So once again we have survived.

True Lies

In James Cameron’s idea of a romantic comedy Schwarzenegger plays Harry Tasker, an agent for the “Omega Sector” secret spy agency who protect America from terrorism and are led by Charlton Heston with an eyepatch. He has one eye on the enemy, the other eye on infinity. Or something. The opening shows that Harry is willing to blow shit up but is more of a suave James Bond type than the usual Schwarzenegger character. He gets his way through trickery, wears a tux and even does a tango with Tia Carrera. (Remember when she was supposed to be a big deal?) He just happens to be a muscleman under that tux but nobody seems to notice in the movie, it’s not really relevant to the character.

Harry spends alot of his time being followed in a van by his woman-hating loyal manservant Tom Arnold (before he sidekicked for Jet Li or Steven Seagal) and his GGWATBOADSINR (good guy who appears to be of Arab descent so it’s not racist) Academy Award nominee for GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK Grant Heslov. But when he’s not trying to stop terrorists from getting nuclear weapons he faces the much bigger problem of relating to his wife Helen (Jamie Lee “I cut off Michael Meyers’s head” Curtis) who thinks he’s a boring computer salesman.

True LiesThat’s the comedic part of the movie is that it’s more about the wacky home life than the spy shit. Harry always blows it and gets home late for work when an extended action sequence comes up, so his wife and kid (Eliza Dushku) think he’s a dirtbag. But we know he’s really a charmer because of the way he always apologizes to everybody as he rides a horse through a crowded hotel chasing a dude on a motorcycle.

The real gimmick sets in when Tasker accidentally catches his wife on the phone with some guy named Simon, who turns out to be Bill Paxton as a sleazy used car salesman who has convinced her he’s a secret agent and needs her help. Harry thinks she’s cheating on him so he uses our tax dollars to fund an elaborate stakeout (with helicopters). This is actually where the movie gets dicey and the reason why I hated it when I first saw it years ago. Tasker is a likable hero but he is a neglectful husband. You forgive him for that and you understand his anger (I laughed when his tight grip shattered a lens on his binoculars) but he crosses the line when he locks his poor wife up in an interrogation room and makes her think she’s been captured for aiding a spy and humiliates her in front of Tom Arnold. In my opinion that is no way to treat a woman. Take Tom Arnold out of the equation and it’s still questionable but definitely with him in there it’s over the line.

Harry realizes his wife wants adventure in her boring life so his way of adding spice to the marriage is to trick her into thinking she is being forced to pose as a hooker and do a striptease for some guy. The some guy is actually Tasker himself, but she doesn’t know this due to a magical face-covering shadow that unneccessarily stretches the credibility of the movie like it was made of taffy. (Couldn’t they just tell her the guy likes to wear a lucha libre mask or something? I’m sure there’s people that get off on that shit.)

Well I’m no expert but in my opinion this was a poor way to jumpstart the marriage. If they hadn’t both been kidnapped by actual terrorists right at the moment where it went sour I think he would’ve been looking at a divorce.

I used to think this movie was real racist because of its depiction of Middle Eastern terrorists. But my colleague in geocities badass theory Ryan Kenner has a good point that if it wasn’t Middle Eastern terrorists it would be Russian mafia or Triads or some other action movie stereotype. And of course there really are terrorists from that region who would like to use a nuclear weapon on the US, it’s not completely made up, we especially know that now. So I didn’t find it as offensive all these years later. But I still think it’s hilarious to see the filmatists and fans of the movie dance around logic to prove that it’s not offensive. They went out of their way not to reference religion in the dialogue so it wouldn’t be seen as anti-Muslim, and I’ve seen posts on IMDb where somebody says that people are crazy for thinking the terrorists are supposed to be Muslims because they never say they are Muslims or mention Allah at all. To which I have to say – Dude, they’re called Crimson Jihad. Also, we live in the real world and have seen terrorists from that part of the world and it’s pretty easy to guess what religion they claim. But since they don’t specifically mention Islam we’re supposed to assume these guys are non-denominational Arab terrorists? Are you for real?

The worst part involving these characters is the scene where some wacky terrorists die and it’s played as a joke. I have no problem with bad guy deaths getting laughs in action movies, but the way it’s done in this part is just stupid. You gotta do it with a straight face, they do it nudging your ribs and saying “Eh? Eh? Ya git it?” They have these cartoon middle eastern atheist terrorists accidentally fire a rocket launcher backwards and blow up their own truck, and then they make funny faces and get upset. They eventually end up dangling from a blown up bridge and they think they are balanced but a pelican lands on their truck and knocks it over. I know this movie is a comedy but you can’t treat it mostly serious and then all the sudden near the end have one scene that turns into Wile E. Coyote. Since they are such bumbling idiots and you’re supposed to laugh at their deaths it’s easy to think of it as racially degrading like those funny WWII Japanese guys with the buck teeth. But really it’s more offensive as a misjudged tonal shift. Like alot of action directors James Cameron is better at staging chase scenes than telling jokes.

