I don’t think it has been 22 years since I’ve seen “True Lies,” but I know it has been many a year since I’d watched James Cameron’s spy action thriller. Since this film, Cameron proceeded to become the king of the box-office with “Titanic” and “Avatar,” but the truth is, every movie he’s made since “The Terminator” in 1984 has been an event for audiences to behold. I can honestly say that there isn’t a film of his since “Terminator” that I don’t really like on some level, but as much fun as it is, it’s always felt like “True Lies” has been something of a lark from the director. Maybe it’s because of the comedic emphasis the film has, or that comparatively speaking, the film lacks the scope of an “Avatar,” “Abyss” or “T2,” but it feels like something Cameron just threw out there for audiences while harbored grander ambitions. That isn’t to say that it feels like second rate work from the director, one of the best action filmmakers in history, but it felt relatively impersonal compared to his other work.
Cameron based his screenplay on the French film, “La Totale!,” but the truth is, this is really Cameron and star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stab at a James Bond-like spy thriller, and that is what is set up when Arnold’s Harry Tasker is first seen at an elegant party in Switzerland where he discovers the existence of a new terrorist cell known as Crimson Jihad, led by Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik), and possibly aided by art dealer Juno Skinner (Tia Carrere). That operation does not go quite as planned, but for Harry, that’s a minor inconvenience. You see, he has to arrive home to his wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku), and make them think he is just a computer salesman. It’s a cover they’ve bought hook, line and sinker for 17 years now, but when Harry seems to discover Helen might be cheating on him, his life is about to get infinitely more complicated.
There are two big criticisms that were levied against the film, beyond simply critical ones, when it was released in ’94- 1) that it was offensive stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs, and 2) that it was sexist and misogynistic towards women. Those were two things that I was really looking for when I watched it again. On the first count, unless you deem any portrayal of Muslims as fanatical terrorists “offensive,” I don’t know whether that charge holds water. Are they caricatures? Yes; we don’t get much in the way of complexity here from Salim and his followers, but that’s a critical knock on the film rather than a politically correct one. There have been Bond villains that were better developed and 3-dimensional; these are closer to the baddies in “Team America: World Police,” although that comparison may actually prove detractors points, after all. What about the film being misogynistic? Given that the most memorable scene Curtis’s Helen has is a striptease her husband has arranged for her to do (and that Carrere’s character is about as close to caricature as the terrorists in the film), there’s a bit more validity to those claims, but that scene does hold a specific narrative purpose, and when you really look at the movie, it’s when Helen’s storyline kicks into overdrive that the film itself becomes a genuinely fun film to watch. Cameron has been justly acclaimed for his female characters over the years, from Linda Hamilton in “T2” to Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens” to Kate Winslet in “Titanic,” and while she may not seem like it on first glance, Curtis’s character fits nicely into that group. A big part of the reason this film succeeds beyond just being an exercise in mindless action and preposterous storytelling is how the heart of it revolves around the dilemma Harry finds himself in. As part of a secret government intelligence agency called Omega Sector, he and his team (Gibson, played by Tom Arnold in the most endearing role he’s ever had, and Faisil, played by Grant Heslov) must keep absolute secrecy about their operations, making personal lives difficult, if not impossible. So Harry must pretend to have a boring, uninteresting job for the sake of his family. The irony, however, comes that while Helen is not cheating on him with Simon (a sleazy used car salesman played by the hilarious Bill Paxton), Simon is giving Helen something that Harry isn’t…a sense of excitement in her life. Granted, he’s lying his ass off when he gives her a load of shit about being the spy Harry actually is so he can get in her pants, but for Helen, there’s something adventurous about feeling necessary to this dangerous life’s work, although when Harry finds out the truth, he makes some questionable decisions. He’s the one who puts her in the position of the striptease, making her think she is working undercover, but his purpose isn’t to demean her, as it’s he, hidden in shadows, that Helen is doing it for, but to give her what she’s been getting from Simon. Arnold and Jamie Lee Curtis, in arguably some of the best work either have ever done, do great work in that scene and after, when Harry’s secret is out, and they must work together to save the world. The terror attacks of September 11 put an end to long-held sequel talks for this film, but I will admit, it would have been fun to see if Cameron worked in Dushku into the spy family, as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” showed her as a quite convincing kick-ass young woman.
Watching “True Lies” again, some things stood out to me. The way Jamie Lee Curtis turns it from a good entertainment into a great one. The way Brad Fiedel, whose steely percussion scores propelled the “Terminator” films, found a sense of fun in Cameron’s spy adventure. And more importantly, how patently absurd this all is. It’s a lot of fun, without question, but “True Lies” also telegraphs several punches and isn’t able to ground the action enough on an emotional level to really connect the way Cameron’s best films do. (It also doesn’t help that while more than convincing as a super spy, the idea of Arnold as a computer salesman is ridiculous.) At least the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, because if it had been unaware of how ludicrous it is, I don’t know that I would have enjoyed it now the same way I did back in ’94. Thankfully, humor is a strong suit for “True Lies,” and Cameron, Schwarzenegger and Curtis find the truth in that humor, and come out with a winner.