Friday, August 05, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: True Lies (1994)


An elaborate and expensively-mounted remake of the French farce, La Totale! (1991), James Cameron's blockbuster True Lies reveals once more the director's absolute panache in staging and directing spectacular action sequences. 

Here, a climactic sequence involving a Harrier jet, a secret agent, a teenage girl, and a Middle-Eastern terrorist is so perfectly played, so vertiginous, that you may find yourself crawling out of your skin for the duration of its running time.   I've seen the scene at least three times but watching it last week, I again felt myself growing anxious in my seat...subconsciously wishing to seek safer ground.

Much of this beautifully-shot action film is similarly rousing, particularly the motorcycle vs. horse chase sequence that ends atop a Marriott Hotel roof, and a "war" scene set on the long, narrow bridges connecting Florida Keys.  Cameron knows how to expertly layer on unconventional elements in traditional shoot-outs or pursuits -- such as horses, bathroom urinals, elevators, etc. -- and makes the scenes play as both intense and funny.

Visually then, True Lies is unimpeachable.  In fact, the imagery remains astounding some seventeen years later, an example of true cinematic "shock and awe."   More than anything, the film makes one wish that James Cameron would helm a James Bond film one of these days.  This is doubly so, actually, because True Lies knowingly opens with an homage to Goldfinger (1962).  There, in the pre-title sequence, Sean Connery rose from the water in a wetsuit.  When he took it off, 007 was wearing a pristine dinner jacket.  Schwarzenegger pulls the same stunt here after a dive through icy water, and it's a nice way of paying tribute to an action-hero legend and predecessor.

Yet beyond the astounding visual effects and breathtaking action, True Lies is a weird, quirky film with some very dramatic ups and downs. 

For instance, the 1994 film spends an inordinate amount of time on humorous scenes that actually play as mean-spirited, and the screenplay doesn't really delve into the film's main characters in very meaningful or deep fashion.   

Also some sequences -- while visually powerful -- have no contextual follow-up.  A nuclear bomb is detonated in the Florida Keys, and it hardly seems to move the nation -- or the main characters -- at all.  The horrifying moment almost seems to play as a (misplaced) romantic background during a passionate kiss.  

These concerns established, True Lies does feel very contemporary in the sense that it accurately forecasts the twenty-first century ascent of Middle-Eastern terrorism against the United States.   And it certainly predicts a powerful, unaccountable bureaucracy in the U.S. Government as the response to such terrorist attacks.  Here, that organization is "Omega Sector," the "last line of defense."   Leading Omega Sector is none other than Charlton Heston as "Spencer Trilby," and once more, his right-wing reputation carries a brand of symbolic power and weight.

Indeed, True Lies works primarily as a kind of time capsule of 1994's cultural concerns, echoing the conservative tide that swept Newt Gingrich into power as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Therefore, the next time a newspaper columnist or reviewer informs you how unduly liberal and seemingly slanted left filmmaker James Cameron is (see: Avatar), just bring up True Lies as counter-evidence. 

Seriously, it's funny how so many right-wingers wanted to beat-up and tar Cameron over Avatar even though he had already directed a huge, successful film that looks like it came straight from GOP talking points both in terms of foreign policy approach and culture warrior concerns.

"I Married Rambo..."
"Nuclear terrorists take on the nuclear family and live just long enough to rue the day in "True Lies," wrote Rita Kempley in The Washington Post. Her rhetorical flourish is an excellent way of introducing the film's storyline.

Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a secret agent working for Omega Sector, but he leads a double life. His bored but beautiful wife, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) believes Harry is a mild-mannered computer salesman, when in fact Harry is responsible for having saved the world on more than one occasion...with some much-needed help from his acerbic partner, Gib (Tom Arnold).

Because of his secret life, Harry has little time to spend at home with his family, and even forgets his daughter Dana's (Eliza Dushku’s) exact age. But Harry’s absence from home carries a heavy price. When Helen becomes entangled with a con man named Simon (Bill Paxton) pretending to be a secret agent, her boredom and feelings of emptiness are revealed to Harry.