Another TRUE LIES joke: they scare Bill Paxton so bad he wets his pants. Get it, he’s a sissy. And he pees. They liked that one so much they did it twice.

But this movie is really not as bad as I used to think it was. It was sad to see the guy behind such strong female characters as ALIENS Ripley and T2 Sarah Connor do a movie where the women get knocked around and manipulated and called “bitch” and everybody’s supposed to high five each other when Tom Arnold says “Women. Can’t live with ’em, can’t kill ’em.” But sadly after the advent of Michael Bay the hatred in this movie seems fairly tame. And as an action movie it actually works. Schwarzenegger is really good and likable. I really like his apologizing and the way his oneliners seem to be sincere more often than sarcastic. Like when he knocks two dobermans’ heads together and says “stay” I don’t think he’s trying to be funny.

And it’s a really big spectacle back when spectacles were still expected to have thrills. My favorite action scene is the horse vs. motorcycle through a hotel chase, which I suspect was the inspiration for the part in ADAPTATION where he says, “the cop’s after them on a motorcycle and it’s like a battle between motors and horses, like technology vs. horse.” There’s also a very good public restroom brawl which I’m sure partially inspired such later classic bathroom fights as the one in MERCENARY FOR JUSTICE and the one in TERMINATOR 3. I’m glad these kind of bathroom fights always happen in nice establishments (here I believe it’s a Marriott hotel) because if it was some normal place where they don’t clean the bathroom every two minutes it would be pretty disgusting. And I have never seen a cinematic bathroom fight where they wash their hands before they leave.

The battle on the bridge is pretty impressive too, especially the actual shot looking down on Jamie Lee Curtis as she dangles from the helicopter. She really did it so all that stuff you see below her, that’s really below her. The magic of actually doing shit, there’s something you don’t see in enough action movies these days.

And of course the most famous is when Tasker flies a Harrier jet in and attacks terrorists in a skyscraper. This probaly inspired the most ridiculous scene in LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD but for this one it wasn’t CGI, they used some actual Harriers as well as a life sized model of one on a crane. If TRUE LIES has left a negative legacy it is this – the introduction of the military-industrial-action-movie complex. T2 was a huge fucking movie with its truck chase and its groundbreaking liquid metal CGI, so the way Cameron chose to top himself was to get ahold of this advanced military vehicle that had never been in a movie before. To get a Harrier you have to win over the military and then to top TRUE LIES you have to win over the military even more and get them to give you something even more elusive and powerful than a Harrier, and this sort of thing still happens. Michael Bay for example got the military involved in TRANSFORMERS, said in interviews that it would be “a great recruiting tool,” and was able to use some stupid jet that had never been seen in a movie before, it had only been seen by poor people right before they died. Similarly, Schwarzenegger in real life saw the stupid Hummer cars that the military was using to roll over and die in in the desert. He got them to give him one and paved the way for civilian Hummers, rapper Hummers, Hummer limos and the flip-off-a-Hummer movement.

So TRUE LIES is by far the weakest of the James Cameron action movies, and the most harmful to the progression of the genre. I read somewhere that he got a divorce right before he did this one, and maybe it was a bad idea to take all his anger out in a romantic comedy. Maybe a horror movie next time, bud. And there will be a next time. But I would still have to say this movie is worth watching. It’s a real good Schwarzenegger role, some great action scenes and as silly as it is it’s action on a scale you don’t see very often. For the first time I’m actually wishing they would make that sequel.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 25th, 2007 at 9:02 pm and is filed under Action, Comedy/Laffs, Reviews, Romance, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

23 Responses to “True Lies”

  1. i have the strongest urge to watch this one again lately. being a younger guy, i watched the hell out of this as a kid (it was around ’95 right? ya i was a kid).

    even with as many ridiculous action scenes and failed jokes, it’s still a hell of a great action movie, and i dare you to find anything this solid coming out these days. excluding Iron Man i guess, but i still think i like this one better.

