True Lies (1994) Directed by James Cameron. With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Art Malik, Bill Paxton, Eliza Dushku and Tia Carrere.
In 1994, $115m was a lot of money to spend on a non-franchise film. After the relative flop that was The Last Action Hero, not even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s huge name could guarantee bums on seats. James Cameron and Schwarzenegger re-team for the third time with this action caper loosely based on the French comedy, La Totale! After huge success together with the Terminator series, the actor-director duo make a foray into notably lighter territory with a film that refuses to entertain the notion of taking itself at all seriously, using a tongue-in-cheek style of humour as a further excuse to play with an array of audacious action sequences.
Schwarzenegger is a top secret agent. His wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) thinks he works a boring sales job. Then – you guessed it – the secrecy of a double life isn’t all plain sailing. One day, he discovers his wife might be having a fling with a used-car salesman (Bill Paxton). He uses his position to find out more. Stuff ensues.
After riding the critical and commercial success wave of Terminator 2, Cameron looks in the mood let loose and blow off some steam. During some of the action, you really get the sense that he wants to flex his significant directorial muscles to put things on screen that have never been seen. Once again, you have to bow at the sheer spectacle this man is capable of creating. While it might not rank among his greatest films (I personally prefer him in the sci-fi genre) it nevertheless gives a great account of itself as a James Bond-style, standalone adventure.
Unlike Michael Bay, for example, Cameron’s films are far more than just blunt spectacle. True Lies might not have the iconic moments of Aliens or The Terminator, but its playful nature makes way for a memorable turn from Jamie Lee Curtis, who in perhaps the most eye-catching scene of the entire piece, (a non SFX one too) makes a remarkable transformation, that, in fitting with the dual nature of the overall tone of the film, plays as sexy and funny.
Outside of his role as the Terminator, Schwarzenegger has always edged towards comedy in his action films, and as always, his screen charisma makes up for his lack of natural acting ability. He’s also served well by Tom Arnold as his sidekick – a natural comic to whom Schwarzenegger can play straight man action star opposite. To give credit where it is due, the underlying subtext gag has Arnie and Jamie Lee Curtis confronting their marriage issues synonymously with trying to avert the imminent threat of global terrorism. It didn’t ought to work, but thanks again to the well judged tone, it works well.
True Lies is about leading a double life and Cameron reflects this with his balance of action and comedy. The film itself has two identities. Of course, this is nothing new in cinema, but making a resonant action-comedy is no easy feat. More often than not these films can end up as run-of-the-mill. Not so with James Cameron behind the megaphone.