True Lies (1994)
It sounds odd that I had never seen True Lies until just a few months ago. I always had a little tinge of interest in it, but until recently, I just never capitalized upon it. I do think James Cameron has done some marvelous work over the years, and it’s nice to see that he did take the chance to do something more fun-filled after a lot of films of thematic heaviness. While I didn’t love True Lies, it does have its great strengths and unfortunate weaknesses wrapped up in a very entertaining spy thriller.
Special agent Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a top spy in the ultra-secret Omega Sector – although to his wife Helen (Jaime Lee Curtis), he’s just a boring computer salesman. When Harry’s two lives unexpectedly collide, both he and Helen find themselves in the clutches of international terrorists, fighting to save not only their marriage, but their lives.
In what I believe is a rare occurrence, I actually agree with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert about this film, in most part. The opening and ending are great, exciting, engaging action excellence, but the middle section is drawn out and throws the film off the rails a little. This is in relation to the entire Bill Paxton segment where Harry Tasker learns that Helen has been seeing another man on the side who feeds her false stories of him being a secret agent. Paxton’s character turns out to be a sleazy used car salesman conning women with his tales of international espionage and intrigue, and Harry proceeds to use his resources to pull one over on the guy while attempting to inject some excitement into his marriage via subterfuge. This segment is not a bad idea, but the fact is that it is dragged out for over thirty minutes and runs through some overly long comedic bits. There is so much that could have been done to chop this down considerably and make it far more snappy and to the point.
I hate to keep being proven right about my reservations about James Cameron’s lax storytelling post-The Terminator, but the evidence keeps surfacing with every film of his I see. When he had a tight, restrictive budget forcing him to be innovative in a constrained run time, he put together a film of tight rhythm and energy. Once he was given larger and larger budgets, and was allowed to indulge himself on screen, he began to slow down the pace of his films with extended second acts that could have definitely been tightened up for a more punchy experience. The other problem with this divergence in focus is that the actual plot with our villains vanishes for the entire time the film is concerned with this marital infidelity plot. With such a thrilling action chase scene to build up the film’s villain, the movie wholly shifts focus away from that plot, and a lot like the T-1000 in Terminator 2, the actual villain is completely absent for most of the second act of the movie. He only reappears when the movie realizes it needs another action sequence. If Cameron could have found a way to keep both the action centric terrorist / secret agent and married life plots going by interweaving them, I believe that would have been great, but it’s ultimately much more compartmentalized until the third act arrives.
Regardless, Cameron is still able to direct some of the best action sequences to date. The opening escape sequence is explosive and smart with the right amount of wit and sly humor. Indeed, I was vastly impressed with the chase sequence that starts off with a public bathroom fight and shootout, and then, sees the film’s villain, Aziz, take off on a motorcycle and Harry pursues him on horseback. They gallop and zoom through Washington, D.C. streets, stores, a shopping mall, elevators, and a high rise balcony. Cameron pushes this sequence to the absolute most fun hilt, and it proves to be very original and imaginative. The climax of the film with the helicopter rescue from the out of control limousine, and then, the fighter jet explosive awesomeness really makes this one of the biggest Schwarzenegger action spectacles ever. These are some of the most incredible action sequences that either James Cameron or Arnold Schwarzenegger have ever been involved in, and they deserve to been seen by any serious action movie fan.
And Arnold Schwarzenegger really does seem to do some of his best, most dynamic work with James Cameron. The two clearly work so perfectly together based on a very trusted friendship and collaboration. This time out, Arnold gets to be more light hearted and fun. Harry Tasker is a clever character who thinks on his feet, and improvises some tight scenarios with suave charisma. By no doubt, there are some James Bond comparisons you could make, but that can be done with nearly any secret agent action movie. Harry’s a light-hearted, caring family man who is not nearly as adept at his home life as he is in espionage.
Jamie Lee Curtis is really fun and solid as Harry’s wife. We get to see her go from this simple, wholesome, innocent woman to a more empowered, assertive character. Yeah, Helen has to liberate herself with a sexy striptease, but it’s really just done in good fun in the film’s context. Helen is attracted to Bill Paxton’s character because he tells her exciting stories of peril and danger, and so, Harry chooses to give her an adventure of her own. Curtis really embraces the role in all its facets giving us a sweet character that is able to rise to the task of danger and peril.
