Letterboxd Review: True Lies (1994)

All at once a romantic comedy and a bombastic 1990s action blockbuster, this is a film often forgotten from James Cameron's extensive list of expensive spectacles. That's a little sad and more than a little surprising, as I think True Lies might be Cameron's secret masterpiece. It has all the elements that the director is often missing in his latter-day box office domination and his earlier sci-fi shoot 'em ups, and it showcases the talents of his cast and crew far more.

When I read that it was actually Arnold Schwarzenegger himself who brought an overseas film to Cameron and said, "I really like the idea of playing this interesting character," I couldn't help it. I grinned. This movie is an awakening for Arnold. Yes, he rose to stardom playing emotionless robots and barbarians, but this movie revealed the comedic timing, the charming self-assurance, and the easy amusement that make Schwarzenegger such a likable leading man. Before this, the most amusing and charming he got was in somewhat dorky characters who were often just a simple riff on his real life persona, such as in The Running Man, Commando, or Total Recall. You can tell when Arnold is on his game as an actual actor, and it's when you forget that he's a hulking hard-body with a thick Austrian accent because he's selling his character's boring computer salesman family man cover story so well. There are plenty of movies where Arnold is funny, but it's the faux-James Bond confidence that insures he is also in on the joke, and that does wonders.

Jamie Lee Curtis won a Golden Globe for her performance as Helen Tasker, a character who has to ride a line between equal parts nebbish, jittery, sultry, explosive, and rakish. She nails every single bit of it. She is the real star of this movie, I tell you what. When the second act of the movie shifts to include her perspective, it's a masterful hand-off. Bringing her amazing sense of humor from A Fish Called Wanda, Curtis has such command of the screen even before the notorious striptease scene, but in said scene she made me laugh like hell no less than three times. The chemistry between her and Arnold is palpable through the second half of the film, as well.

Special mention should also definitely go to Tom Arnold and the dearly departed Bill Paxton, who both elevate every scene they are in and lend the appropriate blend of earnest schlubbiness and cynical sleaze to their characters. Without Arnold's sidekick character, the movie simply doesn't work. It isn't funny, and it isn't likable without him bouncing around providing energy to some of the more laborious aspects of the plot. Paxton is at peak-Paxton here. His loathsome pick-up artist holds so much truth right down to his disingenuous guffaws and pederast mustache. It's the character he was born to play. That's a huge compliment, as it couldn't be further from who he actually was. When most people think Paxton, they think Private Hudson or possibly abusive older brother Chet. I think of Simon, the dipshit used car salesman, and his deeply pitiful sobs of terror.

Cameron's sense of character in the script, along with his grasp for humor, seems out of place with his typical utilitarian approach to writing. In a good way. Consider the limp joke moments of Avatar or the wooden characters in the margins of Titanic. He's never approached the depth of Harry and Helen's marriage since. Plot-wise, the movie is fine. It's overly long in the last act, trying to squeeze three action sequences out of what could have been tightened to one. The villains are pretty generic by today's standards, though they are also splendidly cast and acted. And though the big, dazzling firefights and fistfights and chases come in large quantities, they seem sluggish in places due to too many moving parts trying to orchestrate around each other. For instance, a bombastic assassination attempt in a mall bathroom can be immediately followed by a chase sequence without a problem, but when the whole thing involves a motorcycle, a police horse, an AK-47, secret camera glasses, glass elevators, a rooftop swimming pool, and Tom Arnold improvising a testicle joke...that's a lot for just the mid-point action sequence of a 2 and 1/2 hour flick.

The special effects, namely the Harrier jet sequences and helicopter rescue off the Seven Mile Bridge, have surprising lasting power. Cameron was a pioneer of green screen effects, but the healthy doses of miniature work and practical stunts really sell the bombastic reality. The comedy of the film is its own special effect, and just as CGI was used sparingly in the early 1990s, it's the restraint and artful taps of comedy that create the proper effect without veering the film into cheap nonsense. Almost every scene ends with a joke, but never a labored one. It's almost as if the editor had lots of experience on sitcoms like "Cheers" before coming to this gig.

I honestly wonder why this film isn't given a more lasting mantle in 1990s action staples. It showcases so much for a standalone intellectual property, and remains the high point of the stars' careers. It is a James Bond derivative that arguably out-Bond's the Bond film that came right after it, and cements Cameron as much more than just a technological mastermind. It's the quintessential 1990s action film, the best the decade had to offer.

This review was originally posted at Kyle's Letterboxd page. Follow him there for movie reviews and lists as well as some sneak peeks of Cinema Autopsy, his bad movie essay book available soon.

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