Your average cult movie is black-and-white, involves dwarves and/or talking rabbits, and isn’t much fun to watch on a Saturday night. The exception to this rule: Commando. A 1985 vehicle for up-and-coming star Arnold Schwarzenegger, it could have been just another mindless B-flick. Instead, lightning struck and the silliest, most relentlessly entertaining action epic in history was created. How supremely daft is Commando? Well, the hero is called John Matrix. He can carry an entire tree on his shoulder, pick up a phone booth with a person inside it, and jump off planes in mid-air without getting a scratch. There are ludicrous villains, glaring continuity errors, saxophone riffs on the score and a wildly inappropriate power ballad at the end, featuring the lyric, “I am a mountain, surrounded by your love.” It’s the most pleasurable of guilty pleasures, and today still commands a legion of devoted fans. Once you’ve gone Commando, there’s no going back.
"You're a funny guy, Sully. I like you. That's why I'm going to kill you last..."
Mark Lester (director): “It’s the granddaddy of action films as we know them today. And Arnold was the reason it got made.”
Steven de Souza (screenwriter): “Barry Diller had just become head of 20th Century Fox. His first day on the job, he said, ‘This guy Schwarzenegger is a phenomenon. If you find a movie for him that can be done for under $12 million, I’ll greenlight it immediately.’ We did a marathon reading session of every action script on the lot and decided that Commando, by the guys who’d written Teen Wolf, was the one.”
Joseph Loeb III (writer, original draft): “Our story was about an Israeli soldier who has turned his back on violence. Not the movie they made!”
De Souza: “I revamped the story to suit Arnold’s bigger-than-life persona. Then I drove to his house and acted it out for him. It was going well – I’d got him hooked. Then I got to the bit where Matrix says, ‘Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last? I lied’, and I realised I’d accidentally slipped into my cocktail-party impression of him. Arnold gave me this Terminator look. I quickly went, ‘Hey, I do all the greats… Want to hear my Cary Grant?’ He laughed. Then he stood up and said, ‘I like this part. I’m not a robot from the future or caveman from the past. I’m in clothes and having a family. It’s a part John Wayne could play. I do this picture.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger (‘John Matrix’): “Commando was a big step forward for me. I had only done Conan and Terminator, but now I got to play a gentle, loving father. He is also a fighting machine that will not stop until his objective is complete.”
De Souza: “One morning I walked into Arnold’s house for a script meeting and heard this noise: “Mi-mi-mi-mi-maaaaaa!” He was taking a singing lesson. I said, ‘Are you doing a musical next?’ He said, ‘Dat’s very funny, Steven, but voice control is important for all performance.’ He took it all very seriously. We even spent time running lines so he wouldn’t inadvertently get a tongue-twister. He’d say, ‘I vonder vere Villy vent on Vednesday,’ And I’d go, “Okay, let’s change that to, ‘Frank was furious on Friday...’”
Schwarzenegger: “I read many newspaper articles and books about commando fighters. I read many magazines that deal with soldiers of fortune. That’s basically what I did.”
Lester: “For the love interest, we auditioned lots of girls. Man, we saw every actress in Hollywood: Sharon Stone, Brigitte Nielsen, you name it. But nothing clicked, until Rae Dawn came along.”
Rae Dawn Chong (‘Cindy’): “The part was written for a Caucasian actress, so I knew I had only one shot. My first reading with Arnold was this weird scene where he pulls a dildo out of my handbag. I knew other actresses were stumbling, because the character was supposed to shrug and say, ‘It gets lonely on the road.’ I thought that was so lame, so when my turn came I screamed and said, ‘That’s not mine!’ It got me the part. Was Arnold embarrassed about the dildo? Not even slightly. He didn’t break a sweat running a state, and he didn’t break a sweat handling a dildo then.”
“I eat Green Berets for breakfast. And right now, I’m very hungry!”
Once a Special Forces warrior, John Matrix now lives in the mountains with his daughter Jenny, enjoying such idyllic pastimes as chopping wood, hand-feeding deer and discussing Boy George (“Vhy don’t dey just call him Girl George?”). But soon dastardly types, taking orders from a deposed South American dictator, have kidnapped Jenny, giving Matrix just 11 hours to find her before she’s executed. This he does by setting a timer on his watch – it beeps loudly in close-ups, but never when he’s sneaking up on people – and slugging his way through a rogue’s gallery of henchmen. He also, for no apparent reason, teams up with an air stewardess named Cindy.
Schwarzenegger: “I was in the Austrian army and was a tank driver. So the action of Commando wasn’t all new to me.”
Lester: “Arnold insisted on doing almost all the stunts himself, because he said nobody could duplicate his body. Even when we were doing a close-up of Matrix jamming a knife into a sheath, he said, ‘My hand cannot be duplicated. It is one of a kind.’ When he did the shot, he cut his other hand with the knife and had to go to hospital.”
Schwarzenegger: “I owe it to my fans to do the action myself, because it’s me they pay to see. Nowadays, with computers, they could have just added me in. But I don’t think they have a big enough computer yet.”