  2. I could never really formulate why I felt weird about the Arab villiains until I read this review: Vern hit the nail right on the head – the comical, Looney-Tunes, subhuman depiction of them really does leave a bad taste in the mouth – moreso than if they were just normal serious baddies. (With the film’s other nods to the Bond series, it does seem surprising Cameron didn’t go for a stronger, Bond-like villain instead of some poor schmo).

    I’m not of Middle Eastern descent so my opinion of what is and is not offensive doesn’t really count – but in my selfish opinion Executive Decision did it right – the villains weren’t ridiculously cartoony or over-the-top, but they also weren’t whitewashed or stripped of character to make them generic. The infighting between the terrorists about “this is not what Allah wants” also worked well as the “we know you guys aren’t all like this” disclaimer, but in an organic way that didn’t feel tacked on. Plus Executive Decision trusted the audience and didn’t feel the need to add the “good Arab” character.

    Speaking of which – I’m curious to know what the action fans on here think of the token “good ethnic character” staple Vern mentions above. I’m still conflicted on whether it’s more or less offensive than leaving the character out. I’d say the best example of this character done properly is Tony Shalhoub in The Siege or the guy in The Kingdom. And the worst has to be the Asian cops who suddenly show up in Lethal Weapon 4 (even though we’ve never seen them before). Nothing like throwing an Asian face in there to excuse the “flied lice” jokes and then have Mel Gibson continue to make short people jokes to their face. At least Arnold and Tom didn’t make falafel jokes to their sidekick.

  3. I’m middle-eastern and I love this movie. And I’m not apologizing, it is awfully mean-spirited. But I love that about it.

    And the bathroom fight was in the Georgetown Park shopping mall in DC. Just thought I’d add that.

  4. I always found the misogyny claims about this movie to be misplaced. 1) It is just a movie. Come on. Not that movie’s shouldn’t be held accountable for bad values, but sometimes you’re just really looking for something. 2) So what if it is? Mr. Strong Female Heroes can’t make one movie where he plays with it? 3) It’s all men saying it. I’ve never talked to a woman who was offended by this movie. In fact, women love this movie. Women who like action movies love it and women who usually don’t watch action movies love it. They think it’s funny and cute and love the Jamie Lee Curtis dance. So if only men are defending women’s honor about this, it seems like a little misguided outrage. Granted, if it weren’t so awesome, I might not want to defend it so much.

    An important contextual note also is that this was Arnold’s first movie after Last Action Hero. He could have played it safe and not done another comedy. I heard Cameron had to sell him on it. But showing he could do it right was a big deal. Also, this movie came out within a week of Forrest Gump and I think True Lies holds up much better 16 years later.

  5. One of the greatest action movies ever made, I still regard the bathroom fight/shootout and subsequent horse/motorcycle chase the greatest extended action sequence of all-time (which I don’t know if you’ve ever listed but I’d like to read if you do/have.)

  6. ALSO, apparently Arnold had invited some friends to the set one day, and took a break to show them around Georgetown….James Cameron had a massive meltdown and completely flipped out on Arnold, screaming “Would you rather have Paul Verhoeven direct this??? Go get Verhoeven!!!”

    I would have loved to have seen that argument in person.

  7. FTopel – I’m a woman and I love action movies and I don’t love this movie, for the reasons Vern gave. I know lots of other women (and quite a few men) who also love action movies but don’t love this movie, for the very same reasons.

    So I think maybe you’re generalising a bit too much when you write “Women love this movie”.

    Also – women getting kidnapped. I have a bee in my bonnet about that. http://multiglom.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/kidnapped-women-in-action-movies/

    But I agree it holds up better than Forrest Gump.

  8. Watched it again the other day and this movie has held up better than almost any action movie from the 90s. It has one of the most perfect blockbuster screenplays ever written, in my opinion. I can think of few movies that deliver to such a degree on both action and comedy. And I don’t get the charges of misogynism, the men in this movie come off a million times worse.

  9. yup, True Lies has always been one of my favorite action movies

  10. Badly misjudged comedy aside, this is a great action movie with some fantastic moments and set pieces. Pulling a Three Stooges on those guard dogs, the motorcyle/horse chase (“it’s like technology vs horse!”), the bridge chase, the Harrier jet sequence, “You’re fired.” This is a big, expensive action movie that actually feels big in a way a lot of modern ones don’t.

  11. Anne, I appreciate you commenting on an old post of mine (before I was Franchise Fred) on an old review. You are the first woman I had heard criticize True Lies but you are right, I could have been more clear. I do believe a lot of women enjoy the movie but any criticism is valid too.

    You’re also right about the kidnapping cliche. That’s a bad one, and only gotten worse.