Seeking to provide his wife a little taste of the adventure she seeks, Harry arranges to send Helen on a manufactured "mission."  Unfortunately, a nuclear terrorist named Aziz (Art Malik) and known as the "Sand Spider" abducts Helen and Harry and transports them to the Florida Keys, where the terrorist plots to detonate a nuclear weapon.  He wants Harry to confirm for the world, and on videotape, that he boasts the capacity to use the weapons of mass destruction.

Now aware of her husband’s real vocation, Helen teams up with Harry to stop the terrorists before they can detonate several other nukes in the United States.

Unfortunately, Aziz escapes and captures Dana.

Now -- atop a skyscraper in downtime Miami -- the terrorist threatens to destroy the metropolis unless his demands for American withdrawal from the Middle East are met. 

After rescuing Helen, Harry races to Miami flying a Harrier jet...


"You aren't her parents anymore. Her parents are Axl Rose and Madonna.  You can't compete with that kind of bombardment."

In terms of context, True Lies largely reflects the political and national zeitgeist of 1994.  First and foremost, this was the year of the reactionary white, male voter. 

So what was the white man angry about back then? 

Many things, actually.  There was widespread displeasure with the Democratic-led Congress, particularly over corruption and waste, as evidenced by the Dan Rostenkowski House of Representatives post office scandal. 

Similarly, First Lady Hilary Rodham Clinton attempted to reform America's health care system with a plan for increased government involvement.  She met with fierce resistance, and the plan failed. 

More generally-speaking, many on America's right had grown increasingly angry about an increasingly toxic popular culture, and about what they viewed as "political correctness" and the "PC police" in the national discourse. 

Much of this anger and hostility was ginned up by a relatively new name in talk radio and on the national landscape -- Rush Limbaugh -- but it was also in evidence as early as 1992, when Pat Buchanan spoke at the Republic Convention about a newly engaged "culture war" (one to replace the ended Cold War.)  The year 1994 culminated with the historic overturning of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the dawn of Speaker Newt Gingrich and his "Contract with America." 

The reactionary white voter was heard.   After the staggering loss of both Houses of Congress, President Clinton modulated his approach to governing.  He announced his relevancy, declared the end of Big Government, and then proved once more the adage that only Nixon could go to China by reforming Welfare.

In some very obvious and very subtle ways, True Lies mirrors the conservative mind-set of the mid-1990s. 

In broad terms, the film is about a family man, Harry, re-asserting his dominant role as head of the nuclear family. 

To re-establish this role, he must eliminate sleazy competitors for his wife's affection such as Simon, re-capture the affection of his estranged daughter following her indoctrination by pop cultural influences (named above as "Madonna and Axl Rose...") and finally, outwit a "nuclear" competitor who has kidnapped his child.  It's not an easy assignment, but Harry proves up to it...especially with the full weight and might of U.S. secret ops behind him. 

In clever fashion, Cameron approaches "nuclear family life" in True Lies as a concern as grave and serious as nuclear terrorism.  When the smooth, suave Harry returns home from a mission at Lake Chapeau, Switzerland, for instance, Cameron opens the scene with a high-angle view of Tasker and Gib huddled in the car. 

The camera peers down through the open sun roof of Gib's ride, and the film grammar interpretation of this shot selection suggests Harry's doom and entrapment.  He looks small, and in jeopardy as he prepares to return home, to "normal life."  We get both a high angle shot and a box or frame (the sun roof window) surrounding the character.  It's a double-doozy, so-to-speak. 

Later in the film, the Tasker family house is shot from a menacing low angle during a heavy thunderstorm, no less  It looks like an imposing haunted house in a horror movie.  The choice of shot informs the audience that there's trouble brewing here, both in terms of the wife and the daughter.  It's trouble that Harry will need to correct.  And boy will he correct it!

Finally, I don't know if I've ever seen a better metaphor for the delicate dance between career and family than the nail-biting finale of this film, which finds Harry flying a Harrier over downtown Miami.  His daughter clings precariously to the nose cone of the plane, crying for help.  Meanwhile, on the tail fin of the plane, Aziz is on the attack, armed with a machine gun. 

With absolute precision Harry must "balance" both situations, or risk total disaster.   If he tips one way, his family is destroyed.  If he tips the other way, Aziz gets the jump on him.  This scene is beautifully vetted both for what it represents (the delicate dance of maintaining home life and career), and in the physical, cliffhanging details.  It's also a great, pulse-pounding finale to the film.

