Commando: Revisiting the Movie That Definitively Made Schwarzenegger A Hero

We take a deep dive into 1985’s Commando, the movie that definitively turned Arnold Schwarzenegger into a hero.

Last Updated on March 26, 2024

INTRO: If there’s one word that perfectly sums up the bombastic nature of 80s action cinema, it has to be ‘excess’. Action behemoths, big hair, muscles, fantastical landscapes, and arm-wrestling matches that could be won by the simple flip of your favourite cap. It was an amazing decade for movies, and for action movie icons. Looking back on the early career of one of the era’s most iconic megastars, Arnold Schwarzenegger, there’s one thing that jumps out like doomed cannon-fodder from one of his movies; they were never dull. After having successfully conquered the world of bodybuilding, and subsequently the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, with career defining roles in Conan the BarbarianConan the DestroyerThe Terminator and Red Sonja, it’s clear that going bigger would be better for his career. Those movies highlighted how Arnie’s impressive physique could be utilised for maximum effect, whether he was wielding a sword as Conan, or destroying an entire police station as the T-800 in The Terminator, it was pretty clear that muscles and mayhem were very much on the menu for 80s audiences.

This is just as well, because the movie we’re revisiting today, 1985’s Commando, is a glorious example of 80s excess. You want violence, you get it in spades. Daft one liners? Yup. Over the top, memorable villains with awesome facial hair. You betchya!. That’s right movie fans, we’re heading up that secluded mountain to catch-up with retired special agent, John Matrix, before he’s forced to rescue a very young Alyssa Milano from his former unit. So, grab hold of that airliner’s wheel after despatching some rogue passengers, as we take a retrospective look at the Mark L. Lester classic from 1985, here on ARNIE REVISITED!

SET-UP: Back when I was just a young lad, skating around like I was Tony Hawk and trying my best to avoid detention at school, there was a video game I played on the awesome ZX Spectrum 48k. You know the one; rubber keys, terrible graphics, but utterly amazing at the time, that was a clear, if not official spin off from the movie we’re focusing on in this episode. Also called Commando, the run-and-gun viewed from above actioner saw you take control of a soldier called ‘Super Joe’ who’s dropped into the jungle and has to lay waste to hundreds of enemy soldiers. Sound familiar? Well, apart from betrayal and offspring being kidnapped, that’s pretty much the plot of Arnie’s wonderfully absurd movie Commando.

When Commando burst into cinemas in 1985, guns a-blazin’, it landed in a crowded marketplace with similar genre titles and stars who either packed their muscles with mayhem, or used their brains and an ingrained skillset to take out the bad guys. Stars such as Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude Van Damme and Mel Gibson, plus characters like the recently obliterated James Bond, were dominating the action genre, alongside the Austrian Oak of course. Muscles and mayhem were big business, and the excess of the 80s was personified in action cinema. Arnie was fresh off a string of very successful movies, and was the saving grace in the entertaining but hardcore-action-lite Red Sonja, also released in 1985. The concept for the movie, as outlined by writer Jeph Loeb, was initially based around a soldier who had renounced violence; something you simply can’t fathom, given the gloriously over-the-top action in the finished movie.

Commando

Production on the film began in July 1985 and it was released an astonishing three months later on October 4th. This swift production schedule was mainly due to Arnie’s availability and also the studio’s desire to capitalise on the star’s rising popularity. Director Mark L. Lester had form in the action drama with his resume already full of B-movie fun with movies such as Steel ArenaTruck Stop WomanStuntsGold of the Amazon Woman and Firestarter. Commando is arguably his greatest achievement and he didn’t stop making movies after it’s release, with his last feature to date, Dragons of Camelot not exactly being a masterpiece to say the least, but, fair play to him, he’s still working.

The production had an estimated budget of around $10 million, and was filmed mainly in California with location work at San Nicolas Island, the Pacific Coast at San Simeon, where Matrix goes to rescue his daughter, and is also home to the Hearst Castle Estate, where the scene in which the barracks are attacked is based. The film’s climax, when Matrix lays waste to countless enemy soldiers in wonderfully brutal ways, was filmed at the former main residence of the Harold Lloyd Estate in the Benedict Canyon district of Beverly Hills. One of the movie’s other main set pieces is the mall shootout, in which Matrix fights security guards and swings like Tarzan to try and apprehend one of the bad guys. It was also filmed in California at the Sherman Oaks Galleria and, aside from the frenetic climax of the movie, is probably one of the most iconic moments in the film. These locations suit the ridiculous action perfectly, but they can’t hide the fact that Arnie’s stunt double sticks out like a sore thumb whenever there’s a mad action beat that the production’s insurance couldn’t cover. Just check out that Tarzan swing, or some of the other stunts, and Arnie’s doppelganger is humorously nowhere near as buff as the star is.

