Never let it be said that James Cameron isn’t a man who doesn’t test his limitations – and I’m not just talking about him bankrolling numerous undersea expeditions just so he can get nose to nose with the actual wreck of the Titanic or various species of deep sea lifeforms. However, in 1994, Hollywood’s most confident man put his past works of killer robots and undersea extraterrestrials aside to climb a mountain one wouldn’t usually expect him to scale:.the action comedy. You see, when it comes to activating the old funny bone, Cameron is about adept as fellow visionary, Steven Spielberg; they can do funny really well, but neither actually is funny – that is to say that apart from some well placed humour in their action/fantasy extravaganzas, you’d never expect either of them to tackle a full blown comedy. And yet, with his buddy, Arnold Schwarzenegger by his side, Cameron forged ahead with a devastatingly huge budget to make, what is in essence, is a James Bond parody – could the man who ratcheted tensions to an all time high with Aliens do funny?
Harry Tasker is an insanely seasoned super-spy who regularly saves the world as a member of a top secret counter-terrorism unit and can successfully infiltrate fancy criminal parties in Switzerland despite being built like a Sherman tank and owning an Austrian accent even thicker than one of his veiny biceps; but there’s one aspect of his life that isn’t working at optimum efficiency – his home life. It’s not that Harry and his wife Helen don’t get on, but years of keeping his work a secret from his spouse has left her bored and lonely as the secret agent jets all over the globe in the guise of seemingly mundane sales meetings. Somewhat oblivious to his wife’s malaise and the growing rebeliousness of his teen daughter Dana, Harry suddenly gets a wake up call when he stumbles on information that suggests that Helen is having an affair, but when he uses his spy resources to check it out, he finds that she’s being wooed by a slimy used car salesman named Simon whose insanely ironic modus operandi is to pretend to be a secret agent in order to ensnare bored housewives. Much to the alarm of Albert Gibson, his sleazy best friend and fellow agent, Harry gives the green light to use even more agency resources (including troops and helicopters) to get revenge on Simon and finally add some excitement in Helen’s life by giving her a mock mission to accomplish.
However, this is causing Tasker to take his eye off the actual mission: the smuggling of nuclear weapons into the US by vicious terrorist, Salim Abu Aziz. Captured by Aziz’s men at the end of Helen’s fake mission, both Harry and his wife find themselves at the mercy of the Crimson Jihad – can Harry save the world with numerous neck snap and a fighter jet while saving his marriage with a far more elusive weapon: the truth?
Loosely based on the 1991 French comedy La Totale! (I strongly doubt there’s a moment where a screaming terrorist is launched through a building while attached to a Sidewinder missile), it’s clear that James Cameron’s intention with this wilfully ludicrous action romp is to homage the (then) stalled Bond franchise while simultaneously making memories of Roger Moore’s deliriously camp antics virtually obsolete. It’s to his credit that he does so with aplomb (with a previously unheard of $100 million budget, he’d fucking better have) with True Lies featuring mindblowing action that proudly still holds up today and a tone that slickly balances Schwarzenegger’s ability to puree bad guys with his blossoming talents as a comedic leading man.
However, before we start heaping kudos on those action sequences and the rich comedic vein mined by some extraordinarily questionable husbanding, there’s a few issues we’re going to have to address first with the first being that Cameron seems to think that two hours and twenty minutes is a perfectly normal running time for a knockabout comedy. Now, I realise that we currently live in a time where the jokey stylings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe make a numb butt something worth pushing through, but back in 1994, Cameron wasn’t willing to budge an inch, devoting equal attention to the farcical comedy plot as he does the extended explodey shit which makes the running time balloon wildly like that fat guy in Monty Python’s Meaning Of Life. It’s exhausting, yet genuinely exhilarating stuff, but I can’t help but feel that True Lies yields better results if you’d had a little bit to drink, allowing you to zone in and out until something extra cool or extra funny happens.
Another curious sticking point is that one or two aspects of the story simply haven’t aged well, with the comedy, bumbling middle eastern terrorist trope deployed with reckless abandon in a way that just feels horribly dated in the light of everything that’s happened since 9/11. Also, while it’s ably carried out with comedic performances, when viewed through a slightly more sober lens, it becomes noticable that Harry’s treatment of Helen is nothing short of fucking awful as he mentally torments her and puts her in all manner of fucked up situations simply because he’s been a neglectful shit. Matters aren’t particularly helped by the fact that he’s being egged on by his misogynistic, douchebag, many times divorced, Tom Arnold-type partner (played unsurprisingly by Tom Arnold) who constantly describes most women as bitches – but in the other hand, if farcical plots all dealt with nice people acting rationally, they would only be twelve minutes long.
This brings us to the performances and everyone here is firing on all cylinders with Arnie in particular relishing pushing his action/comedy credentials to an impressive degree. Whether cheerfully caving in the nose of the odious Simon (an apocalyptically skeezy Bill Paxton) in a daydream, or dopily confessing everything to his wife while under the influence of a truth serum, he still gets to be tremendously funny while still popping more spines than a chiropractor on blow. Matching him us Jamie Lee Curtis who defuses her screeching heroine role with similarly impressive comedy chops and even causes celluloid to smolder as channels her character’s goofiness into an infamous dance scene that even rivals Salma Hayek’s legendary moment from From Dusk Till Dawn.
And then there’s those action beats and to steal a Bondian saying, nobody does it better than Cameron. The scale of the thing is crazy-big as the director orchestrates mind-boggling stunts that dwarfs even the cunch and smash of Terminator 2. Goggle in awe as a truck vainly tries to outrun a missile strike as it obliterates the bridge in its wake; let your jaw drop as Arnie tears up a suspiciously clean public restroom in a toilet-based brawl that pre-dates the arm-reloading one from Mission: Impossible: Fallout; choke on the heart that’s in your mouth as the flick stages a stunning limousine/helicopter rescue and simply lose your fucking mind as Cameron shoots an entire action sequence as Tasker pilots a AV-8B Harrier jet above the city while simultaneously fight off Art Malick’s charismatic villain while trying to save his daughter (a near unrecognizable Eliza Dushku). It’s stomping stuff and more than enough to paper over those earlier cracks and yet despite all of its legitimate awesomeness, there’s a sense that Cameron’s switch to broad humour may have provided one of his less accomplished endeavors, but even when the director is having a bit of a giggle (only Cameron could have a laugh to the cost of $100 million), he’s still light years ahead on his contemporaries.
True Lies truthfully rules. Fact.