‘We’ve Got to Have a Bigger D–k Than Rambo’: How ‘Commando’ Became an Action Classic
In the pantheon of cheesy and over-the-top action flicks, none stand taller than Commando. The film, released Oct. 4, 1985, turned gratuitous violence and unintentionally funny dialog into an art form, becoming a cult classic in the process.
Following the huge success of Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator, it was becoming emphatically clear that bodybuilder-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger had become a box office draw. In 1984, executive Barry Diller became the head of 20th Century Fox and he made it clear he wanted Schwarzenegger on one of their projects.
“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,’” screenwriter Steven de Souza recalled in a conversation with Empire. “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.”
Watch the Trailer for 'Commando'
That original story was quite different from what was actually made. In its initial incarnation, Commando followed an Israeli soldier who had “turned his back on violence.” Instead, the script would be reworked, telling the story of John Matrix, a retired special forces soldier who is forced back into combat after his daughter is kidnapped by a murderous Latin American dictator and his deranged army of mercenaries.
Schwarzenegger would star as Matrix, the film’s hero, while his daughter, Jenny, would be played by Alyssa Milano. Rae Dawn Chong would play Cindy, a flight attendant who ends up helping Matrix on his mission, while subsequently becoming his love interest.
“The part was written for a Caucasian actress, so I knew I had only one shot,” Chong later recalled. “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.”
Watch Rae Dawn Chong and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Commando'
The role of Captain Bennett - a violent former member of Matrix’s team, now enlisted to help the evil dictator Arius (Dan Hedaya) assume power - was played by Vernon Wells. The Australian actor was a last minute addition to the cast.
“Originally there was a different guy cast as Bennett,” admitted director Mark Lester. “I did half a scene with him, but he just wasn’t working.”
“I flew in from Australia, got off the plane and went straight to wardrobe. I didn’t have any preparation time,” Wells recalled. “I didn’t even know who Arnold Schwarzenegger was.”
The Austrian action hero was initially dubious of his newly hired co-star. “I thought, ‘How is he going to pull off playing a mean guy? He’s so nice,’” Schwarzenegger wondered.
Determined to convince his counterpart that he was up to the task, Wells emphatically threw himself into the role. “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,” Wells explained. “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.”
Watch Captain Bennett in 'Commando'
Wells’ portrayal of Bennett would become a key component of Commando's allure. The character's distinctive chainmail attire and outlandish personae were so excessive that viewers couldn’t help but be drawn to him.
Though Schwarzenegger was still developing his acting chops, Commando offered a formula that would serve the star well throughout his career - namely, the development of timely one-liners. Some of Matrix’s more memorable words included “I eat Green Berets for breakfast. And right now I’m very hungry” and “Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last? I lied.”
Watch the Famous "I lied" scene from 'Commando'
Another of Commando’s key ingredients was its gratuitous violence. Throughout the film, Matrix throws bad guys off of cliffs, impales them with table legs, breaks their necks and shoots to kill. Still, all of those exploits paled in comparison to the film’s final act, when the hero seemingly takes out a hundred-man army all by himself.
After Matrix discovers that Kelly is being held at Arius’ island fortress, the unstoppable soldier (and loving father) arrives to save his daughter. For more that 20 minutes, viewers watch as Schwarzenegger’s character annihilated adversaries with guns, mines, grenades, a rocket launcher, an Uzi, and virtually any other weapon imaginable.
“In the script, there was some plausibility,” de Souza later insisted. “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 realized 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.”
Watch Matrix's Killing Spree from 'Commando'
“There was a lot of testosterone in the air,” Lester recalled. “It was like, ‘Bring more bodies!’ A lot of stuntmen were getting reused - they were always putting on new costumes and mustaches and hair. The same guy might play four parts.”
This wasn’t high art - but it wasn’t designed to be. Like a giant monster truck smashing sedans to dust, Commando was a celebration of carnage in its most basic form.
Amazingly, the bloodbath could have been more extreme. In a 2019 Reddit AMA, Schwarzenegger revealed one idea that was shot down. “I wanted to cut off a guy’s arm and kill him with it,” the Hollywood star explained. “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.” The idea was immediately shot down by the studio head, who scolded Schwarzenegger for such a graphic suggestion.
Watch the Final Fight Between Matrix and Bennett in 'Commando'
In spite of the violence, cheesy dialog and over-the-top performances - or perhaps because of them - Commando was a box office smash. The film was No. 1 its opening weekend and would go on to make more than $57 million domestically.
“On opening night I drove around all the theaters to watch it," Lester confessed. "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.”
Commando perfected the mold for quintessential ‘80s action flicks - combining violence, explosions, one-liners and a hint of romance with just enough of a plot to make the events on screen entertaining.
Rumors of a sequel or reboot have circulated for years; Lester even told Yahoo Entertainment that he envisioned Commando along the lines of James Bond, with many actors portraying Matrix in different films. Still, nothing has come to fruition. Wells, for one, thinks that's best.
“A remake’s a nice idea, but I don’t think it’ll work," the actor opined. "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.”