So, it’s the 20th anniversary of James Cameron’s True Lies, which…I guess is a thing people are talking about. After revisiting the film last week, I was planning on inducting it into the academy and by a strike of fortune, True Lies happens to be turning 20 this week. The very fact that people are recognizing its anniversary may question the necessity to call it underrated. The film is certainly recalled fondly, it seems to be remembered for some quality action and humorous asides – generally, a good time at the movies. Which it certainly is! However, I believe True Lies is still important to viewers because it’s an anomaly of successful genre hybridity that marks the film fresh two decades later.
Cameron’s film followed up a string of Schwarzenegger-lead monolithic action thrillers that was going to be hard to out shine. But wisely, True Lies circumvents being in the shadows of films like Total Recall and the Terminator franchise by striking a delicate balance of the comedy Arnold had been developing through films like Twins, Kindergarten Cop, and Dave with action that’s indulgent, self-aware, and enjoyable. Preceding True Lies for Arnold was the box office disaster Last Action Hero, which was also an indulgent and (hyper) self-aware action film. It was an admirable exercise, or rather experiment, in meta-fiction that proved Schwarzenegger was willing to revise and tinker with his image. Depending on who you are, Last Action Hero is relegated to relative obscurity, despite its great Burger King marketing starring MTV Sports host Dan Cortese, because it was either too much of a mess or went over the heads of mass audiences.
But True Lies was messing with form in a much more subtle way than Last Action Hero. For Schwarzenegger, the film was paramount to his career. It acts as an amalgam of the best qualities of his career up to 1994. One of the best strengths of True Lies is though it was interested in something left-of-center, it wasn’t going to deter or upset audiences who went in looking for traditional Arnold material. In Roger Ebert’s review, he relished the over-the-top action sequences – most memorably, Arnold’s Harry chasing the terrorist on horse through a hotel, up the elevator, and on the roof before watching the terrorist motor across skyscrapers and into a pool. Ebert posited that the plot was “little more than a clothesline upon which to hang such set pieces.” In the 90s action film landscape cluttered with bravado in vain, it would be easy to fold True Lies along in the mix. But doing so foregoes what allows the film to endure as interesting 20 years later.
In her New York Times review upon True Lies’ release, Caryn James focused on the film’s sexual politics, something Ebert (and many others) ignored wholly. She focused heavily on Cameron’s attempts to (once again) place a woman in the middle of the action. Among others, James makes the apt observation that the film’s generic poster art contains one nugget of subtlety: an engagement ring as the pin in the grenade that separates “True” and “Lies.” This quietly sets up the film’s central conceit: “What if James Bond (or Ethan Hunt) had to get home before 8pm because his wife was throwing him a birthday party?” Throughout most of the film, there is a refreshing balance struck between this strange and funny juxtaposition of secret agent operatives and domesticity.
True Lies plays on the trope of the infallible agent that always gets the girl. But now, he’s already gotten the girl. The opening scene, where Harry flirts and tangos with a beautiful woman, takes on new meaning once we realize he has to come home every night to his boring suburban family. His wife Helen (played by Jamie Lee Curtis), who thinks Harry is a computer salesman, is also bored to tears, “Whenever I can’t sleep, I ask him how his day was and I’m out in six seconds flat,” she tells a coworker. We don’t care about Harry because of his specialized talents and occupational hazards (both of which are fun to watch); we care about his relationship with Helen and how his occupation is rendered within that relationship. Our emotional response is contingent upon the marital stakes that the film develops almost immediately. The fantastical action is uniquely grounded in a relatable scenario of suburban boredom that takes pressure off the viewers to have to muster up sympathy for the stakes of national security. This time around, Cameron plays on our expectations of boyish action films and makes the “large” national problems the wallpaper upon which Harry’s marriage is foregrounded. In Caryn James’ best line, she jests True Lies “might be a comic-action version of Scenes From A Marriage.” She’s not far off. The messy details in Bergman’s stubbornly austere take on partnership are more or less what can be seen silently between Harry and Helen. The comparison between the two films is funny because of the tonal differences, but it highlights the subversive flip of expectations from macro problems (national security) to micro (relationships).
Most of the comedy derives from watching Harry have a harder time trying to be an active husband and father than a secret-operative for the government. Fortunately, we have naturally comedic talents in Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Arnold to handle the brunt of the funny lines. Cameron was smart enough to strategically place Schwarzenegger in situations that yield comedy rather than place to much comedic responsibility on his comedy chops, much like Kindergarten Cop let most of the funny lines be delivered by children while Arnold reacted. Here, Arnold’s strength is how vulnerable and frustrated he makes Harry appear in the more humdrum situations of the film. It’s not coincidental that his sidekick, Albert (Tom Arnold), is more of an asset to Harry’s domestic situation than his professional life. Albert buys his daughter’s presents, reminds Harry to put his wedding band back on after a job. More importantly, Albert tries to communicate to Harry that he needs to be a better husband, “You’re never there,” Albert deadpans. Or, “women, you know…they like when you talk to ‘em,” he stammers sarcastically. Harry is being taken to task for how uncomfortable he feels with familial responsibilities.
