“Harry? Harry? You do not have time to tango, buddy. You copy?”
Dir. James Cameron
Runtime: 141 minutes
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Art Malik, Tia Carrere
When this was released in 1994, I remember this film having stiff competition at the box office; “Forrest Gump”, “The Lion King”, “Dumb and Dumber”, “Clear and Present Danger”, “Speed”, “The Mask”, “Pulp Fiction”, “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”, “Interview with a Vampire”, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” – there was a massive amount of Blockbuster films that year – and yes, I am old enough to remember it. In addition to cinema releases, the video rental market was still big business and independent films were massive in 1994 too. For “True Lies” to be the 3rd highest grossing film of the year speaks of how successful it was when audiences could have been distracted by other massive films or the temptation to stay at home and watch a video rental.
So, as I haven’t watched it for at least a year, I decided to re-watch “True Lies” so I can get a blog written about it.
Harry Tasker (Arnie), and his wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) live in the suburbs with their daughter Dana (Eliza Dushka). Harry is a computer salesman, something that Helen thinks is dull, but at least she has a reliable husband. On a daily basis he goes off to work with his colleague Albert Gibson (Tom Arnold) while she does the same and secretly dreams of more excitement in her life. One day that excitement comes into her life courtesy of Simon (Bill Paxton), somebody claiming to be a spy. Harry finds evidence suggesting his wife is having an affair and does some investigating, which is simple enough for him to do because he’s a secret government agent working on a task force that is trailing stolen nuclear weapons. During a sting that Harry arranges to catch his wife and the ‘spy’, terrorists who Harry had been tracking, manages to catch Harry and his wife. Everything is flipped on it’s head as Helen learns the truth about Harry being a spy for 17 years, who he has been dancing the tango with (Tia Carrere), and how many bad guys he’s killed. The terrorists they are imprisoned by are Led by Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik) the terrorist plan to use the weapons they have acquired send a message to the Western World by attacking Florida.
… or… here’s a summary in 180 characters or less…
A secret agents home world spills into his professional world when he tries to uncover if his wife is having an affair.
In 1994 the conveyor belt of Arnie/Action films brought audiences “True Lies”. It is more subtle than some of the dark action films Arnie starred in during the 1980’s, and it seems that his attempt to transition into more family orientated action films was a success after starting the move with films like “Twins” (1988), “Kindergarten Cop” (1990), and “Last Action Hero” (1993). Prior to this film Arnie had worked with the director James Cameron before, unless you lived under a rock you should know that that was with “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”.
This film though is not an original concept, it is based on a French film from 1991 called “La totale!” which was directed by Claude Zidi and featured Thierry Lhermitte as the Harry character (called François Voisin in that), and Miou-Miou as the Helen character (called Hélène Voisin in that). The story is pretty much the same, the central character is a secret agent, his wife is fooled by a car salesman, and there is a terrorist plot too. Normally Hollywood sees something it can remake and then ends up ruining it. In the case of “True Lies” and “La totale!” that does not feel like the case for a change – feel free to argue with me about that!
While Arnie is the headliner in this film it is Jamie Lee Curtis that steals the show in my opinion. The Austrian is his usual self; more comfortable looking in the action scenes than the family scenes, taking down the bad guys, and dishing out the occasional quip. He gets some lovely scenes to act in, like the tango he performs with Tia Carrere – which was apparently more difficult to rehearse than the action scenes. There is the horse chase sequence which ends up in the shopping mall too. And of course, there are lots of punch-ups and guns being shot.
The writing for the Helen character (Jamie Lee Curtis) is more solid than the headlined Arnie in this film, in my opinion. It demonstrates more development, and her character arc takes her from one person and by the end of the film she is completely changes as an individual. She is given some fun and bumbling scenes to play with, some lightweight action, some great dialogue, and of course, if you have seen this, you will know she gets to do a sexy dance for her on-screen husband too. Remember though, it is a family movie, so as sensual as she comes across in that later scene, she still manages to elicit a comedy moment.
A film is only as good as it’s supporting cast and only as good as it’s villains so let’s take a moment to appreciate them. Tom Arnold for example, he is a great buffer to Arnie in this, he is lighthearted and offers additional comedy elements. Bill Paxton manages to convince us that his character is as strong as a wet lettuce. Tia Carrere’s Juno Skinner is a wonderful femme fatale; ultimately as deadly as she is good looking – but she herself is being manipulated and controlled by the main villain of the piece – Art Maliks Salim Abu Aziz. While the Malik’s character may not be the most threatening that has faced off again Arnie on screen, he is tough and focused. Malik plays him well, like a lot of the bad guy roles he generally plays and brings a lot of presence to the character. On a side note, Charlton Heston makes a good “Avengers” style Nick Fury in this film, he only gets a small part, but it is entertaining all the same. He is playing the head of the Omega Sector, and he famously starred in “The Omega Man” (1971).
With lots of action, effects, and excitement gracing the film, it is no surprise to find a fun soundtrack and score attached to the film. In fact, there was a lot of goodness about this film, so much so in fact that it had a knock-on effect with other films. The James Bond spy thriller film “GoldenEye” (1995) was delayed and rewritten slightly because of this film. There is more to the James Bond comparison though – the production designer who made some of the set pieces on this was Peter Lamont, who also did the same role on “For Your Eyes Only” (1981) and “Casino Royale” (2008). It was decided that there were a lot of similarities between the two so parts of the James Bond film were changed. Speaking of spy films, it’s said that the tango scene in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (2005) is a homage to the tango scene that Arnie dances in this with Tia Carrere.
On the downside of all the goodness and fun this film brings there was some controversy too, it could be seen as sexist, cruel, and slightly misogynistic in the way Helen is stalked and frightened by Harry. He uses government resources to ultimately get his wife to do an erotic dance for him in a show of power and dominance. The way that the film makes caricatures out of it’s Arabic/Muslim terrorist is a 1990’s way of thinking and isn’t necessarily relevant I modern perceptions. With things like this, it is important to remember that society and its consciousness has moved on in a big way, at the time it did not mean to be offensive, the world just was not as learned as it is now. Cameron even denied in interviews that the film was racist, he just needed convenient villains and could easily have “picked Irish terrorists”. Taken individually these kinds of things might cause some offence, but in the grand scheme of the film as a platform for entertaining, they were not enough for me dislike the film.
“True Lies” may not be a masterpiece when compared to Arnie’s previous work or James Cameron’s other pieces, but it is an entertaining action film which does not take itself too seriously. It is simple enough that anyone can watch in and follow along, and it has some fun sequences in it too. Some of the special effects on show are great, and the craftsman ship when it comes to stunts is as good as most of Hollywood’s Summer blockbusters – it has chase scenes, aerial acrobatics, and great choreography.
Despite being a long film at 141 minutes, the film rarely struggles to maintain pace. It plays out beautifully in 3 acts which all offer their own memorable elements. While it might not be the best film that Cameron or Arnie have done, it is hardly a failure by any stretch of the imagination. It demonstrates that both understand how to construct a movie which puts bums on seats and smiles on faces.