rather handy as time runs out for his daughter.
A scene that sees Matrix pursue a cute little shit named Sully features so many goofs it’s absolutely gobsmacking. While in pursuit, Matrix and Cindy crash head-on into a telephone pole at high speed without wearing seat belts, but instead of leaving body parts strewn across the winding roads of the Hollywood Hills, the two exit without pausing for breath, barely a scratch on either one of them. Bear in mind, Chong weighs roughly 100 lbs and they’re driving a convertible. Moments later, Matrix hangs Sully over a cliff by his ankle (the wire is plainly visible), letting him fall to his death and even allowing himself a curious peek over the edge as a ludicrous stunt dummy flails in the cool evening winds. Shortly after, Matrix flaunts his brawn by flipping Sully’s totalled car back onto its wheels. In the next shot, it’s a brand new vehicle, clean as a whistle.
The characters in Commando are just as throwaway, but they’re so memorable thanks to the kind of impressive cast that mainstream Hollywood invariably affords. Industry stalwart Dan Hedaya plays it to the absolute hilt as Latin-American dictator Arias, the unscrupulous swine at the heart of the whole sordid plot. He’s a thinly-veiled nod at Noriega-era corruption, a villain who could easily qualify for a James Bond film. Perennial action regular and Predator co-star Bill Duke puts in a short but memorable turn as another beefed-up mercenary just begging for the Arnie treatment, while a young Alyssa Milano more than holds her own as Matrix’s kidnapped daughter Jenny (aka Chen-ny), a preteen who actually jumps for joy after witnessing captor Bennett brutally murdered by her father and is clearly in need of a psychiatrist. Best of all is the brilliant David Patrick Kelly as Sully, the kind of slippery slimeball who calls women whores when they repel his toad-like advances, approaching his work with the cocky insouciance of an A1 cretin. He’s an absolute hoot who deserves to die in the worst way imaginable.
Then you have the moral enigma that is Cindy. This girl has been kidnapped, thrown around, witnessed repeated acts of theft, battery and murder, and still she follows Arnie’s hulking stranger unconditionally. She even escorts Matrix to Arias’ offshore hideout in a stolen plane in a no fly zone, where he graduates from multiple homicide to arguably the biggest act of mass murder committed by a single person, with the increasingly saucy Bennett as his main course. With a bit of back-to-basics exposition, we find out that Matrix had Bennett kicked off the force, and ever since that day he’s been waiting to pay him back. Thanks to the exiled Arias, Bennett is finally given that opportunity. Arias wants to assassinate the president of his homeland in a bid to overthrow him and believes Matrix is the only man for the job, so much that he’s concocted the kind of elaborate plan that’s doomed to fail when he simply could have hired a sniper.
It’s all rather silly, but if you came here for logic you’re in the wrong place. Logic is kryptonite to a movie like Commando, a balls-to-the-wall action extravaganza that can be viewed ad nauseam without ever losing its charm. With it’s overblown action sequences, endlessly quotable dialogue, colossal fails in continuity and a superb cast who revel in the film’s ridiculous extravagances, Commando is the gift that keeps on giving; a movie I’ve seen countless times before, and will almost certainly see countless times again. Buoyed by James Horner’s surging score and Power Station’s thumping end credits salvo We Fight For Love, this is B-movie madness masquerading as big-budget extravaganza, a film that more than deserves its place among the pantheon of action immortals. Every time I reach for Commando I’m overcome with the kind of joy that transcends everyday nostalgia, that reminds me just how fun movies can be. It’s like connecting with an old friend who hasn’t changed one iota; it ‘feels good, just like old times’. In the realms of retro action cinema, Commando is the mountain that dreams are made of.