Going 'Commando' With Mark Lester
Director brings Arnie's first real acting role to Austin
By Richard Whittaker, 11:30AM, Sat. Apr. 5
By 1985, Arnold Schwarzeneggar was a household name, but not yet a mega-celebrity. Director Mark L. Lester explained, "He'd done The Terminator, he'd done Conan, but he wasn't really an action star." It was their madcap action flick Commando that unleashed the one-liner-dealing, leading man.
It may not seem like one of Schwarzenegger's defining roles, but Commando was his first performance that required more than grunting, wielding weapons, and bathing in baby oil. As John Matrix, he's a retired Delta Force operative blackmailed into assassinating a Latin American politician when mercenaries kidnap his daughter. Of course, this goes badly for the mercenaries, but very well for Schwarzenegger, pulling in $57 million at the US box office before a healthy life on VHS and DVD.
Aside from upping Schwarzenegger's star power, it was also one of 80s mega-producer Joel Silver's first big titles. In fact, it was Silver who handed the project to Lester in unusual circumstances. The director had just wrapped up Steven King adaptation Fire Starter, when the pair met at a party at the Playboy Mansion. Lester, who hosts a special screening at the Alamo Ritz this Sunday, said, "We were sitting around in our pajamas, and he said, 'I have this script, but I have Arnold Schwarzenegger, and if you read the script, you'll never do the movie."
The star was won over when he saw Lester's trash classic Class of 1984. But when the director read the script, he realized he had a leading man, but not mush else. He called original story by future Marvel TV boss Jeph Loeb and Matthew Weisman (Teen Wolf) "a rudimentary first draft. it had a ticking clock, but not much else." So he had Steve De Souza (Die Hard, 48 Hrs.) undertake a re-write to build a new version around his budding star, to see whether he could be more than a taciturn heavy.
As a world-class boy builder and a budding action hero, the Austrian Oak was physically imposing, and so Lester threw in some visual nods in to the work of Leni Riefenstahl. "I decided to have him like an Aryan hero, come out with this giant log that no human could possibly carry." Lester is far from the first or last director to take visual cues from the Nazi propagandist's cinematic representation of the human body, but the other big influence was a lot more suave and sophisticated. He said, "Going through the script, I went, 'yeah, he should be like James Bond, with the quips and one-liners I remember from Doctor No."
It was really Commando that saw the birth of Arnie's one liners, like impaling an enemy on an industrial vent and telling him to "let off some steam." His previous roles had quotable epithets, with "I'll be back," and "To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women" still slaying 'em at parties. But before Lester, no-one ever thought he could knock 'em dead before he knocked 'em out. He said, "Going around with Arnold and hanging out with him before the script was finished, I thought, 'wow, he's really funny, but no-one's utilized that.' He already had it in him, but I brought it out, that he could be sympathetic, and that went on to be his persona for many movies."
Having that underlying comedy was important to Lester, who cut his teeth on drive-in flicks like Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw and Truck Stop Women. He said, "I was making B-movies, and in order for them to succeed, you had to get as much entertainment value as possible." For him, influenced by Warhol and exploitation flicks, the movie was "pop art, like comic book art. I don't know that people have that sensibility now, because they're focusing on all this big CGI action stuff. They're incredible, but the actual heart of some of these movies gets lost."
Getting the balance between R-rated bloodshed and snickering puns was sometimes a challenge for the new Schwarzenegger. Lester said, "Arnold tells a story, and it's true, that he wanted to cut a guy's arm off and slap him with it, and he wanted to say, 'I'll give you a hand,' but it got way beyond campy, so we didn't do it."
That restraint probably a good idea, because there are shades of Arnie's later family-friendly comedies like Kindergarten Cop and Jingle All the Way in his scenes with his daughter (played by a pre-Charmed Alyssa Milano.) Lester said, "I was working very hard to humanize him, so that the audience would be sympathetic to the movie. Then he could kill all these bad guys, and the audience would be rooting for him."
And, after all, it was the action sequences that got people through the door. Cute as those moments were, it wasn't Arnie and his kid hand-feeding a deer, or bopping each other on the nose with ice cream, that got on the poster. It was Ahnuld in camouflage war paint, wearing a bicep-bearing flack jacket, festooned with hand grenades and knives.
But Lester didn't just want the traditional shoot-em-up ending. He wanted a little more brain behind the brawn, and that's where the famous final fight scene comes in. Unlike too many action movies, Matrix doesn't have a bottomless magazine in his magic gun. When he runs out of ammo, he picks up the weapons of the people he just killed, and uses them. That sequence was heavily choreographed by Lester, who had to get creative. "At one point, he loses all his weapons, so I thought, 'well, let's have him fight with garden tools.' I put him in the shed, and he kills a bunch of guys, and then he picks up another gun."
Commando also gave Schwarzenegger one of his first great physical adversaries. In his earlier films, he was supposed to be an unstoppable creature that could only be outwitted into defeat. This time, he had to contend with Vernon Wells as the impossibly malicious and equally brawny Bennett. Lester said, "Everyone loved him from The Road Warrior, but Joel had used him in Weird Science. We need someone that could fight Schwarzenegger believably but also could act, and pull of this performance where they knew each other before he became a villain. He was perfect for that."
It seems odd to say that one B-movie changed the course of 80s cinema, but it really did. Commando created the modern Arnie persona, complete with all its winks to camera, and secured Silver's reputation as a producer that could make B-movies into box office gold. As for the kidnapped daughter plot, Lester said, "Now it's been stolen by Taken and so many other films with the same plot line."
Aside from launching the second stage of Schwarzenegger's career, Commando has become iconic action flick in its own right. Lester said he was "thrilled and amazed" at its longevity, but knew from day one that he had a hit. "I went to the first screening at the AVCO in Westwood with Joel Silver and Larry Gordon. No-one had seen the film because we'd finished it three days before we opened. A line came in the movie when he drops Sully (David Patrick Kelly) off the cliff and says 'I lied.' The whole audience, just before he said the line, they all yelled, 'I lied!' I said to the head of the studio, 'That's unbelievable. We just got the print. How did they do that?' He said, 'From the trailer.' I thought, 'Wow, this is going to be a hit."
Tough Guy Cinema presents Commando with Mark Lester in attendance. Sunday, April 6, 7:05pm, Alamo Ritz, 320 E. Sixth. Tickets available now.