True Lies: James Cameron’s Actioner, Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger

Though not as irksome and irritating as Last Action Hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s debacle of last summer, his new endeavor, True Lies, which is directed by James Cameron, is basically the same kind of movie: a huge action machine. I say machine and not film, because everything is oversized, overproduced, and overbudgeted (the film’s cost is over $100 million).

Framed as a James Bond yarn, True Lies actually packs three different stories in one movie–give the audience their money’s worth. And since director Cameron is also the screenwriter, there’s no one else to blame for juggling adrenaline-like action sequences just for the sake of thrilling the audience.

In this outing, Schwarzenegger plays Harry Tasker, a man who suffers from split personality. At home, he seems to be the gentle, sensitive husband-father. His wife of 15 years, Helen (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) believes he’s a just a salesman dedicated to his work, failing to realize that Harry is actually a top secret agent. Harry works for a company called Omega Sector, whose logo is “the Last Line of Defense.”

It’s James Cameron’s first film since the l992 megahit Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which also starred Schwarzenegger, so obviously the expectations are higher than the usual. Claiming Aliens and The Abyss to his credit, Cameron is after all Hollywood’s premier action director.
The movie begins rather promisingly, as a spoof of suburban banality and mendacity. Lacking respect for her dad, Harry’s daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku) is not beyond “borrowing” some money from his wallet. The first scene, inspired by Sean Connery’s Goldfinger, is amusing enough, as Harry crashes an elegant party in order to read some secret computer files.

Schwarzenegger even pays homage to Al Pacino’s famous tango (in Scent of a Woman), when he takes the floor with a beautiful art deal (Tia Carrere). And his escape from this estate is brilliantly staged–the way Schwarzenegger handles two vicious dogs is particularly funny.

Harry’s partner Gib (Tom Arnold), who is given the best lines, provides the comic energy, particularly in the scenes where he ignites Schwarzenegger’s jealousy of his wife. But after an hour and a half of comedy and mostly overproduced action, the final segment of the movie, which is replete with special effects, turns gory–and silly.

I am not a champion of imposing political correctness in the arts, but the portrayal of Muslims in True Lies is borderline racist. Islamic religion is used as a convenient symbol of evil. And the heavies, who are all Arabs, play stereotypical characters–Harry’s nemesis, Aziz, is depicted as a renegade Islamic terrorist.

True Lies could be accused of sexism as well, particularly in the scene where Jamie Lee Curtis, who’s suspected of carrying an adulterous affair, is humiliatingly asked to perform a sexy number in front of her husband, who’s in disguise. This sexist portrayal surprised me, for Cameron was the first filmmaker to use actresses (Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2) as strong action heroines.

So what’s left: I’ll give Cameron the credit for orchestrating action scenes that are more inventive and more original than those other current blockbusters (Speed, Blown Away). But whereas Speed is a taut suspenseful movie, True Lies has an incoherent tone; its action and comedy elements don’t always work together.

True Lies acknowledges its debt to a French movie (La Totale), but as I mentioned, it’s more of a James Bond-like movie, or even Superman, in which Christopher Reeve also had a double life and spilt personality. As for Schwarzenegger’s acting, over the years he seems to have developed some proficiency and technical skills, but there’s also a quality of sameness no matter what role he plays; perhaps it’s his Austrian accent or the way he carries his huge frame of a body.