Commando Was A Chance For Arnold Schwarzenegger To Out-Stallone Sylvester Stallone

Back in the early '90s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was approached to star in a new buddy cop comedy. His previous foray into the genre, "Red Heat," was shot down by critics and left in the dust by his other film that year, "Twins," so perhaps he had a reason for caution. Nevertheless, he read the script before his suspicions were confirmed: It was absolute garbage.

Most actors would have politely turned it down at that point, but Arnie is not most actors. Instead, he used it to have a little fun at the expense of his greatest screen rival, Sylvester Stallone. First, he leaked a rumor to the press that he was really excited about the prospect of starring in the movie, then he asked for a silly amount of money to take the part.

The ploy worked perfectly. Put off by the price tag, the producers asked Stallone if he would do it for less. Stallone, who had heard Arnie wanted the part, didn't want to lose out to his archenemy and snapped it up.

The result was "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot," a movie so bad that even Stallone described it as "maybe one of the worst films in the entire solar system." That made it back-to-back stinkers after "Oscar," and earned him yet another Golden Razzie nomination for Worst Actor.

Hollywood has seen plenty of intense rivalries over the years, but few have been as testosterone-fueled as Sly vs The Austrian Oak. The feud reached its peak in the '80s when the pair were duking it out to become the biggest action superstar on the planet, which was when Arnie saw the perfect opportunity to one-up Stallone's second big franchise, "Rambo."

How the Stallone vs Schwarzenegger rivalry began

Arnie was gunning for Stallone almost from the beginning. They found themselves seated at the same table for the Golden Globe Awards in 1977 and both were up for prizes; Schwarzenegger collected the Best Newcomer award for his role in "Stay Hungry, while Stallone and "Rocky" were competing in several major categories. With Arnie's prize already in the bag, he sat gloating every time "Rocky" lost out on an award.

It looked like a clean sweep for "Network:" Stallone was beaten by Paddy Chayefsky and Peter Finch for Best Screenplay and Actor respectively, while director John G. Avildsen and Talia Shire were also disappointed. Finally, it came to Best Picture. In true underdog fashion, "Rocky" beat the favorite and Stallone celebrated by hurling a big bowl of flowers at the churlish upstart who had been smirking at him all night.

The rivalry intensified during the '80s, at first comparing physiques before moving on to onscreen exploits. As Schwarzenegger recalled:

"So then it was a competition of who had the biggest gun, and then who uses the biggest knife. Do you remember the Rambo knife became so big it was like a sword? No one has a knife like that! But Stallone had one built, so I had to come in with a bigger one. This is how it went. Who has the most unique killings? Who kills more people on screen? Who makes more money at the box office? Who has less body fat when he goes into production? All of this s*** started happening, and it didn't stop! It was unbelievable."

The biggest showdown in their battle for supremacy came in 1985 with two movies where the warring stars would both play one-man-armies: "Rambo: First Blood Part II" and "Commando."

Rambo: First Blood Part II vs Commando

"Rambo: First Blood Part II" was a massive summer hit, following Stallone's troubled veteran John Rambo back into the jungles of Vietnam to rescue POWs. It is big, lush, violent, and strangely off-key; Stallone is intent on maintaining the serious character focus of its excellent predecessor, "First Blood," while also having Rambo mow down scores of goons.

"Commando" stomped into theaters five months later with the clear intent of trumping anything Stallone could muster, plus having lots of fun to boot. Schwarzenegger plays John Matrix, a retired Special Ops guy on the rampage after the bad guys kidnap his daughter. Director Mark L. Lester doesn't muck about: While it takes over 30 minutes for our first kill in "Rambo," about seven people die before the credits roll.

The oneupmanship continues throughout. "Rambo" shows us Stallone's rippling muscles while he sharpens his knife, so Lester gives us a massive shot of Arnie's bulging biceps as he carries a chainsaw in one hand and a tree trunk over his shoulder. Stallone gets busy with a single-shot RPG, so Arnie lets rip with an M2020 Flash that fires four rockets. Stallone only has to deal with Steven Berkoff's sneering villain, Matrix has a whole rogue's gallery to kill his way through. 

Then came the small matter of the body count. Lester saw a sneak preview of "First Blood Part II" and realized he had to up the ante. As screenwriter Steven E. de Souza remembered (via Empire):

"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."

That craziness paid off. Arnie racks up a whopping 130 kills along the way compared to Stallone's measly 70 (via All Outta Bubblegum).

Who won the war?

"First Blood Part II" was the clear winner at the box office, taking over $300 million to "Commando's" totally respectable $57 million (via Box Office Mojo). Despite the commercial success, critics took objection to its warmongering and Stallone earned his customary Worst Actor Razzie Award for his performance. "Rambo" hasn't aged well at all because it has no sense of humor at all and such self-seriousness made it easily spoofed, from Weird Al's "UHF" to "Hot Shots! Part Deux." "First Blood Part II" and "Rambo III" turned an interesting character into the butt of many jokes, as the archetypal lunkheaded '80s action hero.

By contrast, "Commando" has become a cult classic. Its tongue is firmly wedged in its cheek from the beginning and it verges on self-parody throughout. How else can you explain the montage of Matrix and his daughter in their alpine idyll where they laugh all the time while petting deer? Lester gets the tone just right, amping up the ludicrous action and fully capitalizing on Arnie's talent for awesome musclebound mayhem and a deadpan kiss-off line.

"Commando" may not be Schwarzenegger's best movie, but it was a shrewd move on his part. Going bigger, faster, and more on Stallone's "Rambo" formula showed he was playing for keeps, and we can perhaps identify it as the point where Arnie really started wrestling Stallone's action hero crown away from him. 

Stallone and Schwarzenegger are good friends now and have even acted alongside each other in "The Expendables 2&3" and "Escape Plan." That's all very cute but I kind of miss the feud, a celebrity beef every bit as blockbuster as their movies.