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Saturday
Jul 13 2019

"True Lies"at 25

by Mark Brinkerhoff

On July 15,1994,the re-teaming of James Cameron,fresh off the monstrous success of his previous film (1991's groundbreakingTerminator 2: Judgment Day),and hisTerminatorstar Arnold Schwarzenegger,not so fresh following the flameout ofThe Last Action Herothe year prior,debuted in theaters across the U.S.In one of those packed theaters that day: a teenaged me eagerly anticipating the ballyhooed,$100+ million spectacle.25 years later,hasTrue Liesheld up?For that matter,have I?Let's dive into one and the other,n'en parlons pas...

Speaking of (or in) French,True Lies,which is based on a 1991 French comedy calledLa Totale!,opens up at a James Bond-ian lakeside Swiss manse at night,in winter—icy,gleaming,guarded.Countless armed guards are patrolling the grounds as Schwarzenegger's character,Harry Tasker,clearly a spy and formerly a Mr.Universe (uncredited as such),and his cohorts surveil the estate.Infiltrating,by way of nearly frozen waters,a fancy dinner party,Harry is on a mission to retrieve sensitive information that could lead him along the trail of suspected terrorists in the market for nuclear weapons.The professional bodybuilder-turned-spy (looking sharp in black tie,by the way) sticks out unsurprisingly like a sore delt,arousing the suspicion of wandering security before segueing into a sexy tango-for-his-life with a fetching partygoer who conveniently factors into the terrorist-driven plot.Action ensues as Harry makes a hasty retreat.Explosions.Guns.Jokes (courtesy Tom Arnold's sidekick shtick).Skis.Trees.The works.

That this all happens within the first dozen or so minutes ofTrue Liesis indicative of what a James Cameron movie thrillingly represented just before Michael Bay and CGI came to dominate with their tacky,hollow facsimiles of more carefully-crafted cinema.Never as stark as now,Cameron still,in spite of his record-breaking cinematic achievements (Avatar,Titanic)—and record-breaking budgets (first movie to cost $100 million,first to cost $200 million)—doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves for deliciously pushing action-adventure to the absurd,absolute limit.But I digress.


Flash forward to Washington,D.C.,and the real nature of Harry's job (if you can even call it that) is revealed: he works for a stealthy,shadowy,government-sanctioned counter-terrorism agency called Omega something.(It's a silly name I always forget.) Soon after his obligatory check-in at headquarters,he returns home to his family,namely his wife Helen,played narrative-elevatingly by Jamie Lee Curtis,and his teen daughter (a sadly mistreated Eliza Dushku).Apparently Harry doesn't bleed or bruise—or amazingly Helen doesn't notice—because so-called sales conferences (computers,natch) look to be a literal beating otherwise,for those paying proper attention!

Anyway,D.C.also happens to be where Harry rendezvous with the temptress of tango herself,an antiquities-fronting dealer played quite solidly by Tia Carrere (‘memba her?!).Details of a "Crimson Jihad"-backed terrorist plot to smuggle in and detonate a nuclear bomb in the U.S.are revealed.Collusion is in play.And then Harry and crew start getting tailed,leading to a detour that results in an unbelievable mall restroom mêlée—Harry emerges the victor,of course—followed by another spectacular sequence culminating in a multi-modal,skyscraper roof-jumping chase,which frankly has to be seen to be believed.Ever the inventive showman,Cameron stages such scenes and dazzling set pieces with aplomb.

But back to the Tasker family.It's wild to revisitTrue Liesat the age of Harry and Helen (or thereabouts) when I first saw—and loved—it at around the age of their daughter Dana.On rewatch,errant plot holes and problematic elements become alarmingly clear.(For one,why is Harry not absolutely throttling his "friend"/colleague for almost fetishistically sexualizing his teenage daughter?!) And yet,there's also something undeniably retro,even nostalgic,about it.True Liesis nothing,after all,if not a movie of its time,in a time before the Internet and social media and 9/11 and the war on terrorism threw our world into untenable social and political chaos.

In this relatively sanguine milieu is where humdrum scenes of domestic life,with its penchant for disappointments and disillusionments,play out.This is also when the story shifts,opting to focus inclusively and interestedly on Helen (thank God).

