James Cameron might not quite yet have been King of the World in 1994, but he was definitely King of Science Fiction Cinema. Terminator 2: Judgement Day had become the biggest movie of 1991 worldwide (luckily for Carolco, which bet the bank on it), and consequently he could do anything he wanted next. And what he wanted to do was mystifying. Perhaps it stemmed from an attempt to show his “range” (after all, his next non-genre offering nabbed him the coveted Best Picture Oscar), but a remake of obscure French movie La Totale!, a spy comedy that allowed Cameron to make his Bond movie, that was really an examination of matrimony and its idiosyncrasies, was certainly a highly conscious departure. More to the point, it revealed an ugly side to the director, a side one might have seen lurking within his previous projects, but had not displayed itself so remorselessly. True Lies, which Arnie brought to Jimbo but was heavily re-envisaged with co-writer Randall Frakes, is an inveterately misanthropic picture, misogynistic, mean-spirited, and shot through with the kind of unvarnished racism and fear of the (Middle Eastern) foreigner that would make died-in-the-wool Republicans proud. It’s also not nearly as funny as it thinks it is.
Which isn’t the fault of the cast. Tom Arnold, for the best part of a decade-and-a-half a one-man publicity machine for a never-to-be sequel (understandably, since its easily his highest profile movie role, and highest profile role full stop, outside of being the one-time Mr Roseanne Barr; the official line was that terrorists weren’t funny anymore after 9/11 – when of course they were a hoot during the weekly carnage of the ’70s – but I’m dubious a True Lies 2 was ever seriously going to happen, certainly not post-Titanic and Cameron’s Oscar-nourished respectability), plays Albert “Gib” Gibson, partner of Arnold’s Harry Tasker, both agents for counter-terrorist task force The Omega Sector. He delivers his lines with perfectly droll timing (his advice, to get over Arnie’s wife’s infidelity: “We’re gonna catch some terrorists, we’re gonna beat the crap out of them, you’re gonna feel a whole lot better”), and has an easy rapport with Schwarzenegger that rivals the latter’s better comedy co-stars (Danny De Vito, James Belushi).
Jamie Lee Curtis applies herself to the thankless role of Harry’s wife Helen. It’s one that requires her to be first shrewish, then transform into a highly objectified version of sexy, but for the most part remain determinedly submissive to her husband and say nary a word of criticism after she discovers his secret (the one that leads to him spying on her, kidnapping her, interrogating her, deceiving her, generally putting her in dire peril, and, on top of everything else he’s done, essentially pimping her into “discovering” the sexpot within), shows expert and under-used comic timing, particularly in the pratfall department.
And Arnie, who was never going to be convincing as an elegant spy, and isn’t, doesn’t come across half badly for much of the duration, his talent for self-deprecation coming to the fore not in the rather lazy one-liners (“You’re fired!”) but his applying himself against type, be it Harry riding apologetically through crowds of people (“Excuse me… So sorry”) or his confession that, in his seventeen years as a spy, he had indeed killed people (“Yes, but they were all bad”), or nonchalantly explaining under truth serum how he will kill his interrogator and then proceeding to do exactly that. Best of all is his remonstrating with his appropriated horse over not taking a leap (“Look at me when I talk to you. What kind of cop are you anyway?”). Seeing him do the tango is quite fun too.
It’s in the scenarios written purely for laughs that True Lies really comes up short, first and foremost with Bill Paxton’s used-car salesman, wannabe lothario, and pretend spy. The conceit of Paxton’s Simon posing as a secret agent as a means to conquer Helen, while her real husband is a spy but she doesn’t know, is the kind of high-concept premise that needs to be absolutely perfectly judged lest you become aware of how unforgivably tenuous it is. As such, you’d expect Cameron to avoid it like the plague. But then, comedy has never been his forte, so he was probably unable to see through his blind spot.
Simon is crude and vile, presumably so much so that we’re supposed to forget how cruel and vile Harry’s actions are. He’s a character for whom Cameron creates a running gag of soiling himself, and announce precisely how inferior specimen of maleness he is (“I’ve got a little dick, it’s pathetic”). Yet Harry’s grand, decades-spanning deceit sees him rewarded. Maybe Cameron was scripting some payback here, taking in his failed marriages and confused relationship with strong woman (he wants to dominate them and be dominated by them, wants them to assume traditional male roles but also know their place as subordinates). Maybe not for viewers, but it’s probably best that he works out his issues away from the psychiatrist’s couch; it would be a nightmare for any unsuspecting shrink, having Jimbo lying there, instructing them how they feel, and have got it all wrong, week in, week out.