By re-engaging with both Helen and Dana, Harry does rescue his family both metaphorically and literally, and that's the movies thematic through-line, a comparison between domestic dangers and foreign ones.   

The family that fights terrorists together, stays together, or something like that.

Where this approach becomes a little dicey, I would submit, is in some of the specifics of Harry's methodology.  He approaches his family problems with the same take-no-prisoners attitude as he confronts foreign terrorists.  On one hand, this approach can be funny.  On the other hand, Harry's actions are wildly inappropriate and actually illegal, and Harry is never called on the carpet or made to account for his behavior.  Instead, he's rewarded for bending the rules to suit his personal cause.

For instance, without a second thought, Harry engages national security apparatus to trail, apprehend, hold and interrogate Helen and Simon.   Forecasting Bush Administration policies, he uses wiretaps -- without warrants -- to do so.

Then -- also forecasting some of the darker imagery of the 2000s, namely in association with Abu Ghraib -- Harry dangerously bullies Simon, his competitor for Helen's affections, throwing him under a black, eyeless hood and threatening to drop him from a precipice overlooking a dam.

But hey, what's a little abuse of power between friends and family?  

Actually, this line of "humor" regarding Harry's manipulation of U.S. government funds and resources doesn't get under my skin nearly so much as some of the other material that's associated with it.  And that's because -- essentially -- it works with the film's central joke: family life vs. secret agent life.  A bit of exaggeration is certainly acceptable here in the name of humor.  And again, the idea is to throw political incorrectness to the wind.  Nothing wrong with that.

What instead feels a little disturbing about True Lies is the mean-spirited or at least questionable nature of several key moments and sequences. 

For example, Gib (Arnold) continually refers to women characters in the film as bitches.   Feeling magnanimous,  I would give the movie the use of that term three or four times.  But the word "bitch" just keeps coming up, and one starts to realize after the umpteenth repetition that it's not just for humor...it's some kind of creepy pathology.  

And then Gib actually says "Women: can't live with 'em' can't kill 'em."  Funny?  Well, is it funny to say "Men, can't live with 'em, can't kill 'em?"   I report, you decide.

It's a little bit like watching a comedian who is funny at first, but then keeps repeating the same borderline offensive material until it's not so funny anymore.  You realize you're watching someone with a problem -- nay an obsession -- and not someone who is very funny.

On one hand, the frequent use of the word "bitch" may be Tom Arnold's method of attaining some kind of important personal catharsis or closure after his marriage to Roseanne Barr.  I certainly wouldn't deny him his right to express those feelings of hostility.  But on the other hand, in a movie in which a family man must thoroughly wrestle and wrangle the women in his life (namely his wife and daughter), the last image you want presented is one of rampant misogyny. 

In other words, I don't think the near-constant refrain of "bitch" is an example of misogyny on the part of Cameron or other filmmakers, but I do think that -- when coupled with the incredibly traditional plot line of a man wrangling his women -- it adds to the sneaking suspicion that this movie does not like women very much.  Which is unfortunate, given Cameron's excellent history with strong female characters.

Perhaps the most memorable scene in True Lies involves Helen's strip-tease in a hotel room.  Jamie Lee Curtis looks absolutely phenomenal here, and the scene is certainly amusing on some level.  At the very least, Ms. Curtis proves she is quite adept with physical comedy.  But the scene is also extremely controversial, and many critics have made note of the unsavory quality beneath it.

Again, when coupled with the sort of male-fantasy aspects of the film and the all-too-casual utterances of the word "bitch," the scene also takes on another shade of, well...ickiness. 

It's truly cruel to put Helen into the position of fearing she will have to act as a prostitute for a john, even if Harry's motive is pure; so that she "feels" she has done something adventurous with her life. 

Yes, the moment is perhaps funny for us, because we -- like Harry -- realize that Helen is in no danger.  But she is left to worry about exploitation, rape and even death.  At the very least, Harry's behavior is un-chivalrous.  It's as though he's paying her back for making him worry she was having an affair (which she wasn't...).  I'm sure someone will say I lack a sense of humor for quibbling with this scene, but that's not it.  Maybe I just possess a surfeit of empathy.

How would Harry feel, if he were made to perform sexually like this -- not knowing how far it would go -- for another man, for instance?  Then it wouldn't be quite so funny, would it?

