Review: True Lies (1994)

Preamble

I don’t know if it’s a product of getting older or the fact that it’s a start of a new year, but I’ve been fondly looking back at the cinema from the era I grew up in (aka the 90s). To me, it’s the time when the medium seemed larger than life and wonderous in the images and situations they depicted. However, many of the action movies from this era exist in my mind as singular moments scattered across an ocean of cinematic experiences. This year, I will attempt to remedy that by watching and reviewing some 90s action movies. The first on my list is True Lies, which on the surface seems like an interesting outlier in James Cameron’s filmography insofar as between sandwiched between the technologically influential Terminator 2 and box office behemoth, Titanic. Have you seen the 1994 movie? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

James Cameron’s action moves have always had fascinating contradictions. On the surface, Aliens seems like a pro-military and gun movie, but also has a maternal spirit and empathy coursing through its veins. Terminator 2 is about two machines who relentlessly kill. However, the most robotic and machine-like character turns out to be a militant Sarah Conner, juxtaposed with the T-800, who learns to be an empathetic surrogate father figure to a young John Conner. Within this tightrope walk between militant and primal emotions, True Lies is a fun and captivating movie. It’s essentially a perfectly pitched Schwarzenegger action movie with a beating heart of domesticity and martial disenchantment.

Cameron’s fourth movie tells the story of Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who unbeknownst to his wife, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been a secret agent for the Omega Sector, which specializes in counterterrorism. Life becomes complicated for Harry when he suspects his wife of having an affair. The paranoia leads to a chain of events that will forever change Harry’s marriage as his personal and work life collides with one another.

Part of the appeal of True Lies comes from its tantalizing premise of what if Arnie the action star had a semblance of internal life. While some of Arnie’s previous movies have had his character attempting to protect loved ones, they’ve often felt like plot devices for motivation as opposed to independent characters with agency. One of True Lies’s few awkward steps comes from Harry’s daughter, Dana Tasker (Eliza Dushku) being relegated to a plot device (with the thread about her stealing being set up and not addressed again).

This aspect is coupled with the movie being an unabashed romantic and heightened spy movie. Cameron’s portrayal of the spy world is post-James Bond in the best way with time-wasting and seductive tangos along with amusing action situations. The highlight is a chase between Harry on a horse and the central terrorist figure, Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik) on a motorbike (within the confines of a hotel).

At the same time, Cameron has fun with the spy concept insofar as installing it with a universality via many of the characters having a fake it until you make it confidence, that makes them able to play the part well. A recurring joke with many of the people that Jack greets asking “Who was that” along with Simon’s (Bill Paxton) sleazy car salesman illustrates this quality well. The juxtaposition between Simon’s and Jack’s confidence, indulging in the part of being an undercover agent shows Cameron attempting to blur the line between the spy and the sleek salesman.

But the true masterstroke of True Lies comes from how the spy adventure affects Helen. Curtis’s portrayal of a mousy and bored suburban woman, who has to discover her confidence and sexuality amid a mission is the lynchpin for Lies not becoming a post-modern Bondian affair. It also helps that Curtis equals Arnie in the delivery of one-liners (often with a sardonic and sharp edge). In particular, her line delivery of “I married Rambo!” is as funny in its post-modern implications as they are in a wife realizing she’s married to an action star.

Arnie is serviceable as a spy who is trying to lead a double life. He comes alive when he’s angry or has to portray action convincingly. However, much of the heavy lifting of making him a credible presence comes from the supporting cast. In particular, Tom Arnold’s Gib goes a long way in his world-weary cynicism and humour to make Arnie’s Jack a loose and fun spy.

If there’s a metaphor for how Cameron uses the Austrian action star then it comes in the scene with him and Curtis in a hotel room. Jack is dimly lit as he watches Helen strip and dances seductively in a series of medium shots. Aside from astounding Jack in seeing his wife in a new light, the scene also casts a shadow on Arnie and instead puts the spotlight on Jamie Lee Curtis’s embrace of her sexuality and spy part. It’s an encapsulation for True Lies not only being a more human showcase of the Arnie action persona but a humbling one too.

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About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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