  12. The kidnapping didn’t bother me because Cameron put a different spin on it by having Dushku’s character not just be a helpless victim. There’s a fair share of hysterics when things get really hairy (perfectly understandable), but she has the intelligence and foresight to steal the key from the detonator when the opportunity strikes. She knows she may die doing it, but she understands the stakes (as well the possibility of a bargaining chip for her own life) and does what’s necessary. That instantly puts her a notch above most kidnapping victims in movies.

  13. Jareth Cutestory

    March 8th, 2013 at 8:03 am

    It’s not so much the kidnapping that bothers me, though I think it’s a tired trope in films like this that is clumsily executed in this instance. It’s the forced striptease thing that I’m not down with. If it’s supposed to tell us what a hardass Schwartzenegger’s character is, it fails. All I learned is that he enjoys degrading his wife unnecessarily. While Sade sings a sad song.

    But none of the casual sexism bothers me as much as the lazy, xenophobic depictions of the cultural stereotypes villains, and the hammy triumphalism of the excessive destruction that is meted out on them. That shit is way more dated than the special effects.

  14. Jareth Cutestory

    March 8th, 2013 at 8:03 am

    Obviously my first attempt a using the “strike” feature was less than brilliant.

  15. Definitely imagine that that you stated. Your favourite reason seemed to be on the web the easiest factor to keep in mind of. I say to you, I certainly get annoyed at the same time as other folks think about worries that they just do not understand about. You controlled to hit the nail upon the highest as smartly as defined out the entire thing without having side effect , folks can take a signal. Will likely be again to get more. Thank you

  16. Hot take: despite it’s reputation for being sexist and racist, and despite its wacky Adam Sandler-style throwaway gags, this may actually be James Cameron’s only movie meant for adults. Sure, it’s nowhere near as good as Aliens or T2, but where those can be enjoyed as both a kid and an adult, True Lies never really “clicked” for me until I saw it the other day as I’m pushing 40. The movie’s raison d’etre for me as a teen (the still-incredible action scenes), now act as sugary frosting, with the surprisingly touching love story being the cake. More surprisingly – what used to be an interminable middle section where the terrorists disappear, is now my favorite part! Paxton absolutely kills it in a dare-I-say iconic role, and Curtis is incredible. The infamous interrogation scene is a classic – the sad notes she hits when talking about regret and a life wasted is like something out of an Alexander Payne movie – any other director and any other actress wouldn’t have been able to make the movie’s first “serious” scene work without feeling like Tyler Perry-style tonal whiplash, but Curtis and Cameron nail it.

    Arnold is at his charming best here, and the previously “icky” striptease mission actually comes across as incredibly sweet now. He’s seen how much he’s hurt his wife and how much she needs just a moment to feel beautiful again, and he comes up with a harebrained scheme to give that moment to her. (Maybe if Curtis had been more frumpy and didn’t have such an insane body, people would have picked up on that intent of the scene instead of dismissing it as exploitation).

    Cameron brings his relentless perfectionism to the script, and even though that sounds ridiculous for a “dumb” romantic comedy, you can see how much it pays off – Not only is there a nice lack of plot holes and a surprising amount of character development, (Tia Carrere is actually a more interesting villainess than I remember her being, and even Art Malik’s main baddie has a pretty cool introduction scene), but there’s so many beautiful moments of metaphor and symmetry that I somehow didn’t pick up on until now – 1) The first act is all about Harry, the second act is all about Helen, and the third act is about both of them coming together. Watching the movie today feels less like a movie and more like binge-watching a season of a very expensive action sitcom, and I mean that as a compliment. 2) Simon is the bizarro version of Harry – he’s a salesman pretending to be a spy while Harry is a spy pretending to be a salesman. That they’re both fighting for the affections of the same woman, while both telling her the exact opposite lie, is brilliant. 3) The great scene where Helen deflects Harry’s suspicions by talking about the most boring parts of her job (complete with technical jargon she knows he doesn’t understand), and the look on Harry’s face is priceless when he realizes she must be lying because that’s HIS MOVE that he uses to deflect HER suspicions. 4) The aforementioned interrogation scene may play as unfair to Helen, but remember she gets her own version of it later when Harry gets injected with the truth serum. 5) When Harry takes Helen’s (previously hidden) wedding ring and puts it back on her ring finger, and they have their “first kiss” as a couple for the first time being totally honest with each other, I actually got misty-eyed. If you couldn’t pick up that Cameron’s main interest is in the love story and not the spectacle, the fact that the gigantic nuclear explosion is literally a background gag to this scene should tip you off. 6) and of course, the bookending Tango scenes, which not only give the movie a neat symmetry, but is the absolute perfect way to end the movie – and kudos to Curtis for getting in one last pratfall gag while the credits roll (hopefully on purpose).