Again, there's this kind of cloying adolescent male fantasy aspect to True Lies.  Harry never discusses with Helen, in any more than cursory terms, his lifetime of lies.  He never has to really deal meaningfully with the fact that he kidnapped, interrogated and manipulated her.  Because there is a crisis -- and because he's a hero -- he gets off pretty much scot free.  In fact, Helen likes the new Harry so much, she even ends up joining him as a secret agent.    Well, if you can't beat 'em...

One might be tempted to argue that Harry couldn't tell Helen the truth because of national security.  But just look at how easily Harry manipulates the tools of national security when he wishes to; when he believes he has been wronged.  Again, study this objectively.  When Helen is unhappy, she seeks adventure, but doesn't betray her principles.  She doesn't cheat on Harry.  When Harry is unhappy, he brings down the full force of the American government to bludgeon his wife!   Seem even-handed and principled to you?

Another mean-streak is evident in the treatment of the essentially comedic Simon character played by Bill Paxton.  He's a cad and a jerk and an exploiter of women, and deserves a comeuppance.  But again,  to be pushed to the edge of a precipice overlooking a huge fall?  To be made to wet his pants...twice? 

First of all, the idea of a frightened man peeing himself simply isn't so funny that it requires an encore in the film's conclusion, and secondly the set-up for the second gag is so ham-handed you want to wince. 

Simon just happens to be on location during a mission involving Helen and Harry, giving Helen the opportunity to make him piss his tuxedo? 

It's dumb, contrived, and again, more pathetic than funny.  Simon has suffered amply already, and it's just sadistic and pandering to bring him back to repeat the lame pants-wetting gag.  Again, I have to laugh when people complain about the Billy Zane character being two-dimensional in Titanic.  They object to that character, but not Simon in True Lies?  Really?

True Lies has also been accused of being anti-Arab, but I don't believe that's a fair attack on the film. One of Harry's associates, Faisil (Grant Hevlov) is also of Middle Eastern ethnicity, and he proves a valuable hero in the film.  On the contrary -- and I don't mean to rile anybody with this statement -- True Lies actually very clearly gets at some of the motivation behind Islamic radicalism against America. And that motivation is, simply, blowback over American policies regarding the Gulf States.  That was Bin Laden's reason for declaring war on America in 1998, and the self-same reason is spoken -- in detail -- by Aziz in this film.  True Lies is cannily accurate on this front, as much as we would prefer it were not.

In terms of the Cameron Curriculum, we get many familiar ingredients in True Lies.   Helen is the fish-out-of-water character who is forced to take on a new role (that of covert agent).   She is also, in the tradition of Ripley or Sarah Connor, a character who -- after some trepidation -- proves herself up to the challenge of defeating a grave threat.  Though the scene with Helen dropping an uzi and it falling down the stairs -- all while blasting terrorists -- is cringe-worthy and patronizing,  her confrontation with Juno (Tia Carrere) is pretty impressive.  Like every film except Titanic, True Lies also features a nuclear weapon in some capacity.

I cannot tell a lie: True Lies is my least favorite James Cameron film. 

I enjoy the time-capsule qualities of the film (bringing us right back to what was happening culturally in 1994...) and I respect the thematic through-line about the American nuclear family and nuclear terrorism.  I also believe the action is staged in brilliant, exciting fashion.  The film is a roller-coaster ride.

But I still wish Cameron had something deeper to convey here.  The film doesn't exactly "screw the pooch," as Gib is fonding of saying, but it's pretty clear, given his career trajectory, that Cameron can do a lot better (and has done a lot better...) than True Lies.


Next week on the Cameron Curriculum: The Terminator (1984).

11 comments:

  1. I'm very much with you on this one, John. There's a lot to admire on the action and staging side. Few to none can handle such sequences better than James Cameron. Although, I caught sight a lot of Arnold's stunt doubles throughout many scenes. A little sloppy for JC. But it is the story that has the problem. Not only is it mean-spirited and unafraid to use stereotypes (à la the reactionary white male voter complex you noted and the FALLING DOWN film of '93 it followed), but its use of female characters is a bit contemptuous. As much as I would like to enjoy Helen Tasker in the same way as other Cameron female characters like Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, and Lindsey Brigman, she pales next to them. That's not to say Jamie Lee Curtis didn't give it her all, she did (literally). However, she's more of a beautiful (and funny, and sexy) prop when you compare her those other female personas. Cameron himself has admitted, going through a divorce at the time, that his treatment of women in the story was not his usual way of featuring them.

