Back in the fall of 1985, it was impossible to be bigger than Arnold Schwarzenegger, both in terms of movie-star wattage and sheer Joe Weider muscle mass. In the decade between 1982 and 1992, the seven-time Mr. Olympia-turned-unlikely-Hollywood heavyweight cranked out Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Predator, The Running Man, Total Recall, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. That’s a pretty amazing run of red-meat spectacles right there. Still, there’s one film from that period that tends to get overlooked far too often.
Released on this day 35 years ago, 1985’s Commando may not be the Austrian Oak’s greatest action movie of the ‘80s. But it’s certainly his most ‘80s action movie of the ‘80s. It’s a deliriously over-the-top slice of Joel Silver-produced macho kitsch that has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. And it’s also a pure shot of straight-no-chaser Ahnuld that somehow manages to both fetishize his ham-sized pecs and ubermensch physique in every frame while turning squib-happy ultraviolence into something so giddily excessive that it unspools like a live-action Tex Avery cartoon (for the record: Scxhwarzenegger scores 81 kills). If you were into that sort of thing back in 1985 (and 15-year-old me most definitely was), then Commando has to get your vote as the most self-aware and homoerotic kill-fest of the Reagan era—an era, by the way, that had no shortage of such things.
We’ll get to what makes Commando such an insane slice of Neanderthal nostalgia in a moment. But first, it’s worth pointing out that back in 1985, the friendly box-office rivalry between Schwarzenegger and his comrade in cinematic sadism, Sylvester Stallone, was at its alpha-male pinnacle. Since the early ‘80s, the two had a hammerlock on the big-budget action genre. Sure, there was Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson, and there would soon be Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal (not to mention straight-to-video wannabes like Jeff Speakman, Michael Dudikoff, and Don “The Dragon” Wilson), but they were the guys you went to only when you’d already cycled through the lesser Schwarzenegger and Stallone entries like Raw Deal and Cobra. The A-list only had room for two ripped action titans at the time.
In May of 1985, Stallone would release the rah-rah, Reagan-approved pop-culture juggernaut Rambo: First Blood Part II. That film, in which Sly’s scarred Vietnam Vet alter ego returns to Southeast Asia to bring back American POWs, managed to rack up $300 million worldwide, making it the second-biggest hit of the year after Back to the Future. But Schwarzenegger’s innate sense of competitiveness (first seen in the 1977 body-building documentary Pumping Iron) eventually piqued his interest in a script from Steven E. deSouza about a retired elite Special Ops colonel named John Matrix (no joke) who’s called out of retirement to waste a group of Central American thugs looking to overthrow the fictional banana republic of Val Verde. Like Stallone’s John Rambo, Matrix is a reluctant hero. He wants nothing from life these days besides the freedom to chop wood and go fishing with his daughter (a 12-year-old Alyssa Milano). But when those very same goons kidnap her, he has no choice but to strap on his ammo belt, smear on some greasy eye black, and pick up a rocket launcher.
Deep down, Schwarzenegger wanted to out-Stallone Stallone. And while Commando may traffic in some of the same themes as Rambo, Ahnuld would bring his own arsenal of signature touches to the proceedings, racking up a ridiculous body count, adding a dash of shameless melodrama (he’s a papa bear out to protect his cub), and uncorking a string of some of either the best or worst one-line zingers in action-flick history depending on your taste for such things.
It’s interesting to watch Commando today knowing that it wasn’t originally intended to be a Schwarzenegger vehicle. The film’s original writer, Jeph Loeb, envisioned it as the more downbeat story of a retired, world-weary Israeli super-soldier called out of retirement starring KISS front man Gene Simmons (don’t laugh, he was pretty good in 1986’s Wanted: Dead or Alive) and, later, Nick Nolte. But when both actors passed, the role made its way into the meaty paws of Schwarzenegger, who was just coming off of the disaster, Red Sonja. The actor knew he could have some fun with Commando, and maybe even stick it to Stallone in the process—even if it didn’t quite work out that way in the end.
Made with $10 million of Fox’s money, Commando was directed by Mark L. Lester, a veteran of cult-movie trash like Roller Boogie, Gold of the Amazon Women, and Truck Stop Women who had recently graduated to helming the Stephen King adaptation Firestarter. Silver, who was already well on his way to becoming Hollywood’s new Action Midas thanks to The Warriors and 48 Hrs. (and later Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and Road House), smelled the unmistakable scent of money with Schwarzenegger as Matrix. And it’s easy to see why. After all, the opening five-minute montage is a masterclass in ‘80s-style Shane Black mayhem, as the always-welcome Bill Duke riddles a dude with an Uzi while dressed as a garbage man, then drives a Cadillac through a showroom window and over the oily car salesman, and then blows up a fishing boat killing everyone on board. This was one bad dude, and he was like the third or fourth lead heavy in the damned film. Then again, Commando wasn’t the kind of movie that was interested in dramatic foreplay. It was all carnage all the time, right out of the gate.
