Mark Lester’s 1985 film Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, is arguably the greatest action film of the ‘80s—or more arguably “the greatest film of all time,” depending on how many drinks you’ve had.
Commando brought us one of the most unusual villains in action cinema, “Bennett,” played by ultimate ‘80s bad guy, Vernon Wells, who was previously known for his portrayal of “Wez” in The Road Warrior and “Lord General” in Weird Science.
The transition from playing “Wez” to playing “Lord General” was quite a stretch.
The Bennett character is Wells’ most notorious role, due to the fact that he seemed such an improbable foil for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “John Matrix.” Any discussion of Commando usually leads to a discussion of Bennett’s look, which was described by Andy McDermott in Hot Dog Magazine as “Freddie Mercury Casual.”
His silver mesh tank top, worn with a belt over, black leather pants, bike chain necklace and pornstar mustache give him more of the appearance of a Tom of Finland character than your typical action antagonist.
Commando costuming director’s inspiration for Bennett’s look?
Perhaps it’s the character’s visual presentation, or something more, that has caused speculation for 30 years over Bennett’s sexual orientation—whether or not he was homosexual, and whether or not he was secretly in love with John Matrix.
McDermott goes on to argue that whilst Bennett always calls Matrix by his first name, suggesting affection and familiarity, Matrix always calls Bennett by his surname, suggesting distance. This leads him to hypothesize that perhaps Bennett was kicked out of the unit by Matrix, because Matrix discovered that Bennett had become sexually attracted to him; “all he wanted was a little love, and instead he got fired. No wonder he’s mad.” McDermott also attaches great metaphorical significance to Matrix’ line at the end of the film, “Put the knife in me. Look me in the eye and see what’s going on in there when you turn it. Don’t deprive yourself of some pleasure. C’mon, Bennett. Let’s party.” The image of one man putting something in another man and then turning it, McDermott argues, has obvious homosexual connotations. He also points out the significance of the fact that Matrix’s knife is bigger than Bennett’s, thus causing “knife envy” in Bennett, prompting him to attack his “love/hate object”. McDermott also comments on the irony inherent in the fact that although Bennett seemed to be in love with Matrix (and presumably wanted to have sex with him), it is Matrix who penetrates Bennett at the end of the film, albeit with a steel pole in the chest. Which probably wasn’t what Bennett had in mind.
“What’s wrong, Bennett? Can’t take the pressure?”
McDermott’s article sums up the character’s vibe thusly:
Bennett is a walking, talking, stereotypical embodiment of the macho, puritanical Reagan era’s utter terror of homosexuality, gripped with the fear that the slightest chink in the masculine armor will instantly result in a trip to the YMCA and a purchase of a pair of chaps and a tube of KY jelly.
Commando director Mark Lester, however, flatly denies that Bennett is gay, stating in the DVD commentary:
I don’t know what people are saying when they say that to me. He seems to me like the most macho soldier or person you could think of.
Others who worked on the film have suggested that they aren’t so sure. In the 2007 DVD featurette, “Commando: Let Off Some Steam,” screenwriter Steven E. de Souza mentions that “the wardrobe on Vernon Wells has led to a lot of conjecture that Vernon had a crush on Arnold’s character,” and Commando co-star Rae Dawn Chong is upfront about the homosexual undercurrent:
They’re like lovers. The outfit they had on him, I mean, HELLO, he looks like one of the Village People. Arnold is the ideal, and you know, if you can’t be it and can’t love it, you want to kill it. That really confusing sexuality comes through and it manifests in violence.
The Wookie Wednesday blog chimes in on the debate:
There’s plenty to point to that suggests that Bennett and Matrix had a relationship deeper than friendship. For example, this line: “I really love listening to your little pissant soldiers trying to talk tough. They make me laugh. If Matrix was here, he’d laugh too.” The part of the quote in bold is delivered by Bennett with a sigh, as if he was a lovesick teenager.
In the film’s climax, Bennett warns Matrix: “I’m not going to shoot you between the eyes, I’m going to shoot you between the balls!” Is it reading too much in to think that Bennett may have wanted to destroy the one part of Matrix’s anatomy he was most upset over being denied?
“I’m going to shoot you between the balls!”
We recently had a chance to sit down with Vernon Wells, Bennett himself, and ask some burning questions about his Commando character.
Wells tells us that he was originally rejected for the role, but was called back in from Australia, six weeks into Commando production, as a replacement. He further explains that, with the production being under-the-gun, he was not afforded a proper costume fitting and that his costume was a bit small for him. We’re not sure that that explains the leather daddy look, but it might explain why he appears a bit out of shape—the clothes were ill-fitting!
On the topic of being in shape, we noted that many have suggested Wells seemed a bit mis-matched against the massive Schwarzenegger, an insinuation which Wells quickly dashed, claiming he was “perfectly matched” against his opponent. He relates a story about the beginning of Commando shooting where he was holding back in rehearsals and Schwarzenegger suggested to producer, Joel Silver, that Wells was “a bit of a wuss” and that he was no good for the character; but when the cameras rolled, Wells gave a performance so maniacal, stating “I was virtually up his butt with this knife,” that Schwarzenegger recanted, telling Silver, “nevah give him a real knife!”
“The first scene I did was where I had him tied to the table and had the knife to his throat, telling him what I wanted to do to him… and we did the scene and I was virtually up his butt with this knife…”
We asked Wells if Bennett had a first name, because THAT’s a thing we’ve always wanted to know: “I’m sure he did but nobody ever told me.”
Curious about character motivations, we asked what the motivation was behind Bennett’s wardrobe. Wells diplomatically replied that Bennett “liked to be different” and was an “individual” and his dress reflected that. When asked if Bennett may have been a Freddie Mercury fan, Wells speculated that Mercury was looking down on Bennett, shaking his head and saying “oh my God.”
“He seems to me like the most macho soldier or person you could think of.”
Of course we had to flat-out ask if Wells could imagine a possible scenario of a Ben Hur-style unrequited love between Bennett and Matrix that might have pushed him over the edge. Wells seemed to choose his words carefully in explaining that “love and hate are a very fine line” and that there was definitely a love between Bennett and Matrix—but it “wasn’t a sexual love, it was a bro love.” Wells adds, “I never found that there was anything within those characters that was sexual,” but he suspects that people have read a sexual subtext into scenes such as the one where he rubs his hand along the knife blade saying “welcome back John, I’m so glad you could make it.” Wells admits that scenes like the one where Matrix invites Bennett to “put the knife in him,” and the shot of Bennett being impaled by the long pipe spewing out steam “walk a very fine line,” but that the “unintentional” sexual subtext is “strengthened by the two people doing the role.”
Two obviously “evenly matched” opponents. All sexual subtext is “unintentional.”
Finally, we asked Wells about Matrix getting the “last word” in one of Schwarzenegger’s most famous one-liners: “Let off some steam, Bennett.” Supposing Bennett could have gotten the last word in on Matrix, what would he have said? Wells had an immediate response: “Bite me, asshole!”
“Bite me, asshole!”
Here’s our chat with Vernon Wells:
H/T Mad Monster for making the interview possible.