Unsettlingly saddled early on with the drab,clueless,bored housewife role,Helen appears in all of the trappings of this quintessentially late ‘80s/early ‘90s fossil: the dowdy clothes,matronly haircut,and oversized glasses,stuck behind a cubicle in some nameless,bureaucratic wasteland of a job.(And laconically married to a dull,if absurdly hulking,"computer salesman"no less!) That her Octavia Spencer-channeling co-worker seems to be her only cheerleader to a badder,bawdier world is par for the course.

But once the requisite b-plot gets underway,that of a comparably intriguing man of mystery who engages Helen in an allegedly clandestine,secret mission,a frisson of excitement tingles as Helen starts to get to have andbefun.Without dwelling on the preposterous why and how of the unctuous character played terrifically by Bill Paxton,it's a joy to see Helen shake off the shackles of suburban somnambulance and (re)claim her agency as a certain spunkiness from within (re)emerges.(This is a vital,capable woman,y'all,and she's not here to play,God damnit!)

While I wouldn't dare posit Cameron as a firebrand for feminism,I do appreciate that he,as a director/producer/writer,seems to get just how to lean into his leading ladies' strongest sensibilities.Think about it: whether comic (a Golden Globe-winning Curtis),intense (Linda Hamilton,who should've been Oscar nominated),or resilient/vulnerable (Sigourney Weaver,blessedly Oscar nominated),in his films they pop.It can't be all scripted,on the page—or in the direction—either;casting surely goes a long way to ensuring vivid,memorable performances.And what a performance Curtis' is!

Over the (overlong) course ofTrue Lies,the proceedings move along both dizzyingly and at times lugubriously,slowing down for extended sequences (like the seductive tango dance or wonderfully wacky striptease),then speeding up for gallivanting scene changes that,if memory serves,sometimes left my 16-year-old head spinning.(I wasn't complaining.)


Despite the broad caricatures and dated stereotypes (Middle Easterners as terrorists,used car salesman as pathetic pervs,etc.),True Liesremains a watchable ride.It certainly gets better as soon as Helen gets in on the terrorist-thwarting action,which takes her and Harry to the Florida Keys (with the $$$ shot of blown-up bridges),then,ludicrously,to downtown Miami.In Schwarzenegger,Cameron found perhaps his most dependable—and inspired— male muse.Who knewthiswould be their swan song!
True Liesis streaming now via Cinemax,for those who have it.

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Reader Comments (8)

I have wonderful memories of this film.I think I must have watched it five times in a row -- together with the rest of every one else in my city.It was such a huge hit.

July 13,2019 | Unregistered CommenterIan

A huge personal classic during my teenage/VHS years.
Jamie Lee Curtis managed to elevate a somewhat funny role and turned it into a hilarious/believable/moving character.The strip-tease scene has to be among my all-time favorites (and that Sade song was so good by the way).I also love her cat fight with Tia Carrere in the limo!

July 13,2019 | Unregistered CommenterFrenchToast

Love this revisit.It always boggled me that after this was such a huge hit (I also saw this several times that summer) that it seemed to disappear from the collective memory.Glad it seems to be coming back around into notice.Well deserved.

July 13,2019 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

All the cast are wonderful esp Paxton and a travesty of no nomination Curtis,she won the Globe and category confusion with SAG supporting nom hurt her plus that was a stacked category.

She could've broken into Lead but unlikely.

Cameron is great with actresses simple,a great director of women and not always heralded for it.

July 13,2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

This movie was part of the golden age of critically acclaimed action packed films.

July 13,2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

That her Octavia Spencer-channeling co-worker seems to be her only cheerleader to a badder,bawdier world is par for the course.

Since Spencer didn't arrive until 1996's A Time to Kill you might wanna rethink defaulting to all fat Black women in movies look alike.

July 13,2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I wrote Octavia Spencer-channeling,not Octavia Spencer-looking.They're not the same,nor was I implying that they looked alike,even though that's what you're inferring.But the tenor of role,limited though it was,did remind me of one that Octavia Spencer might've played early on in her career.

July 14,2019 | Unregistered CommenterMark Brinkerhoff

Man,I could not disagree more.From Tom Arnold's awful lines and Arab bating to JLC's strip tease,this movie is a kind of terrorism.I mean,the movie stops for 45 minutes so that Arnold can put his wife through a hooker routine because he suspects of her cheating on him?!

July 14,2019 | Unregistered CommenterAlfred

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