    Plus, the stereotypes in the film abound and were also typical for the time, which is to say that it was, generally, something atypical for a Cameron film... mostly. I have Muslim friends and this film draws a lot ire. The bad guy terrorists are pretty one note: definitely dark-skinned, crazy, quick to shoot off any weapon in their hands, always sweaty, alien, and just stupid enough for a laugh or two at their expense. They're caricatures to the nth degree. Even Tom Clancy didn't write up his Islamic extremist villains in his novels to this level. And yeah, I know we're just talking about an action film here, but it is one that fed into the fears and biases that came out of the changing times post the Gulf War glory of '90-91. These characters were as subtle as the slap in the face Art Malik delivers to Tia Carrere's Juno Skinner, and just as painful. BTW, Tia is wasted here, IMO, even though she's the one woman in the picture that always draws me. I'd note, too, she's also the only one who really knows how to Tango (Arnold and Jamie were a bit stiff in their footwork on the dance floor for my latin tastes).

    Lastly, there is an unexpected high/low-light this film now gathers given The Governator's recent fall from grace (no surprise to some). His response ("I could never do that.") in his discussion with the sleazy car salesman (Bill Paxton, also wasted in this) about lying to the women he beds, is priceless beyond the sardonic.

    As always, it's great to read your thoughts about the film. Thanks, John. T2 is next, yes?

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  2. Hi Le0pard13,

    I agree with everything you wrote in your comment, Michael. True Lies is a film of great highs and some great lows. The treatment of the women is the hardest part for me to stomach, I must say. It just feels unnecessasrily...mean.

    Arnold's recent problems certainly put some aspects of the film in a new light too, as you say. Given what's happened, it's impossible not to think of the scandal while watching True Lies; especially the scene you mentioned.

    Next week, we return to 1984 for the original The Terminator!

    Thank you for a great comment, my friend.

    Happy Saturday!

    JKM

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  3. Hi JKM;

    I wanted to like this movie when it came out but it left me with a feeling of, as you say, "ickiness". It seemed at the time like a TMI visit into an unpleasant side of Cameron's psyche that his marital troubles had brought to the surface... whether or not Tom Arnold's casual venom was scripted or improvised, it was Cameron who made the decision to keep them in the movie. In this, it's atypical of his work.

    I don't think this film is evidence that Cameron isn't a "liberal". It's based on a French film! And its politics mirror the twists that "liberalism" (as opposed to "the left") took at the time and continues to take. As I've mentioned before, Cameron reminds me of Chris Matthews, politically.

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  4. Hi DLR:

    I agree with you about the ickiness factor. I suspect (but don't know...) that Arnold improvised a lot of his dialogue, but you're right...it's Cameron's responsibility that it made the final cut. Which is troubling, and as you said, seems atypical.

    I agree with you about Cameron and like your linking of him to Chris Matthews. That's my feeling too. But it is funny how so many columnists seem to forget Cameron ever made this movie when calling him "anti-American" over Avatar.

    Great comment!

    best,
    JKM

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  5. So that’s how it is, huh? That’s how we’re gonna’ do this? Damn it, John! *Cannon shakes his fists at the screen*

    Part I

    True Lies just might be my favorite film from James Cameron. The Terminator is his relentless, techno-horror, midnight slasher movie masterpiece. Aliens is his magnum opus of desperation drama merged with emotionally charged FX spectacle. But True Lies is Cameron’s great absurdist romp. It’s madcap and farcical yet equally lyrical and sincere.

    Firstly, I want to attack head-on any accusations of misogyny. Harry Tasker’s career life is an endless game of spy adventures while his home life is simple, comfortable, always there at his convenience. And when the latter begins to fall apart at the seams (and in part taken advantage of), tis true that Harry's attempts to rectify the problem are slanted towards the film’s overall male ego-driven escapism. But I wouldn’t say True Lies is misogynistic. For all of Tom Arnold’s seemingly hateful ranting towards women, he’s also the one who chimes in a simple, mature moment of clarity when he tells his partner the consequences of irresponsible husbandry: “What did you expect, Harry? Helen’s a flesh 'n' blood woman, and you’re never there.” Maybe Cameron is using the Gib character as an anthem of sorts for all bitterly divorced guys. Or maybe he’s simply making a clear point that Gib himself is but a lonely bitter guy, with no family, as opposed to Harry.

