Schwarzenegger Month: True Lies

A quick sampling of the directorial career of James Cameron is in order. In 1991, Terminator 2: Judgment Day was released. It was the most expensive film ever made at that time. In 1994, True Lies was released. It was the most expensive film ever made at that time. In 1997, Titanic was released. It was the most expensive film ever made at that time. Two other films he directed, The Abyss and Avatar, were both wildly expensive, massive productions for their times. I’m sensing a pattern here. Put simply, James Cameron spares no expense.

In a film like True Lies, Cameron’s third collaboration with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the extravagance of the budget pays dividends. How much of that budget went to Arnold’s salary is an open question, but it was surely a lot. After all, in the ’90s, even Kurt Russell was landing $20 million paydays. Whatever was left over for the production was used brilliantly. Ever since The Abyss, Cameron had been upping the complexity and spectacle of his films. In True Lies, that meant explosions, car chases, helicopter chases, Harrier jets, and destroyed bridges. It meant combining traditional visual effects with early-era CGI with an emphasis on making it all look real. As outlandish as so much of the onscreen action was, only a small sum of it looked unreal.

As I wrote in the previous review, for Last Action Hero, an era was coming to a close in Hollywood, where the tough guy action star was being replaced by more human characters. Cameron and Schwarzenegger must have realized this, because even though the star of True Lies is so familiar, it’s a different Arnold we viewers see.

Arnold plays Harry Tasker, a secret agent working for the mysterious Omega Sector. The first sequence, the infiltration of a chateau during a black tie ball, is straight out of the James Bond playbook, right down to Tasker fleeing and being chased by gunmen on skis. Cameron was either paying homage to Bond, or showing he could do it better. I can’t tell, nor does it matter. Mission complete, Tasker returns to Washington. But rather than being a sophisticated playboy with expensive tastes, like Bond, Tasker is a family man. He has a wife and daughter waiting at home for him, both blissfully unaware of what he does for a living. As far as they know, he’s a sales rep for a computer company. Tasker is so committed to keeping up a façade as a boring everyman that that dullness has seeped into his family life and infected his wife, Helen. She, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, is bored and restless, leading to one of the longest diversions from main plot I’ve encountered in a story since all the meanderings in Don Quixote.

Tasker has a job. That job is hunting down terrorists. But when he finds out his wife may have been cheating on him, all thoughts of terrorism disappear, from both his mind and the movie. Tasker uses company resources to set up an operation to track his wife and her would-be lover. At one point in this movie, there was a bad guy who managed to get ahold of some rogue Soviet nukes, but that minor problem is nothing compared to an unhappy wife. For a while there, it feels like Cameron decided to ditch his original idea about a third of the way through and make this story about Tasker and Helen. But, Cameron knew what he was doing. This movie is about Tasker and Helen, and the terrorists have always been the subplot. Cameron does a skillful job weaving Tasker’s interactions with his wife back into the terrorism story, which sets up a final act that no fan of action movies should miss.

When I write about a sequel to another movie, I find it hard not to compare and contrast the two films. I did it this month, in fact, with the two Conan films. True Lies is not a sequel to Last Action Hero, but there are many similar aspects that Cameron handled better than John McTiernan, who directed the previous film. Cameron acknowledges action movie clichés, but unlike in Last Action Hero, he does so with a wink and nod. The film is fully conscious of its outrageous moments, and it works because it feels like the viewer is in on the joke, rather than having it served to them on a platter. McTiernan is no slouch behind the camera, but he was outdone by Cameron, to the extent that I wonder how Last Action Hero would have turned out had Cameron helmed it. I even wonder if True Lies was a response to that film, a way to show there was still room in Hollywood for indulgent action as long as it was self-aware.

Whatever underlies this production, the end result is quite good. True Lies is among the best films Arnold Schwarzenegger was ever in.