Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (1994)

6. True Lies

James Cameron’s last four films were landmark science-fiction movies. They were movies that helped define the genre over the next few years, either through their stories, characters, or special effects. After “Terminator 2” was a massive world-wide success, James Cameron probably could have made any movie he wanted. Instead, he made a movie as a favor to his best buddy, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold wanted to remake the French action/comedy “La Totale!,” a movie more-or-less forgotten outside of its connection to this film. When your leading man is the biggest star in the world, you listen to his ideas. “True Lies” was another massively expensive movie for Cameron and another huge hit for Arnold. It shows the star continuing to play with his image and the director lightening up a little.

Harry Tasker is a secret agent, working for the top secret Omega Sector. He jet-sets to exotic locations, killing terrorists, defusing international incidents, and saving the world. There’s just one problem: Harry’s wife doesn’t know about any of it. Helen Tasker thinks her husband is a humble computer salesman, an especially boring day job. Tasker’s latest mission is to hunt down a sect of Islamic terrorists who have gotten their hands on some nuclear bombs. That mission is slightly interrupted when Harry learns Helen may be cheating on him. She isn’t but the wife gets caught up in his adventure anyway.

As a scholar of all things Schwarzenegger, I divide his screen career up into roughly five acts. There’s the early days, when bit parts in “Stay Hungry” and “The Long Goodbye,” brought him to the public’s attention. This leads into the eighties golden age, when Arnold was the reigning king of action and starred in genuine masterpieces like “Commando” or “Conan the Barbarian.” As the nineties begin, we enter an experimental period, when Arnold started appearing in more comedies, stretching his acting chops and playing off his established image. It’s during this period that “True Lies” was made. (I won’t discuss his late nineties doldrums or his post-gubernatorial attempts to recapture the public’s love.) “True Lies” is an action movie but also a romantic/comedy, with the emphasis on the comedy. Yeah, Arnold kills lots of people in it. That comes second nature to him. It’s his chance to show off his excellent comedic chops and his ability to charm the ladies.

“True Lies” is also a spy movie. Not a real spy movie, where people are actually going undercover and gathering information. Instead, “True Lies” is playing off the James Bond image, where the spy blows up buildings, wears tuxes, machine guns baddies, and seduces sexy ladies. The movie was made a year before “GoldenEye” came out, when the Bond series was hibernating, showing what Ian Fleming’s creation might look like in the self-aware nineties. Since he had no chance of ever actually playing Bond, Harry Tasker is the closest we get to seeing Schwarzenegger as fiction's greatest spy. And he does a pretty good job. A big joke of “True Lies” is that the super spy is a devoted husband, so Arnold doesn’t sleep around any. This is fine since Schwarzenegger has never been a convincing romantic lead anyway. Instead, the movie allows him plenty of opportunities to show his considerable comedic abilities. Arnold is hilarious, not just quipping but also showing a keen comedic timing.

Starring opposite Arnold is Jaime Lee Curtis. The part of Helen Tasker allows Curtis’ to deploy all her best skills as an actor. Jaime Lee’s attempts to parlay her status as a beloved scream queen into an action heroine never met with much success. Instead, she spent most of the late eighties and early nineties starring in comedies. Curtis is very funny in “True Lies.” She has considerable skills as a physical comedian and has no problem looking a little silly for the sake of a laugh. However, the movie allows her to be tough too. After hanging out in her husband’s world of crazy action for a few hours, Helen Tasker is firing machine guns and getting into fist fights. Basically, she starts out as a suburban housewife and transforms into a woman in a James Cameron movies. Thus, Curtis is both a hilarious comedic lead and a capable action heroine.

In “The Abyss,” Cameron explored themes of marriage, divorce, and long-term love. These ideas carry over to “True Lies.” Harry and Helen have been married for fifteen years but their passion has dulled. Helen is actually considering cheating on Harry, the energy is so low. Of course, Harry has been lying to her for years. This, in a weird way, refers to the little white lies we have to tell our loved ones over time, in order for a marriage to survive. The title of “True Lies” refers to this as well, in a way. In an unexpected way, Harry and Helen rediscover their passion, keeping their love alive. Considering Cameron’s relationship with Linda Hamilton was dissolving and Schwarzenegger would start soon an affair with the family maid, it’s not difficult to read into “True Lies” as an appropriate statement about both men’s lives.

“True Lies” is very funny throughout. Some of the best jokes happen in the film’s middle section, between machine gun fights. Tasker hunts down the guy his wife may be cheating on him with… A scumbag played by Bill Paxton at his greasiest. In an ironic twist, Paxton’s Simon is pretending to be a spy in order to draw Helen in. Watching Arnold’s strained interaction with Paxton, barely repressing his desire to kill, makes for some good laughs. An even better moment comes when Tasker turns the tables on Simon. The man’s façade collapses immediately, as he’s admitting defeat and peeing his pants. Which is amazing. One of the silliest, most endearing gags in the movie comes when Curtis accidentally wipes out a whole room full of terrorists by dropping her gun. Or a last minute appearance from a seagull.