There’s something deeply corrupted at the core of True Lies. Cameron keeps prodding at the fact Harry knows he’s doing wrong (and Arnie in jealous obsessive mode is quite convincing), such as the reflection of Simon in Tasker –“So basically you’re lying your ass off all the time. You see, I couldn’t do that” – but entirely fails to bring him to book for it. The love story of the director’s earlier The Abyss takes on a different hue when seen through the unseemly lens of True Lies, reduced to the tale of a wayward wife who must accept her husband as the rightful exemplar of masculine authority and submit accordingly.
Nominally, the end of True Lies finds Helen and Harry acting as a unit, spying together, but the lesson learned is that the husband can do whatever he wants, and get little more than a remonstrative punch for scores of years of lies, while his wife should be humiliated, terrorised and preyed upon for even thinking about flirting with another man (she does considerably less than Harry in his first tango, with Tia Carrere’s Juno).
Cameron’s writing of Helen’s motivation is also found wanting (“I needed to feel alive!”) since it plays into a justification for Harry’s next action (giving her what she wants by further manipulating her into discovering her inner whore). One can see parallels in Art Malik’s absurdly caricatured Middle-Eastern terrorist Salim Abu Aziz. If you want to hone in on a really objectionable example of Hollywood racism with regard to Arabic countries, look no further than the writer of Rambo: First Blood Part II in this Pentagon-assisted picture.
Salim is given – like Helen – a line of justification for his behaviour (“You have killed our women and our children. Bombed our cities from afar like cowards, and you dare call us terrorists” – as relevant a charge today as ever) but aside from that, he’s a relentlessly evil Arab; perhaps, after his sympathetic Afghan freedom fighter in The Living Daylights, Malik thought he should strike a balance?
We know how unconscionably evil Salim is, because he hits Juno on the first occasion we see him, and even stoops to kidnapping Harry’s daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku, soon to find TV fame in Buffy the Vampire Slayer*). Cameron’s not really racist, though, because he pulls the oldest trick of “balance” in the book by casting Grant Heslov (latterly best buddy of George Clooney) as Faisal, the good Arab on Harry’s team. Now any accusations of imbalance ought to just melt away.
There might be something to be said for such a depiction of comedy villains (see the briefest of slivers of clumsy Libyans attempting to obtain nuclear capability in Back to the Future – such innocent times!), so inept that they blow themselves up, or the battery runs out on their video camera midway through a ransom demand, but it’s entirely leaden in Cameron’s crude, ill-defined hands. “It’s funny, funny, just funny” he claimed of the picture’s purported lack of political intent. If True Lies was just funny, that might be something. But this is a movie in which a device of repeated hilarity is having an extra react in surprise to the latest outlandish action its director is staging. The picture essentially coasts on the assumption of such responses. As a comedy director, Cameron makes a good dramatist.
Ironically, as an action director he also leaves something to be desired. True Lies has a most ungainly structure, but that one that at least aids Cameron in his attempts to avoid facing the morass he has created (the evil terrorists initiate much of the action, so superseding any need for serious reconciliation between wounded parties; besides, Arnie is, quite simply, the hero). Cameron can stage a scene, and as ever he put the camera in the optimum position. But the bigger his ego and budget swell, the less he musters much in the way of excitement.
And Brad Fiedel’s score is so generically forgettable, it’s only a surprise the director went with him. An early fight in a men’s room (where someone is sitting on the toilet; of course, they are) is effective – and possibly inspired Casino Royale – but the big event car chase and bridge rescue, complete with copious green screen work, is something of a damp squib. Even more so the harrier jet finale, where you can perceive the technical challenges being Cameron’s priority rather than engaging with the action. Daft exertions such as Dana bouncing around the nose of the plane, while Salim bashes his balls on the tail (before – chortlesomely! – getting snagged on a missile and fired into oblivion, hence that previously mentioned standard Arnie one-liner), anticipate the increasingly virtual world a once visceral director will inhabit. It’s silly, basically, but not in an affable, Roger Moore, way.
There are plain odd touches too, such as Harry and Helen smooching to a mushrooming nuclear explosion in the background, a metaphor that’s unpleasant whichever way you cut it. But unpleasant sums up True Lies. It’s Cameron at his most sordid, tasteless and graceless, not that he’s ever been exactly graceful. However, at least the later Titanic and Avatar have a clarity to their telling – I hesitate to say purity – amid the paucity of restraint. True Lies is a deeply dubious movie from conception onwards, and one that isn’t even up to scratch in terms of its director’s traditional forte. None of which stopped it becoming the third highest grossing movie of 1994. Cameron’s all-consuming successes still lay ahead of him, but for Arnie it was something of an end of the road. Only his returns as a T1000 would meet with anything approaching the financial success to which he’d become accustomed, and they’d be more of a sad reminder than a rejuvenation of his career.
*Addendum 15/07/22: True Lies is now renowned for unsavoury events additional to its content, of course, based on Dushku’s testimony.