Chong: “During Commando, Arnold was at his physical peak. He had a giant semi-truck filled with weights and these bodybuilding guys hanging around him all the time.”
Wells: “They were big boys. Occasionally they’d invite me to join their work-outs, but I’d poke my head in and there was just too much sweat. Arnold loves practical jokes and I became the brunt for many of them. He would ignore me while I was trying to talk to him, or he’d put on a thick accent so I couldn’t understand a word he said. One time he and his friends took all the jacks out of from the back of my trailer, so when I sat on the couch the whole trailer capsized. Arnie thought that was very funny.”
Lester: “He wasn’t intimidating, he was sweet as could be. The night before shooting, we were having dinner and he said, ‘Are you scared?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘I am. I’m petrified.’ Just like any actor, he had pre-shoot jitters.”
Alyssa Milano (‘Jenny Matrix’): “We had a great time. I was 11, with pink high tops and a really bad perm, and Arnold was super-fun. He was always trying to help me with my algebra homework. There was one bad moment, though, during the scene where bad guys gun down our house. Arnold was supposed to come through the door holding me, then lay me down on the floor. But he tripped over, fell on top of me and I cracked a rib.”
Chong: “There was supposed to be a sex scene between Arnold and I when we’re flying to the dictator’s island. But I thought it was gratuitous, because in a time-sensitive situation you’re not feeling frisky. Plus, who would be flying the plane?”
Lester: “We thought it would diminish Arnold’s character. Also, the studio wouldn’t allow it. Nobody wanted a sex scene with Rae Dawn and Arnold – it was kind of an odd coupling to begin with, you know?”
Chong: “Arnold and I spent a lot of time together. I found him to be very smart and committed to his politics. Also a little chauvinistic. He’s been accused of things and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s guilty of them, but I didn’t have that experience. I’m sure there were moments where it was like, ‘No, don’t… Stop!’, but because I like him, it was okay. I wouldn’t think of it as a grab, more an explosion of affection.”
“John, I’m not going to shoot you between the eyes. I’m going to shoot you between the balls!”
A major reason for Commando’s cult status is Vernon Wells’ jaw-dropping performance as arch-villain Bennett. Once a soldier in Matrix’s unit, Bennett is now obsessed with annihilating his former compadre. On paper he’s just another rent-a-goon, but Wells (Mad Max 2) attacks the role with such unhinged zeal that each line becomes an inadvertent comedy classic. He’s become the focus of an entire sub-culture of Commando fans, not least because of his eccentric wardrobe choices: fingerless gloves, tight leather trousers and a chainmail wifebeater.
Wells: “To make a hero a hero, you have to have a villain of equal intensity. Bennett is a scary bad guy: you know that if you confront me, I’m going to break your neck and suck out your brains.”
Lester: “Originally there was a different guy cast as Bennett. I did half a scene with him, but he just wasn’t working.”
Wells: “I flew in from Australia, got off the plane and went straight to wardrobe. I didn’t have any preparation time. I didn’t even know who Arnold Schwarzenegger was. When I finally met Arnold, I remember distinctly that he was not impressed. He thought I was way too laidback for the role.”
Schwarzenegger: “I thought, ‘How is he going to pull off playing a mean guy? He’s so nice.’”
Wells: “The first scene we did was the one where I have the knife to his throat. When the director yelled, ‘Action!’ I just went straight into it. I mean, I was Bennett and I was going to cut Arnold’s throat, there was just no way I wasn’t. When the scene was over, Arnold said, ‘Keep that guy away from me.’ And apparently he requested that in any scene with me that had a knife in it, the knife had to be plastic.”
Chong: “Bennett is clearly homosexual. I mean, hello? With that outfit, he looks like one of the Village People.”
Lester: “When I chose Bennett’s costume, I intended it to be a punk look. But later people said, ‘It looks like gay leather gear.’ That was never the intention. He was infatuated with Arnold’s character, but in an innocent way.”
Wells: “There was no gay attitude as far as I was concerned. Maybe because of the way I fondle my knife when I talk about Matrix, people say, ‘Oh, he wants John.’ Yeah, I wanted John – I wanted to cut his heart out. But people now refer to Bennett as Freddie Mercury on steroids.”
“All fucking hell is going to break loose.”
Commando’s first kill may occur just two minutes in, but for the majority of its run-time it’s fairly restrained. Then, in the final reel, things go spectacularly loco. Matrix arrives at the dictator’s island fortress, armed to the teeth, and proceeds to spend the next 20 minutes wiping out every stuntman in Hollywood (as well as a few mannequins), using a weapon arsenal that includes a four-barrelled rocket launcher, an Uzi, claymore mines and a gardening rake. As action excess goes, it’s yet to be topped.
De Souza: “In the script, there was some plausibility. The dictator is living on a private island, so there were maybe a dozen security guards. But during the shoot, Mark, the director, saw a sneak preview of Rambo [First Blood Part 2] and realised how many people get killed in that. He said, ‘We’ve got to have a bigger dick than Rambo. We’ve got to slay more people.’ And suddenly there were 150 extras getting killed. It got out of control.”