    Harry truly loves his wife and seeks only to reconnect with her. The roleplay he puts her through is not some sadistic cruel joke; it’s his world and, by bringing Helen into it via the thrills of danger, how he defines romance. But when criticizing the character’s questionable methods, you’re missing one very crucial point: Harry gets a telephone upside the head, a kick to the gut and, later, a TKO punch to the face ...all from his wife. In one swoop Cameron sobers Man’s buffoonish nature by reminding him (us, the male audience) that women are in fact "flesh 'n' blood" – that Helen is no mere plaything, but a real woman (and a resourceful first-timer spy) who will react fiercely. I’ll even make the argument that her character is perhaps the most complex, well rounded and relatable of all of Cameron’s heroines. Ripley is a grim, maternal warrior hardened by a past trauma, likewise with Sarah Connor, but to an even further extreme that, at times, renders her all but inhuman. Lindsey is a cold-shoulder-corporate-ex-turned-preachy-activist-turned-mushy-weeper; Rose, a prisoner-doll of aristocracy and Neytiri, an impossible, blue alien, noble savage cliché.

    Helen is a commonly frustrated mother and housewife with a more dynamic personality. She’s funny and clumsy, but then sexy, but then embarrassed, all of which makes her enduringly charming. Her scene in the interrogation room reveals credible, understanding, conflicted female emotions of stress, vulnerability, strength and loyalty. It’s no small measure that Jamie-Lee Curtis’ performance hits every one of these beats with emotional honesty and near perfect comedic timing. She really is the heart of the movie, and I think it further counters your criticisms in that Cameron gives the film’s heart over to the female perspective. There may not be an in-depth communication between Harry and Helen about their problems, but there doesn’t really have to be either, nor can I imagine such an awkward scene fitting anywhere within the film’s comic hijinks/cliffhanger adventure swing. What matters is that, during his wife’s interrogation, Harry is the one who’s tentative to her confession. He’s the one who has to stop and listen to her, empathize with her side of the marriage, not the other way around. In essence, Cameron is giving women the chair and the spotlight to plead their case. Us guys, we’re the goofballs who need to pay attention.

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  6. Part II

    [One might be tempted to argue that Harry couldn't tell Helen the truth because of national security. But just look at how easily Harry manipulates the tools of national security when he wishes to; when he believes he has been wronged. Again, study this objectively. When Helen is unhappy, she seeks adventure, but doesn't betray her principles. She doesn't cheat on Harry. When Harry is unhappy, he brings down the full force of the American government to bludgeon his wife! Seem even-handed and principled to you?]

    Oh, come on now, John. I mean, really... If we were discussing an intended realistic depiction of U.S. national security crossed over with domestic marital issues, I could certainly see the criticisms in how one is used unethically and grossly unrealistically to resolve the other. But True Lies never mistakes itself for anything other than a cheeky action adventure. Harry saves the day with larger-than-life action movie heroics; it’s only consistent in tone that he saves his marriage on similar levels. After all, this is a comedy, and at least the movie is jokingly conscious of Harry’s misuse of agency resources by having Gib sweat bullets over the matter and in turn reminded of his own past malpractices (i.e. on-duty BJ). Objectivity has no business here.

    For more simple reasons do I agree that the film’s stereotyping of Arab terrorist should not be taken at face value, at least no more that Temple of Doom’s outlandish caricatures of east Indian cultures. Both films are little more than live action Looney Tunes, and I think Cameron respects his audience for being intelligent enough to separate grounded reality from heightened reality - extremely heightened, to the point where everyone involved, good guys and bad guys alike, are subjects to the art of absurdity. In my view it would only be racist or insensitive if the evil terrorist weren’t so screwy and denied moments of ridiculousness such as a low-battery camcorder during a Jihad speech or when the main villain gets a vertical stabilizer to the crotch à la Wylie Coyote.

