Director / Script: James Cameron (from La Totale!) / Editing: Conrad Buff / DP: Russell Carpenter / Music: Brad Fiedel
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger / Jamie Lee Curtis / Tom Arnold / Bill Paxton / Tia Carrere / Art Malik / Eliza Dushku / Grant Heslov
The years haven’t been kind.
There are some things that age well (red wine, Pierce Brosnan and my old pair of Oxfords being just three examples) and some that don’t. Twenty years since I last watched True Lies, I thought it might be another classic waiting to be rediscovered but alas, it’s as cheesy as over-ripe Brie.
As I recall, James Cameron (he of later Titanic & Avatar fame) had enjoyed so much success with his two previous collaborations with Arnie (Terminator 1 & 2), that it seemed natural to want to complete the hat-trick. But with no appetite (or story) for a third outing of the T-800, Cameron’s thoughts turned towards more conventional action and a remake of French film La Totale!, in which a spy ends up involving his unsuspecting wife in a mission. Cameron secured a grandiose budget for the venture, that allowed for (then really-expensive) CGI, big practical FX and other bells and whistles to elevate the picture over others in the genre.
It begins promisingly enough, with a nicely judged infiltration of a Swiss chateau by agent Harry Tasker (Arnie), that’s channelling Bond so hard, you wonder if all this effort is nothing more than a calling card with which to impress EON Productions and land JC the plum job he really wanted all along: ‘Hey Barbara! Look, Michael! See what I can do!’ Then Arnie starts blowing-up barrels of kerosene and knocking-out Dobermans and you’re left scratching your head. So much for the calling card theory: from here-on, we’re in different territory to 007.
So Arnie gets home, aided by Gibson (Tom Arnold, in a snarky performance that grates at every turn) and Faisal (Grant Heslov, who’d put all this nonsense behind him, when he became George Clooney’s production partner). Wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a mousey, shlubby legal-secretary and as oblivious to Harry’s ‘true life’ as their daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku) is to either of them. It’s the modern, uncommunicative nuclear family: oh, such irony.
Business done, we’re off to Harry’s office: ‘Omega Sector: the Last Line of Defense’ and Cameron’s wet-dream of what the HQ of an undisclosed agency
might should look like; it’s a vision that surely informed the Men in Blacks and Mission: Impossibles that followed. No wonder that NRA poster-boy Charlton Heston looks so comfortable here, with his characterful eyepatch and cheeky quippage. You can keep the gun-range: when it comes to defending America, this is the only place Chuck wants to be.
After putting-off the moment for as long as he dared, Cameron finally gets down to brass tacks. Juno Skinner (the sultry Tia Carrere) makes a living smuggling arms; for money, rather than any cause – like any true Capitalist, it’s her only allegiance. They’re hidden inside ancient antiquities, the dealing of which gives her business legitimacy; we’ve all been there, haven’t we?
This time around, she’s imported a few ex-Soviet nuclear warheads (into, err, Florida), for twitchy numbskull and self-proclaimed leader of Crimson Jihad (catchy name), Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik, pulling from his wardrobe a set of khaki fatigues that last saw action in The Living Daylights).
Salim’s a man of many skills. He can slap Juno’s face, hard, without any qualms (because he’s a terrorist? A Muslim? A misogynist? All three?) and he’s handy with a Kawasaki, too; riding it through Central Park and into the Marriott hotel, hoping to shake-off Harry, who’s in-pursuit aboard a police horse… The sequence works well though, with a dramatic jumping-off point as its conclusion and it’s a pity that the first act ends here: I could’ve taken another hour of this until the credits rolled, but terrorists scampering around in a high-rise with a lone agent in-pursuit? Well, that would be Die Hard and another movie entirely.
As it is, we then chunder into Act 2, with a disturbing revelation: Shock! Horror! Helen appears to be having an affair and Harry appears devastated in-turn, but I wonder if that’s because he was the only one in the family supposedly capable of keeping a secret and leading a double life?
Now, Harry switches Omega’s gaze to his wife and uses Agency resources to eavesdrop on the Other Man. This would be Simon (Bill Paxton, in a thankless part for old mate Cameron), who turns out to be a used-car dealer with a cool ‘vette and a string of bullshit to support his sad fiction, to wit: that he’s a spy who’s working deep, deep undercover. Hilarity then ensues, when Harry leads a snatch-squad out to Simon’s trailer-park home to abduct them both. After humiliating Simon atop a bleedin’ dam of all places, his capturers leave him there, in his (soiled) boxers, but reserve the First Class treatment for Helen, who they place in a barren interrogation cell with nothing but a barstool.
With a voice-changing microphone disguising their real selves, Helen’s subjected to a string of insensitive, personal questions from both Gibson and Harry – her frickin’ husband – that not unreasonably, lead to her smashing the two-way mirror with the stool. Simon was the definition of a lounge lizard, but really: this is where it takes us? It’s just more misogynistic behaviour from two men in a position of unaccountable power, meted-out against one of their wives; not even a stranger.
But it’s not over yet. In a perpetuation of their own power fantasy (making themselves little better than Simon, but in possession of higher clearance), Harry & Gibson then concoct a ‘mission’ in which Helen must impersonate a prostitute, visit her regular client in his hotel suite and plant a bug in his ‘phone. Oh, and err, ’he likes to watch’. UGH. Apparently oblivious to the mess she’s in, Helen gets the call and, just like Nikita, she gussies herself-up and goes out to work. In the corridor outside the suite, she tears the ruffles from her dress, applies red lippy and slicks back her hair with water from a vase.