Lester: “There was a lot of testosterone in the air. It was like, ‘Bring more bodies!’ A lot of stuntmen were getting re-used - they were always putting on new costumes and moustaches and hair. The same guy might play four parts.”
Chong: “I was in my trailer when they were shooting those scenes, so I didn’t even know the amount of carnage until I saw it in the theatre. I was like, ‘Holy fuck!’ It’s wild. But I was sad that they were all little brown guys getting nailed.”
Schwarzenegger: “It was the very first film where I had to use fists, kicks and martial arts. There was a lot of shooting too — I blew up a truck with a missile and things like that. The machine guns were very heavy, but that was no problem because I was used to lifting heavy weights.”
De Souza: “There’s one great one-liner that didn’t make it into the movie. Arnold and I had both heard this World War I story about a French officer who’s having his arm cut off — next to him is a guy with a bullet in his foot who’s moaning and screaming, so the officer picks up his freshly amputated arm and slaps this guy in the face with it. So Arnold, while they were shooting the scene where he cuts off the guy’s arm with an axe, suggested that he should slap him with it and say, ‘Quit whining!’”
Lester: “It was discussed on set, but we all said, ‘That’s crazy. You’re a commando: why would you do that?’ In hindsight, it probably would have worked.”
Wells: “The mano-a-mano fight between Arnold and I was brutal – people were waiting to see which of us went to hospital first. He chipped a bone in his shoulder, I dislocated my elbow. But I was so hyped to be in the movie, they could have asked me to jump off the Empire State Building and I probably would have. Making Commando was better than anything you could have smoked. ‘Broken arm? Who gives a shit? Put a Band-Aid on it and I’ll go fight the bugger!’ All I’d like to say is that I’m one of the few people who has kicked the Governor of California’s butt and got away with it.”
De Souza: “The movie was supposed to end with Bennett fleeing in a speedboat and Matrix chasing him in another boat. They’d land on this island where the Marines do their training, and fight with knives on the beach, with barbed wire everywhere, landmines going off and Naval gunnery ships firing artillery shells at them. It would have been crazy, like Saving Private Ryan. Unfortunately, we spent all our money killing 150 people, so we had to shoot the scene in a basement instead.”
“This was the last time.” “Until the next time.”
Despite the Poundstretcher climax, Commando became a phenomenon, topping the US box office. The sequel never came to pass, but a remake has been mooted. Who would step into Matrix’s combat boots? Will the chainmail vest return? And can the bodycount be topped?
Lester: “On opening night I drove around all the theatres to watch it. And when Matrix said, ‘Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last?’, the entire audience yelled, ‘He lied!’ They all knew the line and I couldn’t figure out how. Then I remembered it was in the trailer. That line became famous even before the film came out and it’s still used today. It’s become part of English slang.”
De Souza: “In The Simpsons, [Arnie-spoofing character] McBain uses the line, except that he’s talking to food. ‘Remember when I said I’d eat you last? I lied!’”
Milano: “Commando was massive in Japan. For some reason, when it came out over there, a record-company exec offered me a five-album contract, assuming I could sing. It was so bizarre that I had to to do it, and all five went platinum.”
Lester: “It’s Arnold’s favourite film. I don’t know if he sits and watches it on a regular basis, but he loves it.”
Wells: “I’m totally amazed to still be talking about Commando all these years later. None of us thought it would have the life it has. The craziest fans are in England – they’re out of control. There was a convention where there were 300 people dressed as Bennett! Small ones, tall ones, fat ones… it was just hysterical. And a bit scary to look up from your autograph table and see a guy who’s 5 foot 4 and a little overweight dressed like you and staring at you.”
Lester: “It’s permeated the culture somehow, and I had no idea when I was making it. I saw a movie called MacGruber and the opening scene was a parody of Commando. In this book I read, it says that children in this African country watched Commando before they went out to battle, to psych themselves up.”
De Souza: “I wrote some other movies for Arnold, which may get made now he’s finished with politics. One was called Critic’s Choice, with him as a movie star who has to team up with his harshest critic in a life-or-death situation. One was the Commando sequel. It starts with Matrix getting hired as head of security for a giant corporation. Only he’s being used and has to become a one-man-army again. Who knows, the remake’s coming next year, so maybe they’ll do the sequel after that.”
Lester: “I guess it’s an honour to get your film remade. I have no idea who can replace Arnold. Maybe Daniel Craig.”
Chong: “I’d like them to cast Zoe Saldana in my role. She did a very good job in Avatar and she played my daughter in a film about six years ago.”
Wells: “A remake’s a nice idea, but I don’t think it’ll work. What makes Commando so enduring and endearing is, I think, that at no stage did any of us think we were doing anything comedic. We were gung-ho, out there killing each other in fields of battle. No-one tried to be funny — we were all taking it deadly seriously. Even when Arnold is dangling people over cliffs, the dialogue was treated like it was Shakespeare. I don’t think any of us knew any better.”
This article first ran in 2010.