Alongside the inimitable Austrian Oak, Commando also features a hugely entertaining supporting cast. Rae Dawn Chong is slightly jarring but often great value as an air stewardess who Matrix unceremoniously embroils in his revenge plan, spitting out some hilarious lines of her own and firing a missile launcher backwards. Dan Hedeya plays on of the main bad guys with his usual gurning panache, David Patrick Kelly is great as the suitably smarmy Sully, who Matrix despatches in a hilarious scene, andPredator star Bill Duke is superb as another mercenary who also has a memorable death scene after duking it out with Matrix. A very young Alyssa Milano manages to be one of the more palatable child actors of the time as Matrix’s daughter, and she shares a couple of unintentionally hilarious scenes with her dad at the beginning of the movie as they share ice cream and bond in their remote picturesque mountain top retreat, where no-one would ever think of looking for a former special agents operative, naturally. Best of all though, and one of the most memorably over the top performances as a villain in an action movie from any decade, goes to Vernon Wells as Bennet. His wide-eyed, manic stare and broad Australian accent elevates the character from what could have been a laughably bad performance, to one which makes the movie even more iconic. His fight with Matrix at the film’s conclusion is great, especially at one point when he’s electrocuted and uses his new found ‘powers’ to lay into Matrix, before being impaled hilariously by a flying steam pipe. Classic. 80s. Action! Also worth mentioning is a nice, all too brief cameo, with the late great Bill Paxton as an intercept officer.

arnold schwarzenegger commando

REVIEW: When I first caught Commando as an impressionable youngster I was enthralled by the glorious violence, Arnie’s pumped up physique, plus the many forever quotable one liners that are littered throughout. However, as I was too young to catch it in the cinema I had to rely on its terrestrial TV debut which, unfortunately, was a heavily censored version, with most of the carnage left to my imagination. Some of the squibs were left in but a lot of the scenes where limbs are chopped off or heads sliced by flying razor blades were excised for the apparently squeamish TV audiences. Ridiculous. Even the fight with Bennet and Arnie at the end was cut, with the dust up suddenly cutting to both men bloodied and bruised and before I knew it, Bennet was impaled like the shark at the end of Jaws: The Revenge. However, I loved the movie, and by the time I finally caught the uncut version, my love of Arnie and all things 80s action-based was firmly cemented in my brain.

Looking back on the movie for this retrospective and yeah, it’s cheesy as hell in places, but that’s the point of these timeless classics. It clocks in at almost an hour and a half so there’s no time to establish Matrix’s relationship with his daughter, apart from the aforementioned ice cream scene, before she’s whisked away by the rogue mercenaries. The movie then follows that tried and trusted blue-print for action and revenge films, with one set-piece followed by another until the protagonist overcomes insurmountable odds until eventually overcoming an entire army, and a crazed Australian, before heading home with his rescued daughter. Who, by the way, doesn’t seem too fazed by almost being killed and probably witnessing countless bodies being eviscerated by her kick-ass dad, who, ya know, eats green berets for breakfast.

Overall, Commando does an admirable job of showcasing Arnie at his peak physically and also just as his star power was rapidly on the ascendance. Its plot is simple, as you’d expect, so if you’re looking for retro action with a more nuanced approach to the narrative then this movie will be lacking in depth in that regard. However, if you’re looking for some ridiculous action, great one-liners, and a movie that is most certainly a product of its time, then check out Commando as soon as humanly possible. Arnie set out to prove he was the king of the action genre at the time and along with a decent cast, a cool score by James Horner, and some glorious violence, he succeeded. Make sure you catch the uncut version, of course, so you don’t miss any of the carnage.

LEGACY / NOW: Commando was released in the US on October 4th, 1985, and was considered a success, grossing over $57.5 million, against a $9 million budget. The movie debuted at number one at the box office and stayed there for a further three weeks, before being usurped by hip-hop movie Krush Groove and the Jeff Bridges and Glenn Close thriller, Jagged Edge.

The movie was met with a mixed response from critics while review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes show the movie as having a 67% fresh rating over 36 reviews with its critics consensus saying that the film is, “the ultimate ’80s Schwarzenegger movie, replete with a threadbare plot, outsized action, and endless one-liners.” The New York Times didn’t appreciate the film, writing that, “two-thirds of this 90-minute film is mayhem unrelieved by humor and untouched by humanity,” and suggested that if sequels were to be made, “more clever writers and subtler directors will have to be found. Even a cinematic comic book needs more artful care than this one was given”. More favourable, however, was The Los Angeles Times, who said that the film was, “Full of spectacular stunts and shootouts, it’s a gory crowd-pleaser, directed with jolting efficiency by low-budget veteran Mark L. Lester. If his scenarists had only given Lester a finale with as much explosive punch as his opening scenes, the film could have been a real treat instead of a glorified fireworks display.” I’ve got to disagree with that last sentence; the movie’s climax rocks!

However, what’s YOUR take on the movie? Did Lester, Arnie and co. deliver a kick-ass 80s actioner that still holds up well today, or should the muscles and mayhem genre be something kept in the past, impaled on a steaming pipe? As usual, let us know in the comments and subscribe to our channel while you’re there. Thanks for watching our show and stay tuned for more Arnie-action. We’ll see you next time!

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