At the time, Caryn James came just short of actually putting the film in the feminist canon (which says more about women’s place in film circa 1994 than it does her oversights). While I have some serious qualms about the way Cameron handles the female characters, I do consider it to be a useful (though perhaps lazy) comment on an emotionally void masculinity: that a man so capable to avert the country’s terrorist attacks has trouble maintaining a healthy and exciting relationship with the woman he loves. And what makes True Lies still interesting is how this commentary is conveyed through genre conventions in a way that both revels in and parodies action films. Most of this is done in the film’s second act, which is just a delightful and complex mastery of relationship examination through genre hybridity. It deals with the film’s thesis in a way that feels concurrently like a diversion of the film’s plot and its central focus. When Harry finds out that Helen might be cheating on him, he reacts out of insecurity. This insecurity manifests itself as if Helen was his most recently assigned mission, and Bill Paxton (stealing scenes as the mustached sleaze-ball Simon) is the targeted terrorist. After doing some unethical recon using his agency’ resources, Harry finds out Helen was getting emotionally (and possibly physically) involved with a used car salesman who was taking credit for Harry’s secret-op work in order to pose as a man of intrigue and lure Helen into thinking she was necessary for his next mission. It becomes clear that Helen is drawn to Simon because he offers an escape from her boring home life. Driven by jealousy and territorial pride, Harry is unable to see that Simon represents exactly what he can be to his wife if only he was honest with her. This convoluted twist acts to juxtapose Harry with an equal. Unfortunately for Helen, Harry doesn’t realize he’s as deceitful as Simon. And unfortunately for us, the film doesn’t end up treating them equally.
Harry doesn’t have the capacity to civilly broach the possible infidelity with Helen, so he continues to treat her as a subject in his mission. After kidnapping her, Harry and Albert interrogate her from behind a one-way mirror and through a voice distorter. But the interrogation is made up of questions typical of a domestic dispute:
Are you having an affair?
Have you ever had an affair?
Do you love your husband?
This is the only way that Harry knows how to communicate with her, the only way he knows how to process real information. Similarly in the third act, Helen can only get Harry to talk honestly with her once the terrorists inject him with truth serum. Both scenes are great examples of micro problems taking precedent in the film over the macro.
Twenty years later, it seems a testament to the film’s genre dexterity and innovation that many critics didn’t care for this second act. The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote that once Harry’s two worlds combined, “the plot becomes increasingly ridiculous and overwrought,” while Rita Kempley (of the same publication) called it a “strange and flabby digression.” Roger Ebert simply called it “curious.” Save for a creepy scene where Helen is coerced into stripping for a man she doesn’t know is Harry, which the filmmakers somehow endorses as funny and sexy, I couldn’t be happier with the film’s faux-digression. (And even that striptease scene is important as it emphasizes Harry’s inability to approach sexuality in their relationship, it’s just so mishandled it can’t be overlooked.) Not that it’s proof, or that intention is important, but it is interesting to note that the title of the film would also inform that it cares the most for this second act, which is about the couple discovering each other’s deceptions. It is also worth nothing that the terrific SNES game based on True Lies echoes the dominant critical discourse that saw the film’s marital subject matter a diversion from its key material—action scenes.
Unfortunately, the film ends up losing sight of its commentary of Harry for the sake of finishing the film off with a seemingly endless entrée of action, most of which could be shortened in the interest of both entertainment value and cohesion. Instead, Harry’s character isn’t held accountable for what he’s done to the marriage. That is put aside while he goes on an individualistic tear to save his country, wife, and child, restoring his place as the patriarch. And the few merits left of Helen as a meaningful female character are demolished after she 1) blows Harry’s cover, 2) helps kill terrorists only by accidentally dropping an uzi down some stairs, 3) can only intentionally be of help when faced against another woman, and 4) has to be saved by Harry because she can’t find out how to stop a moving car. But the film’s cute denouement acknowledges that it didn’t forget its central premise as Harry has opened up his professional life to involve Helen. In the final scene, the couple tango while ignoring Albert’s plea to focus on the agency’s task: “National security! Life and death situation!” It’s a fitting end for a film that works best when it confronts such ostensibly large problems with apathy.
Seeing the film now, the influence of True Lies’ genre hybridity and general premise is easy to spot in a line of fairly contemporary pictures. 2005’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith used a very similar concept but with both spouses as agents. However, the film didn’t seem to know where to go or how to strike a good balance between genres. In 2010, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz tried to follow in True Lies’ steps (with a reverse scenario) in Knight and Day and ended up with a colossal box office bomb; it’s now relegated to playing backup to You, Me and Dupree on TBS. Also in 2010 was Date Night, which starred Steve Carell and Tina Fey in a film that had the same preface of a bored suburban couple that also indulge in more excitement and danger than they could have asked for. By far the most successful of the three films, Date Night is much more of a rigorous comedy than True Lies, starring leads that were enjoying the reign of TV sitcoms. 2012 saw another attempt to fuse comedy and relationships into the secret agent world with This Means War, which fell flat due to a lack of strong comedic talents. Regardless of the outcome, it’s nice to see the lineage of True Lies that serves as witness to the film’s unassuming originality. Somehow, it managed to be an allegory for bad communication, a parody of extra-relational fulfillment and a farce about jealousy all tied up in a package that only promised quality action.