    So yeah, this all may sound like obvious, on-the-nose stuff from film school 101, but i don’t care. Who would have guessed that this dumb spy comedy with a not-so great reputation would affect me on an emotional level almost 25 years later? It shows a) they really don’t make them anymore with this much care and effort, and b) even James Cameron’s “worst” movie is better than almost everyone’s best movie.

  17. Whoever said this is Cameron’s worst movie must be a crack smoker. This is arguably his most entertaining.

  18. I also rewatched this recently as part of my Bill Paxton Memorial Marathon, and I also had a different reaction to the big interrogation scene. It’s not like I ever thought that scene was funny or anything, but it’s hard to relate to the kind of regret and ennui Helen Tasker was expressing there when you’re 17 and you assume your wildest dreams are about to come true any minute now. Now that I’m in the same age range as Helen and Harry I can definitely see where she’s coming from, and that really gave the last third of the film a lot more kick this time. For the first time, it felt like something was at stake.

    Plus, that set-piece on the bridge between the Florida Keys is still bananas. The model work is really breathtaking.

  19. I really hope your Bill Paxton Memorial Marathon included this:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkz0Lx6VyxA

    -I listened to the album on Apple Music, this is by far the best and only half-decent song on the album sadly.

    As for TRUE LIES, I’ve always enjoyed. I’m due for a re-watch on it though. Anyone ever watch the movie this one is a remake of LA TOTALE! which is surprisingly still hard to come by? I watched it once years-and-years ago but honestly I can’t think of a thing that TRUE LIES didn’t do better.

  20. Geoffrey – I had no idea Bill Paxton did anything musically besides Fish Heads, so thanks for that link. That’s awesome that the hot cowgirl who lassos Paxton is….Oscar Winner Kathryn Bigelow!

    Majestyk – thank you for putting into words what I was having trouble conveying – basically I like Terminator 2 and Aliens just as much now as I did when I was 12, but Helen Tasker’s arc in True Lies may be the only Cameron storyline you have to be an adult to fully appreciate (whereas you don’t have to actually be an adult or a mother to “get” Sarah Connor or Ripley’s respective storylines). And yes, that bridge scene is incredible – sure, you could argue it’s tame and simple by today’s standards and “topped” by all kinds of CGI-assisted action scenes in say, the Fast and The Furious series (which I do like). But everything is on fire here – the pacing, the music, the combination of FX and stuntwork – even the acting and the character work that’s already been established come together to create an action scene that blows anything from today out of the water. I really wish Cameron would shelf those Avatar sequels and make more “minor” movies like this one.

  21. neal – “I really wish Cameron would shelf those Avatar sequels and make more “minor” movies like this one.”

    We all do neal. We all do.

  22. You guys made me rewatch it today and my opinion hasn’t changed, because I always liked it. But what I find weird, is how less racist the depiction of the terrorists seems, compared to today. I guess back then they didn’t try to offend Arabs and Muslims too much, but after 9/11 all gloves came off. (P.C. police my ass!) Compared to the villains we see on 24, HOMELAND, nowadays even on PRISON BREAK and all the other shows and movies that deal with that kind of terrorism, the ones in TRUE LIES look like average guys, who are almost likeable, when they fail at operating a video camera or meet their demise through a Pelican. They didn’t even give their leader a Bin Laden beard and if I’m not mistaken, none of them ever mentions their religion! How times have changed…

  23. Neal, thank you for the heartfelt and thoughtful analysis of my favorite Arnold and Cameron movie. I admit, I always teared up in the final tango because I knew it meant they’d worked out their marriage and would have many more adventures.

    I seem to be the only person alive who never read the film as sexist. Plenty agree it’s sexist but like it anyway. I’ve learned this comes down to reading Arnold’s actions as heroic. I never watched him spy on and interrogate his wife and thought, “Go Arnold! Get that bitch!” I read it as, “Wow, this guy’s an asshole but it’s hilarious how wrong he is.” Maybe I was more evolved than Cameron himself, but I think part of it also has to do with Arnold’s role in film had always been so heroic, it was impossible not to identify with him even when you weren’t supposed to.

    I’ve never been able to find a copy of La Totale. From the trailer it looks like she sleeps with the car salesman, which I imagine is something an American audience could never accept. The French are more evolved that way.

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