Updated: Oct 14, 2020
In a nutshell: Super secret agent Harry Tasker is conducting dangerous missions around the globe. His wife, Helen, thinks he’s a boring IT salesman and yearns for excitement. Harry is trying to track down a Middle Eastern terrorist cell, whilst also using work resources to spy on Helen, who he fears is having an affair. Unwittingly, this leads to a situation where Harry’s home life and work-life merge with dangerous consequences.
I.e. The one where Arnie does James Bond.
Arnold Schwarzenegger became a global star through a variety of action films. Towards the end of the 80s, he would venture into comedy projects like Twins and Kindergarten Cop. James Cameron, whilst a man for a penchant for hardened women, nuclear threats and military action, always had elements of humour in his films. Be it the T-800’s response to an angry landlord chosen from a multiple-choice list “Fuck you…asshole” or the marines bickering banter in Aliens. Even if Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a bigger affair than it’s predecessor, it also had lighter moments, especially as Arnie’s reprogrammed cyborg tries to “be more human”.
So it’s great to see in their third (and most likely final) collaboration, they really dial-up both the comedy and action spectacle. Many may be unaware True Lies is actually a remake of French comedy Le Totale! (1991). What’s more surprising is that it was a passion project for Arnie, who brought it to the attention of his good friend Cameron. It’s not hard to see why it caught Arnie’s interest, like most males, he had grown up watching Bond films and this was his chance to do his own version, that played to his strengths. On paper it does sound like fan fiction; “It’s a James Bond film, but Arnie’s playing Bond and it’s directed by James Cameron!”
“Here’s my invitation…”
This is a film that isn’t afraid to show it’s affection for the Bond franchise. From the very beginning, we have a Bond-style “cold open” complete with the old tuxedo under the wetsuit gag and bastards-in-balaclavas on skis. Like Bond, Harry Tasker is a confident, almost brash spy – instead of blending into the crowd (tricky, when you’re a beefcake…), he goes on the charm offensive, commanding your attention. It’s a joy to see Arnie so charming, clearly enjoying himself and playing up his comedy credentials.
The comedy is further dialled up with Tom Arnold’s “man-in-the-van” radio assistance. Tom Arnold’s style of humour may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it really works well against Arnie’s confident demeanour. It’s clear the two actors have chemistry as they endless bicker and banter – you genuinely believe they’ve been working together for years.
It goes without saying that Cameron delivers on the action spectacle but equally adept at the other plot thread the film juggles – Harry’s home life. The Bond-esque glitz, glamour and action are replaced with Harry’s familial trivialities like a bored wife and a rebellious teenage daughter. As a spy, Harry is in control, as a husband and father, he’s out of touch. Thankfully, it’s not long before we’re served more action – first gritty and thrilling, with a brutal bathroom brawl that precedes both Casino Royale and Mission: Impossible Fallout, then a tad too silly with Arnie chasing a terrorist on horseback.
“I have to lie to women to get laid, and I don’t score much. I got a little dick, it’s pathetic!”
Arguably the film does become a little bloated in the second act trying to juggle family and spy dramas, but fortunately, it’s also it’s funniest, with both Jamie Lee Curtis and Cameron-regular Bill Paxton on top form with their failed attempts at courting. Curtis’ role as Helen is a key player in making the film work. It’s a hilarious character transformation that goes from mousy mum, role-playing a sexy secret agent then to fish-out-of-water bafflement when it’s revealed Harry is actually the super spy.
Paxton steals the show with his sleazy con-man, come used car dealer. Like Helen, we get to see different sides of his character, whether it’s the smooth and serious spy, the eager salesmen, to the sad loser wetting himself.
“I married Rambo…”
The third act main is Cameron demonstrating his flair for action spectacle with the explosive theatrics unfolding in front of bewildered Helen. Cameron throws everything at the screen; rockets, flamethrowers and an Uzi – literally in the latter case. The Florida Keys bridge set piece has practically become a trope in spy movies, featuring in both Licence to Kill and Mission: Impossible 3. For me, it’s executed best here with Cameron’s eye for destruction using a great mix of physical and miniature special effects.
The final set-piece, with Arnie taking out a skyscraper full of terrorists with a harrier jet is again veering on the ridiculous side, yet also gleefully thrilling. Cameron tight ramps up the tension with Dana dangling from a crane whilst Aziz and Harry grapple on the harrier. Brad Fiedel’s bombastic score helps up the ante.
Looking back, the portrayal of the villains is one of the film’s main weaknesses. Cameron tries to make his terrorists equally terrifying, misogynist and slapdash which results in some questionable racial stereotypes. Due to the heightened fears of terrorism in today’s climate, it’s unlikely we’d see anything like it in today’s action cinema. It’s the main reason Cameron has ruled out a sequel, as he puts fairly bluntly “terrorists aren’t fun anymore”. I’m not sure if they ever were, to begin with, Jim….
It was always going to be an impossible task to top Terminator 2 but it’s great to see the star and director try something different and there’s a lot to enjoy in True Lies. Arnie is in his element, with great comic support from Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Arnold.
Coulda Woulda Shoulda: The role of Helen Tasker was written for Jamie Lee Curtis, even though many actresses auditioned for it, including Jodie Foster
Alternate Title: I’ll be Bond!
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