Director James Cameron (Titanic) has made a lot of movies, many of them blockbusters, but the only film under his belt that could reasonably be called a comedy is 1994’s True Lies, starring his favorite muse Arnold Schwarzenegger. True Lies can best be described as an action film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but that doesn’t mean it skimps on the firepower, the explosions, and the nuclear detonations — because it doesn’t, on all 3 counts.
Schwarzenegger (whose name I have to look up each time I type it) stars as Harry Tasker, an ultra agent for an ultra secret U.S. Government agency that is charged with protecting the U.S. from all enemies big and small. The agency is led by a one-eye Charlton Heston, and Harry’s partner is Gibson (Tom Arnold), the pair’s jack-of-all-trades and comic relief.
Trouble arises in the form of a Middle Eastern terrorist who wants to exact revenge on the U.S. for perceived crimes against his people, and he’s gotten his hands on a couple of Russian nukes to do it! But if pursuing the crazed terrorist is a hard job, Harry has an even harder one close at home: keeping his marriage to the bored Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) afloat while trying to keep his teenage daughter (Eliza Dushku) from becoming a juvenile delinquent. Can Harry keep his family in one piece while at the same time save the U.S. from nuclear annihilation? Will his family ever learn of his double life? And who is that car salesman hitting on Harry’s wife?
Like every other Cameron movie, True Lies is a big budget enterprise, with a big star attached, and with full backing from the studios. That last part means one important thing: what Cameron wants, Cameron gets. And if Cameron says he wants to nuke an entire island, then by God, they’re going to nuke an entire island! Obviously they don’t really nuke an island, but the sfx that went into the “nuclear annihilation” of said island is quite a sight. Also quite well done and a real crowd pleaser is the construction of a life-size bridge over an ocean for the express purpose of blowing up by way of two Harrier jets. The sfx for both sequences are groundbreaking, and toward the end of the film, Cameron and his technical whiz team actually makes us believe that Arnold Schwarzenegger is flying a Harrier jet!
The sheer size and scope of True Lies is quite astounding. In 1994, the film cost over $100 million, easy. Unlike today, $100 million for a picture was still a big number in 1994. With Cameron, it is guaranteed that all $100 million will be put on the screen. Besides the two action set pieces noted above, there is a gunfight in a skyscraper that, at one point or another, involves Schwarzenegger in a Harrier jet, two gunship helicopters firing thousands of rounds and rockets at targets, and the side of said skyscraper getting demolished by various objects, including the Harrier jet. Are you starting to get the full scope of True Lies’ action yet?
That doesn’t mean True Lies is all action. As previously mentioned, True Lies is probably the only movie in James Cameron’s resume that can be called a comedy. It’s quite funny, and much of the comedy comes out of Tom Arnold’s mouth. Tom Arnold not only gets the best lines, but he became a star with this movie. And it’s deserving, because try as he might, Arnold Schwarzenegger is not a comedian, and he will never be a comedian. At least not onscreen. Most of Schwarzenegger’s “funny” lines fall flat, leaving the other Arnold to pick up the pieces, which he does with flair.
James Cameron’s screenplay does have a few faults. The biggest problem with the film is its middle, which spends an obscene amount of time dealing with Harry’s suspicion that his wife Helen is having an affair. It turns out she is, but not a sexual kind — at least, not yet. Having learned this, Harry spends his agency’s resources to trap her and play an elaborate trick on her, all for the purpose of testing her allegiances. The sequence rings of mean-spiritedness as Harry puts his own wife through the ringer, but the outcome, when the terrorists show up to interfere in Harry’s little revenge fantasy, is quite funny. It also thankfully snaps the film back into its terrorist A-plot.
Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the square jaw hero well and is most comfortable slamming people’s heads into toilets and other heavy, breakable objects. Schwarzenegger is an old pro when it comes to mow-’em-down action, and he excels here as usual. Tom Arnold’s Gib is at the center of many of the film’s highlights, and Jamie Lee Curtis goes through a jaw-dropping transformation from Plain Jane housewife to sexy stripper about halfway through. Chuck Heston’s cameo role as the gritty, kick-ass boss is good for a laugh, and Cameron regular Bill Paxton (Aliens) shows up as a con artist/car salesman who tries to get into Helen’s skirt while her husband is busy trying to save the world.
True Lies is one of James Cameron’s best films, mostly because it shows a lighter side of the serious action director. That doesn’t mean fans of Cameron’s earlier works will be disappointed, because just on action alone, the film’s many set pieces are quite impressive, even 8 years later.
James Cameron (director) / James Cameron (screenplay)
CAST: Arnold Schwarzenegger …. Harry Tasker
Jamie Lee Curtis …. Helen Tasker
Tom Arnold …. Gib
Bill Paxton …. Simon
Tia Carrere …. Juno Skinner
Art Malik …. Salim Abu Aziz
Eliza Dushku …. Dana Tasker