Now, it does seem to take the right director to craft Tom Arnold’s humor down the correct path. Surely, many have found him annoying or obnoxious elsewhere, but he really hits all the comedy beats just right. He never pushes it over the edge, and doesn’t come off like a buffoon, which would have been extremely easy to fall into. Him and Schwarzenegger have very good chemistry playing off of one another lightly and naturally.
On the far more serious side, Art Malik has a great threatening look of intensity to him that perfectly aids him as the film’s villain, Salim Abu Aziz. He’s an excellent fit for this ruthless, violent radical terrorist who consistently proves to be a major adversary to contend with. He truly added the serious counterweight the film required to the light hearted tone it employs throughout. His partner in crime is Tia Carrere’s Juno Skinner, a slight femme fatale that catches Harry’s attention early on. Surely, Carrere has never been a great actress, but she does quite good work under Cameron’s direction being charming and alluring when necessary as well as cutthroat and vile when the facades are dropped.
In some smaller roles, you’ve got Charlton Heston in a solid, brief appearance as the head of Omega Sector baring a nasty scar and eye patch. This sort of shows that True Lies is not taking itself too seriously. It’s allowing a little satire and jokiness to seep into the flavor of the picture. Also, Eliza Dushku appears in an early role as Dana Tasker, Harry and Helen’s daughter, and she does a great job showcasing a lot of tough attitude and dimension she would come to be known for. Everyone in this cast really does a fine, respectable job with Cameron’s material. It’s both a fact of good casting and solid directing.
This was James Cameron’s follow-up to Terminator 2 after he took a few years off, and in that time, visual effects continued to evolve a little. Largely, the digital effects work is very subtle not requiring anything so innovative as a liquid metal cyborg assassin. Yet, it’s interesting to see that today, you’d like see those Harrier fighter jets done mostly as CGI in most shots, but here, we get the real thing on film and it looks exponentially superior to any digital effect. The green screen shots are about as good as they get, and Cameron uses as many practical elements to give the action set pieces a very realistic weight. This is just how digital effects should be used – to aid and enhance the practicals in addition to achieving what little practicals cannot achieve. The use of practical effects adds more realistic weight to everything that I immensely appreciate.
True Lies is a very entertaining film with a fun mixture of concepts that is much lighter than your typical James Cameron fare. I think every idea he had here is solid and when it clicks, it excels beyond expectations. That is essentially the action-centric plot aspects, and while the humor is greatly well done, it dragged down the middle of the film. I honestly feel that humor works best when it’s snappy, sharp, and punctuated correctly. The comedy segments of True Lies are drawn out too long, and diverge the film away from its more exciting aspects. I believe the script could have been tightened up in that second act by shortening some of these sequences, and resulting in a sharper and more to the point second act. I do like the idea of showing the light-hearted suburban home life of this international secret agent, and the fun marital twists and turns that Harry and Helen take. However, I feel the film eventually forgets to meld its ideas together for a long period, and diverges away from the action film aspects for too long. Just when the secret agent plot was getting interesting and truly exciting, it ditches it for a good half an hour.
Regardless, I would still recommend True Lies. As I said, the action sequences are spectacular on every level showcasing the best of what Arnold can do, and demonstrating that James Cameron is one of the best directors of action out there. His dynamic visual style is wonderfully realized by Russell Carpenter’s exceptional cinematography. He didn’t work with Cameron on any other picture, but that would be hard to tell because the film has all of Cameron’s visual signatures. The blue, moody tones and great camera work with excellent close-up shots and push-ins all punctuate what you expect from James Cameron, and Carpenter truly hits it all dead on the mark. There is plenty of entertainment value to gain from True Lies, but even despite the R rating, it’s fairly light on graphic violence. So, in a way it appears more tame than previous Cameron or Schwarzenegger action films, but for the lighter tone used here, it seems more appropriate. As I said, I feel the film could benefit greatly from a tightening up of its humor, or at least, allow the secret agent action plot and the family life comedy to interweave in that second act. As it stands, the film veers off track for a good thirty minutes in the middle, and doesn’t get back on track until the terrorists burst back into the film in a rather unexplained fashion. It’s all good stuff from start to finish, but I just feel it would have worked better in a tighter package.