Saturday, July 30, 2016

Arnold Schwarzenegger Day: 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'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 career of Cameron, 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 James Cameron film except Titanic, True Lies also features a nuclear weapon in some capacity.


  1. woodchuckgod5:49 PM

    New topic : Introducing a nuclear weapon into a remake of Titanic, just to get the perfect record. Discuss the ramifications!

    (Fun review series today, by the way :D)

  2. Fantastic analysis that really gets to the heart of the dramatic and tonal inconsistencies that always bugged me about the film (especially the nuclear bomb going off with seemingly no consequences).

    But that being said, what is arguably Camerons's weakest film (Piranha 2 doesn't count), is still a spectacular piece of entertainment. Nobody can stage and execute an action sequence like Cameron. And his visual style is visceral, but so pure and clean, you actually see and feel exactly what is going on every second. As opposed to today's shoot everything in extreme close-up, shake the camera around, and cut every .0008 seconds that most directors favor.

    Yeah, he committed the unforgivable sin with "Avatar" of actually making a film with a positive message and critical theme and subtext about the beauty of nature and animals and saving what little is left so that the earth can remain habitable. And reminded everyone about that other original American sin. How dare he!

    I have said since 1986 that James Cameron is the most talented director I have ever seen, (of course the case could be made for several others, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Lean, Kubrick, Spielberg etc).

    It will be very interesting to see what he does with the "Avatar" sequels.