(Continuing the James Cameron Project with number 5…)
Intro: In the early ‘90s, James Cameron itched to do something different. He had arguably mastered the action blockbuster, but set his sights on digging deeper. He developed a treatment based around the famous multiple-personality case of Billy Milligan, titled A Crowded Room, but not even Cameron’s clout could get the project moving.
Enter Arnold Schwarzenegger, clutching a little-known French film, La Totale!. Arnie Muscles had fallen for the main character — a suburban dad who hides his exciting secret agent life from his family — and he begged Cameron to direct an American remake. Cameron agreed, not least because when a giant Austrian asks you to do something, you make him happy. Although not the sharp departure he’d been looking for, Cameron did discover new skills on the set of True Lies. The film is his first, and so far only, straight-up action comedy.
The Movie: American spy Harry Tasker (inexplicably Austrian and built like Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the top agent for the ultra-secret Omega Sector. After infiltrating an exclusive party, stealing files, and making an explosive escape, Harry returns home to bluff his nerdcore wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) about the thrills of his latest computer conference. Both Helen and daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku in her larval stage) struggle to hide their boredom.
Unfortunately, Harry is much too busy tracking down international terrorists to find time for family issues. Harry’s partner Gib (Tom Arnold) briefs him on the deciphered files — extremists, stolen nukes; the usual. Harry tracks a lead, fends off some bathroom assassins, and then chases down the terrorist leader Aziz (Art Malik) on horseback!
Alas, Aziz escapes, and insult meets injury when Harry slumps home to discover he’s missed his own birthday party.Harry tries to apologize to Helen, but makes a startling discovery – she’s got a rendezvous with another man! Harry and Gib, fearing another spy has smoked Harry out, jump into action and turn the combined might of the U.S. spy net on Helen Tasker and her mystery date. Instead of a rival agent, they discover Simon (Bill Paxton), a used car salesman who only pretends to be a spy to get laid. Harry fantasizes about killing Simon, but opts to kidnap the not-so-cheating couple instead (Helen never went through with it).
Harry tricks Helen into dressing up and seducing a “suspected double-agent” – actually Harry with a tape deck – to give her a taste of the action and adventure she’s craving.
That’s when the terrorists, bored with Harry’s marital counseling, break back into the plot and snatch the confused couple. Helen is shocked to discover her husband’s true job as Aziz monologues about planting a nuke in the Florida Keys. Harry soon escapes and, in a very good action sequence, rescues Helen from the fleeing terrorists. They share a make-up kiss as the first nuke destroys a sizeable chunk of Florida real estate.
Just about then, Harry discovers that the terrorists have also kidnapped his daughter, so he hijacks a convenient Harrier Jet and saves the day once more. As the movie ends, a mysterious phone call sends “Boris” and “Doris” — Harry and Helen’s code names — into action and the couple tangos the night away as a happy pair of spies.
The Scene: What makes True Lies so darn entertaining is the utter lack of bad scenes. The dialogue is always interesting, the action always sharp. There are no weak links. Even the generic terrorists get a funny bit while recording their demand tape, and the standard briefing scenes at Omega Sector are improved by Charlton Heston doing his Nick Fury impression.
The standout is Helen’s striptease at the Marquis suite. Admittedly, Harry’s trick is a bit mean and won’t win him any Husband of the Year awards, but the scene does a lot of heavy lifting in the story. It sparks Helen’s transformation from nerdy housewife into a potential spy, allows Harry to truly see his wife for the first time in years , and lightly balances sex appeal with comedy, all while getting the single biggest laughs in the film.
The Line: There’s so much gold in this script, such as Harry’s frank answers while under the effects of the truth serum, or Simon’s monologue about undersexed housewives. The true hero of the movie has to be Tom Arnold, though, who prances through the movie like he’s some kind of misunderstood comedy genius. Who knew he could be this funny? I never fail to laugh at his mumbled “Son of a BITCH!” when he takes a particularly sensitive injury in the mission to snare Helen and Simon. Really, most of his lines could go in this section.
The Production: The production of True Lies is packed with stories of James Cameron’s dictatorial rules and regulations on set. According to rumor, Cameron was determined to finish the project on time, even if it meant, say, no bathroom breaks for the crew. Like those “Life’s Abyss and Then You Die” shirts from Cameron’s earlier blockbuster, the crew took to wearing shirts that proclaimed “You Can’t Scare Me – I Work For Jim Cameron!” And, truthfully, he might have earned some of that fear. One story claims he convinced Jamie Lee Curtis to do her own helicopter stunt in the climactic chase by promising to hang out of the copter, shooting the entire thing with a handheld camera. Fearless, and just a little crazy.
A James Cameron Film: Dr. John L. Flynn wrote an article on True Lies suggesting Harry Tasker’s struggle between career and home life might have been a personal one for James Cameron, whose tumultuous marriages are well-documented. This feels like a stretch, considering that the film is a remake and was actually softened from the French version (in La Totale!, the main character’s wife is on the verge of leaving him.) Still, it’s a fair bet Cameron could at least relate to his hero’s plight.
As for the rest of the film, True Lies does feature the threat of nuclear annihilation (including a piece of America being wiped off the map) as well as Cameron’s favorite theme of technology used for both good and evil (Harry’s spy gear can be used to hunt down evil terrorists, or to root out perceived infidelity, while the villains use nukes and video threats.)
Lasting Impact: Sadly, very little. True Lies gets less love than Cameron’s other films. As of this writing, there’s only a stripped down DVD available on store shelves, and any talk of a sequel stalled after September 11, 2001, since, as Cameron says, terrorism just isn’t that funny anymore. The biggest legacy from True Lies was a resuscitation of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s briefly flagging career. Just one year earlier, Arnold suffered his biggest defeat in the mega-bomb Last Action Hero, with many predicting the hunky Arnie’s run had ended. Schwarzenegger himself reportedly asked to remove the comedy elements from True Lies, hoping to leave comedy behind him and return to his purely action roots. Cameron wisely talked Arnold off the ledge and the result was one of Schwarzenegger’s biggest career hits.
Reason for Ranking: Another tough placement. After raving about the film throughout this post, how can I defend leaving it out of the top four? Especially with one of Cameron’s least popular films still to come? Bottom line – True Lies is full of empty calories. There’s no ambiguity or depth, and it’s about exactly what it seems to be about. The rest of the films in this countdown have something to say, for better or worse, while True Lies is simply pure entertainment. It’s a perfect example of “popcorn” cinema, but I just can’t put it any higher.
The James Cameron Project:
5. True Lies
7. The Abyss