Unlike Nikita, however, I’ve already stopped caring. Two hours before, she was still the same legal secretary who’s only claim to having an inner life worthy of note was her red Honda CRX. Now she’s this? Nope. Anyhow, she enters the suite. Lights are off and Sadé’s on the stereo. there’s a cracking fire in the grate. And there’s a bloke in an armchair, who’s face is cloaked in shadow.
It’s Harry, of course and he’s got a Walkman playing out her instructions, as recorded by a French colleague. That’s how he gets her to strip down to her undies and dance solo for him. More disbelief from me at this point, at the forced voyeurism and general poor taste. Is this what he thinks of his wife and mother of his daughter? She might get to kick him in the balls in the end, but why stop there, Helen? Unlike Bond, that’s aimed at a general audience, Lies appears to have been pitched almost exclusively to teenage boys; it’s a fantasy as much as Bond, but its heart isn’t there. Bond fights for Queen and Country, whereas Harry has merely co-opted wife Helen into the ultimate marriage-saving, kinky role-playing fantasy.
Thus endeth the Second Act.
The Third has an unexplained ‘Deus-Ex’ intervention for its opening, as our two lovebirds are duly abducted from their suite before Helen can really get going on that overdue revenge-thing. Yep, it’s Juno’s lot and they’ve stuck H + H onto a private jet heading into Salim’s grateful clutches; all to create another gaping plot-hole: how did they KNOW that H + H would be there? If there’s an answer, can someone let me know?
A spiky exchange between Helen & Juno sets things up between them, to be resolved later, but first we have to see Salim’s rag-tag ‘army’ retrieve the nukes from the statues (not the first time we’ve seen Islamic ‘warriors’ destroy priceless relics from past cultures). Malik does his best in the role, but did Cameron really have to draw his character so thinly? It’s a one-note, jingoistic caricature of a role, lacking all context; no wonder middle America took this movie’s simplistic message to its heart.
As if to underline his villainous credentials, Salim puts a ‘demonstration’ nuke into a pit, drapes it with Old Glory and seals it with concrete: sacrilege to many. He can’t be all bad, though: after all, he tolerate seeing Juno scamper about in her cleavage-revealing dress; quite liberal for one of such severe persuasion…
At last, then, the Climax. Or at least its foreplay. The fight between Juno and Helen, in the back of a limo with a brainless chauffeur at the wheel. The back-projection throughout the in-car bits of the sequence is so atrocious I almost wonder if Cameron meant it to be this way. Then again, he really does demolish a section of (real) bridge once linking the Florida Keys and covers it well.
It’s as if one awful piece of FX has to cancel out a good bit, as if to appease the FX Gods; achieve a Zen-like balance or something. Once again, Helen fights like a junkyard dog and I believe it even less second-time around, as if that’s even possible. Her reconciliation with Harry, set against the detonation of the demo nuke is the funniest thing so far and that’s not saying much when you think of it. And then she’s off; presumably to get a much-needed shower and peel-off that damn dress.
Climax Part Deux, sees Harry commandeer a Harrier jump-jet and rendezvous with Salim & kidnapped daughter atop a skyscraper. After shooting-the-shit out of its windows, they reconvene at a rooftop construction crane, but the CGI is again so appalling here (honestly, the lighting of the jet makes it look like it’s flown-in from another film), that it detracted from Cameron’s intent, which was this: ‘how many twists can I put into a fight on-top of a jump-jet?’ For readers kept awake at night by questions such as this, the answer is ‘too many’. Still, at least Salim goes out in a poetic blaze of glory and Arnie gets to look heroic (his shirt’s been artfully ripped for a while and, you know, it’s Arnie. If he can’t carry the lines, let his wardrobe and sheer presence do the talking).
And then it ends.
Except it doesn’t, as we then have to sit through a pointless coda: ‘A Year Later’. H + H are now doing jobs together! As a proper team and everything! And to prove it, Cameron has them dance the same expressive tango, in a similar ballroom, as that enjoyed by Harry & Juno in Act One, all those long minutes ago. Cameron’s so happy with this visual homily, that he can’t drag himself away. So, as an increasingly whiny V.O. from Gibson grates on, he runs the damn credits beside the dancers. Oh Death, where is thy sting?
That this tosh won awards, says more about the movie business as it used to be, than about the film’s problems. Remember, this was a time when Gulf War #1 had led America to believe it could do no wrong; that it was a Force For Good in the World. Not for nothing, was it thought of as ‘the World’s policeman’; the global taste-maker of popular culture.
That such behaviour on-screen could once have been thought acceptable is a surprise, going back to the film after so many years. I suspect I’m not the only one dismayed. After all, since 9/11 and the decade-long ‘War On Terror’, the themes, attitudes and responses shown in the picture, have all been either superseded by events, new-found temperance or both. We live in a different world, now. A fragile web of interdependence, in which blinkered xenophobia increasingly has no place, lest it upset that balance. Are we better for it? Who’s to say, but if film is a response to the times in which we live, then maybe we really are better off without pictures like this.
I remember the first time I got blown out of a cannon.
True Lies Triple Word / Score: Ugly / Cruel / Reductive / Four