    [Also some sequences -- while visually powerful -- have no contextual follow-up. A nuclear bomb is detonated in the Florida Keys, and it hardly seems to move the nation -- or the main characters -- at all. The horrifying moment almost seems to play as a (misplaced) romantic background during a passionate kiss.]

    I don’t think it’s misplaced at all. With Avatar you argued in favor of Cameron’s career-long thematic playground, the way he paints with the same colors but in different patterns or the same patterns but with different colors, or whatever. The nuclear bomb was treated dreadfully serious as a harbinger of doom in The Abyss, The Terminator and T2. Those were serious minded films. Again, I stress True Lies as Cameron’s light-hearted lyrical venture into the absurd (further comparisons to team Lucasberg’s Indiana Jones movies are more than apt) and where apocalyptic imagery was rightfully nightmarish in his other films, here it has been altered accordingly to complete Harry and Helen’s reunited moment. An apocalyptic mushroom cloud used as a means to express romance? Shit, why not? As far as I’m concerned, it makes a far more fascination twist on Cameron’s familiar motif than anything I saw in Avatar. And who cares about the real world implications of a nuclear detonation off the Florida Keys? That’s just not the kinda movie we’re dealing with here.

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  7. Part III

    The joys of True Lies are the moments of inherent preposterousness found in every nook and cranny: a big man walking a tiny Chihuahua, a horse in an elevator, a seagull on the hood of a teetering truck, Tom Arnold using a street pole for cover, the old guy in the bathroom stall, the office custodian jamming to his headphones with a harrier jet spiraling just outside the window etc. etc. There are things in this film that I find oddly hilarious, like the very idea of an eye-patched Charlton Heston and a subservient Arnold Schwarzenegger sharing the same scene and exchanging dialogue of the most ridiculous order:

    “So far, this is not blowing my skirt up, gentlemen. Do you have anything remotely substantial? Do you have any hard data?!”

    “Well, nothing you would call rock hard...”

    I don’t know why, but that bit cracks me up every time. Likewise when a scrawny Bill Paxton shit-talks Schwarzenegger’s character, a mere two feet away, without even knowing it:

    “What about their husbands?”

    (with a mouthful of sandwich) “DICKLESS!”

    ...and in the following car ride scene, the way Cameron perfectly cuts from Harry’s imagined deathblow to a cackling Bill Paxton, again, oblivious to it all. This movie really is comedic gold. Plus, you really gotta’ give it to Schwarzenegger and his penchant for being funny. True Lies was like a follow-up to the underrated Last Action Hero by allowing Arnie to continue mixing macho heroics with a game sense of self-mocking silliness. I love the way he scorns his police horse for lacking commitment to the job or the look of sheer astonishment on his face when he realizes how hot his pole-dancing wife is. With every quirk, glare and (over)reaction, Schwarzenegger seems just as comically natural to the camera as he does when being fearsome or intimidating.

    I also think True Lies is Cameron’s most exciting action film, or, at the very least, certainly his most inventive. The two big climactic set-pieces in particular are staged with such awesome scale while, at the same time, finely detailed and executed with precision that is one part thrilling, the other part comedic. Harry’s down-to-the-last-second rescue of Helen from a rogue limo marks the emotionally charged, action highpoint of the film, where you find yourself wanting to laugh cheerfully but can’t because you’re still holding your breath. The following sequence is pure guy-movie orgasm, where Arnold is, quite literally, a one-man airborne war machine, flying zigzags around a Miami skyscraper and blowing shit up – no helmet or popper oxygen mask, just a big dude piloting a harrier jet with his muscles bulging from a torn shirt, like one of those illustrated macho guys from the covers of 1950s men’s magazines. It’s so goddamn ludicrous, but it works wonderfully, because it’s Schwarzenegger and because Cameron has the vision to cinematize said star in such an exciting way and the technical skill to pull it off.

    The digital integration of that scene really is a marvel (yet another one of those eye-openers back in the early ‘90s that felt so new and cutting-edge) and I dig how Cameron maneuvers the aircraft to and fro, in proportion to his panning aerial shots. The action throughout the movie rises to such sensational heights until it crescendos with the main villain being rocketed through a building and into an enemy chopper. I honestly cannot think of a more perfect closing firework. The whole of it is how I imagined when playing with my G.I. Joes as a kid. To see such things fully realized on the big screen was, and still is, a boyish delight.

