True Lies (1994) / Action-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for violence and some language
Running Time: 141 min.
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Tia Carrere, Charlton Heston
Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron
Review published March 7, 1997 (Re-reviewed April 8, 2015)
Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger, Last Action Hero) is a world class spy and also loving father and husband. He tells his family he's really a boring computer salesman, all the while protecting his country in breathtakingly amazing ways. His current mission leads him to try to bust an Arab terrorist group who have come into possession of some nuclear bombs and vow to nuke various US cities. In a subplot, Harry begins to suspect his oft-neglected wife (Curtis, Trading Places) is having an affair while he is away because she wants adventure in her life, and now Harry is about to give her some.
A remake of a film Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoyed, France's La Totale!, which he pitched to director James Cameron, who was looking for a project when his attempt at a Spider-Man film fell through, we find the action director taking a stab at his only comedy to date (he also scripted after the screenwriter originally hired wasn't up to his standards), which does have its amusing moments, even if the comedy occasionally crosses the line into mean-spiritedness for its characters who suffer some pretty difficult-to-laugh-at humiliation. During its theatrical run, women's groups pointed at its portrayal and treatment of women (Arnold quips, "Can't live with 'em, can't kill 'em") as misogynistic (a strip-tease involving Curtis had been found particularly gratuitous) and other groups for fostering stereotypes of Arabs. Cameron had planned a sequel, but after the events of 9/11, he shelved it permanently citing that terrorism had lost its comedic appeal.
Cameron and Arnie, coming off of the phenomenal international success for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, were granted the highest budget for any film up to that point, the first film with a production budget over the $100 million mark (Cameron would also be the first director to break $200 million three years later with Titanic.) The money shows on the screen, with some truly phenomenal and very expensive lengthy action segments that still rank among some of the very best.
At its core, it's a self-aware send-up of spy flicks, especially the Bond films, except mixed with a domestic comedy that explores what the home life of an international superspy might be like when he has to keep his occupation hidden from his own wife and child. Cameron's film is filled with many great moments, with terrific stunts, outstanding special effects, and some funny lines. But it's for the gargantuan set pieces, one involving a chase scene through the city streets on horseback, another a truck battle on top of the Florida Keys' Overseas Highway, and yet another a harrier attack among the high-rise buildings in Miami, that elevate this from hit-and-miss goofiness to a show-stopping action extravaganza. As with the James Bond films, don't analyze too closely or you'll miss out on the big-picture fun.
It isn't a perfect film. It is overlong (the mid-section involving Harry investigating his wife's potential affair is pretty saggy, even if Curtis herself is not - wow!), uneven and probably could have been better with a different cast. Arnold is probably miscast, but does his thing with style while Curtis is terrific in probably her best performance in years. The supporting cast of Arnold, Tia Carrere (Wayne's World 2) and Charlton Heston (Tombstone) tend to distract from, rather than enhance the story. Lots of funny moments and thrilling action more than make up for its flaws, but it's still a shame to think that with a bit of trimming and tightening this could have been an all-time action classic, instead of the film that, with the possible exception of The Abyss, gets most overlooked in James Cameron's blockbuster filmography.
©1997, 2015 Vince Leo