As an action movie, “True Lies” is spot-on too. Not long after it starts, Arnold is gunning down attackers. He manhandles a pair of dogs and slides down a snowy mountain while dual wielding pistols. An early high-light is an extended shoot-out in a public bathroom. Schwarzenegger disarms a group of terrorists, smashing their faces into walls and blowing them away. A good example of how the film balances humor and action occurs here, when an old man in a neighboring stall wonders what is going on. The sequence that follows is a laugh riot, as Tasker pursues the villain on horseback. The chase goes through the streets, into a hotel, up an elevator, and onto the roof. Amusingly, Arnie has to reprimand the horse when it disobeys him. All this stuff is great.

“True Lies” was well-liked in its day but one moment would become especially notorious. After taking Simon out of the plot, Harry sends Helen on a wild goose chase, pretending to bring her into his spying life. It’s all an excuse to sex up their relationship. And it works. Jaime Lee Curtis stripes down to her underwear and does a sexy dance across the bedroom. Well, it’s certainly a sexy moment. Curtis looks fantastic and seems fine with showing off. She even incorporates a little humor into the scene, when an attempted pole dance has her stumbling. Ah, but some people cried, is it sexist? “True Lies” does treat women in a somewhat reductive manner. Curtis is manipulated by the men in her life, when she isn’t stumbling around. The only other major female character is an evil bitch. Yet you can’t really call Curtis’ character arc sexist. She embraces her own sexuality, learns how to defend herself, and saves her marriage.

“True Lies” partakes freely of the conventions of nineties action movies. The action is over-the-top and stylized. Though far bloodier then modern action flicks, and still violent enough to earn an R-rating, there’s nothing mean-spirited about the blood shed in the film. Primarily, the movie’s comedic streak allows for a level of self-awareness. That’s the biggest difference between eighties action flicks and nineties action flicks. Eighties action was campy, goofy and ridiculous. Nineties action acknowledged that campiness and ridiculousness. Another convention the movie embraces, and a far more unsightly one, is casting Arabs as the villains. In the days before 9/11, it was fine for a light-hearted action/comedy like this to cast Islamic extremists as its villains. That threat was far-off, abstract, and poorly understood by Joe Movie-goer. “True Lies” was also accused of being slightly racist towards Middle Easterners. That accusation holds slightly more water then the shouts of sexism. There’s no positive portrayals of brown people in this movie. I’m not saying the filmmakers made an intentionally racist movie. I’m saying the film was heavily embroiled in the Hollywood conventions of the time.

After a long comedic middle section, “True Lies” gets back to the action. In action scenes likely influenced by John Woo, Arnold blazes a trail of destruction through the villain’s port-front lair. He swings Uzis and AK-47s around, gunning down whole hordes of terrorists. An especially inspired gag has him making an improvised flame-thrower, with a gas hose and some muzzle flash. The fantastic final act involves a chase between a car and a plane across the Seven Mile Bridge. Curtis and Tia Carrea wrestle in the car as it careens towards a shortened bridge, which is great. The scene is beautifully shot, ramps up some tension, and features some great big explosions.

Tasker rescues his wife. The two make out while a mushroom cloud goes off in the distance. That’s the end of the movie, right? “True Lies” instead includes a surprise fourth act. The Taskers’ daughter is suddenly, without much explanation, kidnapped by the lead bad guy. Harry leaps in a fighter jet, heads over the skyscraper where they’re at, and kills the hell out of the villains. Harry learning to fly the plane is great. The daughter and the bad guy climbing over the jet makes for some entertaining stunts. The whole thing concludes with a satisfyingly theatrics death for the villain and a cheesy Arnold one-liner. Yet it is odd that the movie would keep going like that, after it’s logical end point.

You know what else is odd? Tom Arnold is in “True Lies.” You know what’s odder? He’s funny! Before the rise of the reality TV pseudo-celebrity, Tom Arnold was always my choice for worst “actor” around. However, he plays off of Schwarzenegger well. He cultivates a lovable loser schtick that contrasts nicely with Harry’s happily married life. Also among the supporting cast is Tia Carrere as Juno Skinner, the femme fatale working with the villains. Carrere’s shockingly gorgeous in the part and gets to stretch pass the, indistinct girlfriend roles she usually played. Also notable is a very young Eliza Dushku as Arnold and Jaime Lee’s daughter. Amusingly, considering her future as a vampire slayer, Dushku was tough even as a little girl. She’s certainly believable as the daughter of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“True Lies” is utterly delightful from beginning to end. It’s light-weight, breezy, and massively entertaining throughout, packing in tons of laughs and action movie thrills. For a while, James Cameron and Arnold were serious about making a sequel, with a bigger role for Eliza Dushku following her growth spurt into an action heroine in her own right. Then September 11th happened and terrorism was nothing to joke about anymore. Though you still occasionally hear something about it, the time for “True Lies 2: Truer Lies” has passed. As a stand alone popcorn flick from the mid-nineties, “True Lies” may be one of the best. [Grade: A]

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