So, yes, Commando is one of the most unapologetically violent films ever made (anonymous camo-clad henchman are dispatched with circular-saw blades used as throwing stars, bowie knives, machine guns, and grenades, as well as the aforementioned rocket launcher), but it’s also one of the funniest. When the camera first spots Matrix, he’s carrying a giant tree on his shoulder like Paul Bunyan with a license to kill. And a moment later he’s sharing ice cream with his daughter, playing with her in a swimming pool, and feeding a baby deer together. For a brief moment, this most violent of ultraviolent films feels like the most saccharine Father’s Day card at your local Hallmark store.
But then, just as all seems idyllic and right with the world, Matrix’s mountain lodge is stormed by Central American assassins and his daughter is snatched. Forget the ice cream and the deer, it’s now payback time. After being taken prisoner and escaping from a plane as its taking off, Matrix and Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong) begin to work the way up the villainous food chain to get to an evil dictator-in-waiting played by Dan Hedaya (sporting an unfortunate Speedy Gonzalez accent) and his top-dog enforcer Bennett, another former Special Ops soldier who has a long-standing grudge against Matrix.
Bennett is sort of a fascinating bad guy—and a large part of why Commando ends up working as well as it does. The character was originally supposed to be played by Wings Hauser. But when Hauser was reportedly fired on the first day of shooting, the producers quickly recast the role with The Road Warrior’s Vernon Wells, which may explain why all of Bennett’s clothes fit him way too snugly. And what clothes they are! With his Aussie accent, porno mustache, and psycho glare, Bennett arrives on the scene in fingerless black leather motorcycle gloves, a dog-tag necklace, and a chainmail covered t-shirt . He looks like one of the Village People gone to seed. And the almost-orgasmic look on his face during his final mano-a-mano smackdown with Matrix makes it clear that there’s more going on between these two than just an age-old grudge.
If you think I’m reading into a film that isn’t meant to be read into, then you ought to check out the film’s climactic brawl, which takes place in a furnace room full of phallic pipes and manly blast furnaces. It’s then and there that Schwarzenegger grunts to his leather-clad adversary, “Think of sticking your knife in my flesh—and twisting it!” This line, of course, comes right before Schwarzenegger finishes off Bennett in what remains one of the most iconic action-movie kills (or releases) of all time, throwing a long, hard length of metal pipe at Bennett’s torso like a javelin and impaling him against a steam valve that spews smoke from his spastic death-dance corpse.
Now, you can say all you want about Schwarzenegger these days—his tabloid transgressions and his politics—but there’s really no arguing that he’s a much smarter guy than most people give him credit for. He knew exactly what sort of sexual subtext was simmering underneath the surface of his scenes with Bennett. After all, he’d been playfully toying with the homoerotic subtext of the bodybuilding circuit since the ‘70s. And he also knew that all of the bloodshed and shock-and-awe pyrotechnics in Commando were meant to be laughed with and not at. As were his one liners, which included telling Bennett at one point: “I’ll be back” and dropping one of Bennett’s henchmen from a cliff, saying, “Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last? I lied.” Commando is peak Schwarzenegger when it comes to groan-inducing wordplay. But most of it is so bad it’s great.
On its opening weekend, Commando debuted as the No. 1 film in North America. It would go on to make $57.4 million worldwide, a far cry from Rambo’s box-office haul, perhaps, but still solid numbers in 1985. To no one’s surprise, the critics were unimpressed. Still, Commando turned out to be such a hit on home video that Fox staked deSouza to come up with a screenplay for Commando 2. But unlike Stallone, Schwarzenegger was still gun-shy about sequels at that point in his career. So he passed. And in a curious action-cinema history footnote, deSouza rejiggered the Commando 2 script into what would eventually become Die Hard. (Another footnote: Commando’s fictional nation of Val Verde would later pop up in both Predator and Die Hard 2, making the three films part of an obscure shared cinematic universe).
In the 35 years since Commando was released, Schwarzenegger hasn’t exactly refused to discuss the film, but it’s clearly not one that he talks about much. Which is a shame. But last year, while promoting the latest Terminator film on Reddit, he responded to one fan’s question about the film and whether he knew how totally bonkers it was. The question prompted Schwarzenegger to tell a story. Here’s what he wrote:
“As soon as I carried a thousand-pound log with one arm I knew it was funny. But let me share the scenes you didn’t see that that I tried to get in. I wanted to cut off a guy’s arm kill him with it. This wasn’t in the script. He would throw a knife at me and after he missed, while his arm was still extended, I chop it off at the shoulder with a machete and beat him to death with it. Needless to say, I was asked by the head of the studio, Larry Gordon, to come to his office. And he said ‘What the fuck is the matter with you? Do you want to make money with this movie or [make] an X-rated movie?!’”
Schwarzenegger said that he knew that the powers that be were right. Moviegoers had limits even in the anything-goes ‘80s. He also knew that there would be plenty of other opportunities down the road where he might be able to sneak a gag like that past a less-attentive studio head. But that opportunity never materialized before the twilight-of-the-action-gods descended in the late ‘90s. Still, for one brief, absurd moment in the Fall of 1985, the star was able to mix together all of the most insane ingredients that made a Schwarzenegger film a Schwarzenegger film and cap it all off with a steam pipe thrown through a villain’s chest, followed by a smirk and the perfect le mot juste one liner: “Let off some steam, Bennett.” Somehow that feels like enough.
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