True Lies (M, 141 minutes) Directed by James Cameron ***½
Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) lives a double life.
His wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter Dana (Eliza Dusku) think he is a boring computer salesman who regularly has to go out of town for conferences. However, the truth is that “Harry Renquist” is actually a spy for a secret government agency.
However, these two existences collide when Harry discovers that his wife may be having an affair with – ironically – someone posing as a spy (when he’s actually a used car salesman).
Unable to prevent his jealousy from taking over, Harry’s subsequent actions lead his family to fall into the clutches of an Islamic terrorist group – the Crimson Jihad – and their fanatical leader Azizi (Art Malik).
After protecting his nearest and dearest from harm by lying to them for the past 15 years, Harry must now tell the truth – or risk losing them forever.
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Long before James Cameron discovered the dramatic potential of doomed romances on board and Pandora’s moon, he was best known for his ability to create crowd-pleasing cinematic thrill rides – such as Aliens and Terminator 2 – that also contained action-packed scenes. like lots of pyrotechnics and bullets galore.
This 1994 blockbuster was his version of a James Bond film, at a time when 007 was going bankrupt (1989’s regrettable License to Kill had almost killed the franchise).
But Cameron also knew how to differentiate his action films from what was a crowded marketplace in the early to mid-’90s. What other film from that era features Arnie cracking one-liners, an homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and Curtis performing a very sultry striptease?
The latter is one of two very disturbing aspects of the film (especially seen through a modern, more enlightened lens) – the other being its portrayal of Aziz and other Iranian factional radical “villains”. They take hostages, make demands and blow things up, but we never find out at any age what they really want and are portrayed as less-than-competent (it’s not hard to see why they attracted a lot of complaints at the time of the film’s release ).
That said, they highlighted some of the problems with being a terrorist in the 90s. In the middle of his speech with important demands, Aziz’s video camera batteries run out, while, just like the real General Aidid, CNN is the ones to reveal their hiding place.
Of course, as it is in Hollywood, True Lies wasn’t an original thought (although the inspiration is a little more direct than the Avatar series’ alleged Smurfs-meets-Ferngully). This was based on the 1991 French film La Totale (where the hero worked for a telephone company), although it arguably also has many similarities to the 60s TV series The Man From Uncle.
Together with the same year’s Junior, this was perhaps Schwarzenegger’s last major role. Sure, his character is less than heroic, especially towards his wife, but that actually makes him more interesting than the one-dimensional, seemingly bulletproof characters he would gravitate towards for the rest of the decade – and beyond
And besides, like Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, Curtis’ Helen Tasker is strengthened from within and ends up giving as good as she can. By the end, she is just as capable of mass destruction as her husband.
After emulating what he currently does for nearly three decades, in True Lies, Cameron achieved an insane budget (it was apparently the first film to cost more than US$100 million to make), but gave audiences a spectacle that, although it was narratively flawed, certainly gave audiences a lot of bang for their buck.
True Lies is now available to stream on Disney+.