    That about does it. I think this movie’s rad.

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  8. Okay one on my things to watch---I've wanted to see this since it first came out. I know it was a clunker, but it was an early action comedy, I think, as we know them today: lots of set pieces, screwball humor than is wildly hit or miss.

    I didn't know Charlton Heston was in here! He must be playing Nick Fury from Marvel Comics...LOL. Actually, this is an excellent casting move on Cameron's part: Heston was probably the best blockbuster/action hero from the late 50s into the mid 70s: Ben-Hur, Moses, Planet of the Apes and Omega Man and Earthquake and Airport '75...
    And now he quasi-officially passes that torch to Arnie: Terminator, Predator, Conan, Commando, The Running Man, Eraser, Total Recall (my favorite of his action & SF films)...

    But Arnold has a second side, he's actually quite funny, and has played that to good use in several 'family' films---Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Junior, Jingle All the Way, Batman & Robin (the entire film massively parodies Batman, superheros and supervillains, and film blockbusters, even if it didn't set out to in the first place..).

    I actually think that what he does as Harry Tasker is only a matter of degree different than his role in Jingle All the Way, when he's trying to get this particular toy for his son for Christmas, and reconnect with his family.

    Jamie...well, I think she is still lovely today. She's a good dramatic actress and a good comedic actress. I think the sexy scenes are clear homage to her role as the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold role she had in Trading Places, as well as in the tv-movie Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story. (Trivia: Both Dorothy Stratten and Jamie Lee Curtis guested on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century!)

    A good review, John! And like all good reviews, it makes we want to see the film more than ever...warts and all!

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  9. Hi Cannon:

    I knew my review of True Lies would provide lots of "Cannon" fodder! :)

    And again, sir, you did not disappoint. I like your rhetorical gambits in your comment, terming True Lies an absurdist romp and simultaneously sincere. I do think you have a strong point there, but that the movie doesn't always pull off so delicate a dance.


    And you know, I have to cede you at least two points here. One, that this is a comedy, and that forgives at least to a large degree, the excessive abuse of power on Harry's part. I said as much in my review, and I still feel that way. This can be explained under the rubric of comedy and exaggeration, I think.

    Secondly, the atomic bomb thing. Looking back, my argument was weak. You're right (and you're devilishly clever for pulling up my own defense of Cameron a few weeks ago in regards to The Abyss), why not? It's another color with which he paints the nuclear age, and since this is a comedy...okay. Again, I cede you that point.

    I do also agree that Helen gets in her licks for Harry's bad behavior. You are right to point that out. But I still feel the bombardment of "bitch" jokes from Arnold takes a lot of fun right out of the picture. Cameron could have made all of his points ably without that. Like I said, it seems icky somehow, like there's a pathology at work here, not humor.

    But overall, I admire your defense and appreciation of True Lies and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. That's what this blog is for, and I'm always thrilled to see a film in a new light. You proved strongly at least two of your points, in my opinion.

    Thanks for another outstanding comment.

    best,
    JKM

    more to come...

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  10. It could also be that I’m just overly forgiving of this film. I stand by my points in theory, but in practice I can apprehend how they’re perhaps not enough to excuse or level out certain vibes that others might register as harsh or unpleasant. Nor will I deny the possibility, or even probability, that Cameron was purging a bit on the sidelines (with Gib) some adverse feelings from his rocky marital life.

    We’re each dialed in slightly differently – I can be markedly cold or brutish myself at times, so I’ve been told. *shrugs* This movie rubbed me not the wrong way. What I got from it were a lot of laughs and some sensational, high-tech action. It also helps (or doesn’t) that I’m a big fan of Schwarzenegger.

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  11. Hi Cannon,

    The more I think it about, the more I think your two big points about True Lies were spot-on. And as for Tom Arnold and the kind of nasty attitude about women, I can definitely see how mileage varies there. On a different day, maybe it wouldn't have bothered me so much...who knows.

    One thing's for sure: I share your affection for Arnold. I know he's in some deep shit right now, and he acted badly in regards to his family, but he's also given us 25 years of great action moments from Conan to Terminator, from Predator to Running Man, etc., etc. For me, he's right up there with Charlton Heston...and that's saying a lot!

    best,
    John

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