Review: True Lies
Mild-mannered computer salesman Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually a top-secret spy working for a shadowy organisation (headed by an eye-patch sporting Charlton Heston!), currently focussed on nabbing Arab terrorist Art Malik. Mousy wife Jamie Lee Curtis, meanwhile, is completely unawares. She’s a bored housewife who finds a degree of excitement in a potential affair with Bill Paxton, a slimy creep who takes credit for all of Schwarzenegger’s missions, when in reality, he’s a used car salesman, and a total wimp to boot. When Schwarzenegger uncovers Curtis’ secret rendezvous’, he devises a little side mission that inadvertently spills over into the main plot. Tom Arnold and Grant Heslov are Schwarzenegger’s colleagues, the former having much advice on marital troubles. A seriously sexy Tia Carrere plays a femme fatale (who deserves most of the credit for one of the sexiest tangos you’ll ever see), whilst Eliza Dushku plays the pouty, klepto daughter.
This 1994 action-comedy blockbuster has actually become a bit forgotten in the oeuvre of uber-filmmaker James Cameron (“The Terminator”, “T2”, “Aliens”, “Titanic”, “The Abyss”), in the years since. In terms of its racial and terrorism-related aspects, this isn’t a surprise. The Arab terrorism angle isn’t the film’s most interesting, and since 9/11/01, the world has certainly changed (I still think a sequel would be possible, since Arab terrorism specifically isn’t terribly integral to the central concept of a guy living a double life). Uber-action extravaganzas about one-man armies taking down racially stereotyped fanatical terrorists aren’t as prolific today, and perhaps with good reason (Was this film prescient? We certainly have x-ray technology and spy technology as seen in this film, that’s now a reality). It tries to level things out a bit by casting Heslov as one of Arnie’s sidekicks at the agency, but there’s little doubt that this film would have a hard time getting released these days (Less so in 2018 than in say 2002, though). That’s a shame because, with all due respect to the horrific events of 9/11 and subsequently, this is a much more entertaining and well-made action flick than any that has been released in the last 15 years at least. For starters, the director and editor are not epileptics jerking the camera around.
This film is more than just a ‘guy movie’ though, much more in fact. In some ways it shares things in common with another underrated Arnie flick “Commando”. Both that 1985 one-man army flick (the best of its kind, in my view), “True Lies” mixes over-the-top action spectacle with tongue-in-cheek humour. The earlier film was full of Arnie’s patented one-liners, but “True Lies” goes perhaps a step further in giving Schwarzenegger a more sophisticated sense of humour to play with that he might not have been as comfortable with in 1985. That is why I get annoyed when I read reviews of this film (most of them, in fact) that criticise the film for losing interest in its terrorist plot to focus on Arnie’s marital issues. Both are integral to the film narratively, tonally, and thematically. It doesn’t get side-tracked, it’s just that you perhaps didn’t realise that the film was sending up the spy/action genre on a character level as well as an action spectacle one. So yes, Arnie gets to yuk it up playing a bulky James Bond (Bond alum Peter Lamont is doing production design duty here, by the way), chasing the bad guy through the city streets and hilariously into an elevator on horseback. Yet it’s also playing with the deceit angle (duh, look at the title!) with Arnie lying to his wife about his job, and her lying about her secret rendezvous with slimeball Paxton. Is it too much movie? Yup. And your point? I’d find the film to be much less effective, and not nearly as clever, if it didn’t feature the Arnie-Curtis-Paxton scenes. And anyone who thinks the angle is cruel and misogynistic is clearly myopic, and missing (in addition to missing the point) a terrifically funny and dramatically strong (and sexy) characterisation by Curtis, her best-ever screen work.
So what’s the point I alluded to? Well, there are several. For starters, there’s the notion of Paxton (an actor whose talent I very much miss since his passing) claiming all of Arnie’s work to be his own, tied into Arnie’s own deceit of what he does for a living and Curtis’ own deceit, it’s all very clever stuff and very important for a film called “True Lies” (Get it? Duh!). Secondly, Curtis ends up getting roped into the big action climax to tie everything together, so obviously this was all necessary. Not to mention the fact that cheating is wrong, even thinking about it is wrong, and Arnie had a right to be pissed. I will say that some of the dialogue (particularly by the two Arnold’s) is a bit misogynistic and even homophobic. Still, the point is that the Arnie-Curtis-Paxton scenes aren’t even a subplot, they’re integral to getting the film to its climax and ending, and especially in furthering the deceit angle between most of the characters (Arnie and Tom Arnold have double lives, Curtis seems to have a double life, Dushku even, certainly Paxton and Carrere do). In fact, I’m not sure what I like this film better for, the kick-arse action of a kind we just don’t see any more, or the often hilarious, clever comedy.
The film certainly works on the action spectacle level just as well as any other Arnie actioner, but the film has a truly disarming sense of humour, disarming because it’s a different sort of humour for Arnie. It’s not just tongue-in-cheek catch phrases and humorous puns here. Arnie’s actually really funny in this, whether it’s his line delivery (His response to whether he’s killed anyone; ‘Yeah, but they were all bad!’), willingness to be silly (His chastising of a frightened horse at a pivotal moment is a classic), or even when he suspects that Curtis is cheating on him, his forlorn and oblivious descent into on-coming traffic is comical. I’d say that performance-wise, this joins “End of Days” (his most challenging role to date), and the little-seen “Maggie” as his best work as an actor. Hey, he even gets to tango with Tia Carrere, accompanied by that fantastic “Scent of a Woman” music. Yeah, OK so it’s mostly filmed from the waist up, but still, it’s Arnie and he’s dancing. Who’d a thunk it? His very casting takes a great high-concept idea and makes it just that extra little bit more fun. And whilst the two Arnolds aren’t as great a team as Arnold/De Vito, they’re a fun team nonetheless, with (Tom) Arnold’s mostly awful marital advice being a particular high point. I must admit, though, that the following line by Arnold to try and cheer up Schwarzenegger plays a lot less funny post 9/11: ‘We’re gonna catch some terrorists, beat the hell outta them and you’ll feel a whole lot better!’. Um...OK, Tom. Also playing more awkwardly in today’s world is the manner in which Malik is dispatched, which I will not spoil (There is a funny bit with Malik giving his big terrorist speech to the world’s media, though).
The late, great Bill Paxton is the other great casting choice here as the least trustworthy-looking car salesman you’ll ever see (think about that). Nobody does sleazy and obnoxious but cowardly, better than Mr. Paxton, who has a lot of the film’s funniest moments. Paxton had that rare quality of never failing to make the audience want to beat him senseless, yet still managing to be an engaging and likeable screen presence, contradictorily. Tia Carrere doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, but she makes the most of it, and IMHO, she would’ve made the greatest Bond Girl since Ursula Andress, if given the chance back during the Brosnan era. Art Malik is saddled with a dull cliché to play, and doesn’t do a whole lot with the role. However, his casting is intriguing; He was known before this for playing an Afghani freedom fighter in the 007 adventure “The Living Daylights”, yet here he’s an Arab terrorists. It kinda mirrors the whole real-life Osama Bin Laden (who was American-trained) thing of yesterday’s freedom fighters being today’s terrorists. I bet for this sad reminder alone, that this film hasn’t been seen on American TV in ages.
I understand why films like this don’t get made often these days, but watching this wholly entertaining film really does make one yearn for the good ‘ol days, doesn’t it? Well, in some respects anyway. It was made in 1994 and if you can try and watch it with a ’94 mindset, it still works wonderfully well. Scripted by the director, apparently loosely based on a French film.