By Mark L. Lester, DGA
Chances are, you’ve seen Commando with Arnold Schwarzenegger because it is, without a doubt, the greatest film of all time. I should know. I directed it.
Naturally, a lot of people stop me on the street and ask, “Mark, how did you ever make a movie as great as Commando?” I usually smile and say I just happened to be holding a bottle in the middle of a lightning storm. They always laugh. I bet you did, too, because you realize that this film wasn’t an accident, just like Jesus wasn’t an accident. It took real vision to pull off, starting with the theme of a parent’s love for his child, and the lengths he will go to to get her back from a wily South American dictator. Also, it has explosions, and a rockin’ saxophone-driven soundtrack that really gets the people moving in their seats.
Of course, that’s not even the half of it. But after wrapping production on Yeti: Curse of the Snow Demon for television, I had an opportunity to reflect on what we achieved, and really figure out what makes it all so timeless.
So her I am, baring my soul to you, the adoring public, for nothing in return. This is more than just the only film school you’ll ever need. Think of it as a free version of The Secret. Think of it as your all-access pass inside the Greatest Story Ever Told.
Fo the next three days, I will take you through Commando, my magnum opus, my gift to humanity.
Let us begin with Part One.
MAGIC STARTS WITH OPENING CREDITS…
And so begins the ballad of John Matrix, played pitch-perfectly by Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the opening moments, we see Arnold’s instincts from his past life as a soldier person. Sweating, he masculinely chops wood with a hatchet, but also sneakily eyes the moving form in its reflection. We think he is going to harm the shadowy figure behind him, but then he drops the axe and turns to hug… his daughter, Jenny (Alyssa Milano). This is called narrative economy: setting up a killing machine with compassion – in two shots.
The sequence that follows – with wonderful flute and string accompaniment, I might add – puts any expository opening credits to shame. We see how much Matrix cares about Jenny because he lets her smash ice cream into his face. While developing the backstory for Matrix, Arnold and I decided that in his past, Matrix once was the victim of ice cream to the face by a Russian spy, and carved out his trangressor’s heart with a hunting knife. So, it takes an immense amount of love for Matrix to not do the same to Jenny, even though she’s only playing. That’s character development.
SETTING UP THE STAKES
In this scene, we set up the bond between father and daughter by showing that John is in touch with his daughter, Jenny’s lifestyle. He uses his knowledge of what’s tops on “pop culture street” in order to develop a playful rapport with Jenny over sandwiches. It’s here that Matrix’s verbal wit shows its face for the first time, as he wryly asks Jenny about pop idol Boy George, “Why don’t they just call him Girl George?” This is something Arnold came up with on set, and it was such a perfect adjustment. It really won over the studio, who had originally given me notes to “not have Arnold speak” in the film.
But Arnold’s questioning of Boy George’s sexuality is thought provoking, albeit a tad juvenile. And Jenny’s retort – “That’s so old, Dad” – is such an honest moment. The young child never wants to admit she’s been one-upped by a parent. Matrix, ever the model father, is then sure to temper his immature remark by following up with a socio-political lesson. “In East Germany, the Communists said that rock and roll was subversive.” It’s no doubt that Jenny was head of the class in her school with such a worldly teacher constantly serving up “wisdom food” like that!
A DOGGED HERO
It’s in this scene that we establish just what lengths John Matrix will go to get his daughter back after she’s kidnapped by a South American dictator’s goons. The mustachioed creep tries his best to stall Matrix, going so far as to tell him to “mellow out, man.” (The nerve!) But Matrix is not going to listen to him, because he can see the cavalcade of cars leaving his compound with Jenny in tow. You’ll notice the synthesized music elevate in pitch during Arnold’s POV shot. That’s Jenny’s theme, to further underscore the certainty that Jenny is in one of the cars.
And then the creep taunting Matrix makes his biggest mistake: setting down the paper heart valentine that Jenny had so lovingly made for her father. Now that there’s no chance of spattering blood and/or grey matter on Jenny’s artwork, Matrix can put a bullet right through his enemy. Also note that Matrix recapitulates his dry wit by verbally turning the tables on his opponent before shooting. “Wrong,” he says with great authority, before pulling the trigger. Matrix is not a mindless killer. He is a poet.
CREATING TENSION WITH YOUR ANTAGONISTS
I watch this scene and get chills. It’s the stuff that James Lipton champions every week on Inside the Actors Studio. Here we have Dan Hedaya as Arius, the ruthless mastermind blackmailing Matrix int fighting in a military coup within the fictitious country of Valverde. (Dan’s accent is something we workshopped for weeks, ultimately deciding on a hodgepodge of regional dialects, so as to make Arius more universally relatable.) Also present is Australian export Vernon Wells as Matrix’s old fightin’ buddy, the merciless Bennett. Some people have asked me if Bennett was gay, but I don’t understand it. His chain mail vest and well-trimmed mustache should be enough to tell you that he’s a handful of macho.
With lesser actors, this scene could have turned into a disaster. But watching these three peers parry words under the hot lights of the set was nothing short of inspirational. It’s like watching Gielgud, Barrymore and Olivier walking that tightrope of the Shakespearian stage, and never faltering. Of course, Matrix always gets the last word. Two of them, to be exact. His commanding, “Fuck you” is all he needs to get Arius to back down. Notice Bennett’s amusement at his old comrade’s insouciance. It’s enough to make him turn away, so as to mask his pleasure and give Matrix the upper hand. This scene alone is a master class in screenwriting. I asked Oscar-winning scribe William Goldman to see if he could find any flaws in it, and he wouldn’t even return my calls! See what I mean?
THE IMPORTANCE OF A RESILIENT HERO
So many films suffer from plot holes, where a helper, like a god from nowhere – a “deus ex machina”, if you will – arrives to get the hero out of a tight situation. But that’s lazy writing. If you write a strong enough protagonist, then he doesn’t always need help. Case in point with this scene. Even among a commercial airliner filled to capacity, he is able to knock his captor out cold break his neck, and then coolly tell the stewardess… sorry… flight attendant that his friend should not be disturbed.
Of course, as is in his character, Matrix is sure to divulge that information in the form of a double entendre – a wink to the audience to let them know that even though he took a man’s life and leaves him in his own feces aboard an airtight cabin for an eight-hour flight, the man whose life he took was not important. Your character can and should afford to be flip whenever possible, in order to teach younger audiences that it’s okay to kill someone if they’re involved in an elaborate kidnapping of a loved one.
READ PART 2… WHERE WE SET JOHN MATRIX LOOSE!
– MARK L. LESTER, D.G.A.
P.S. Check out my colleague Michael Bay’s bank commercial!
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