Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.


Monday, July 10, 2017

True Lies

Year: 1994
Running time: 141 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Claude Zidi, Simon Michaël, Didier Kaminka, James Cameron
Director: James Cameron
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Bill Paxton, Tia Carrere, Art Malik, Eliza Dushku, Grant Heslov, Charlton Heston

The movie in one picture: balancing family with world-saving with the
help of astonishing technical effects.
Here’s a bit of pub quiz trivia – True Lies was the first film ever to cost more than $100 million to make. Nowadays, there’s not a blockbuster around that doesn’t cost nearly twice that; indeed, a mere 3 years later saw Titanic, also directed by James Cameron, become the first film to cost more than $200 million. Not such a big deal now, but back then it was mind-boggling. And not a single cent was wasted – the whole thing looks sublime. I know it’s technically violence and as such should be pretty ugly, but some shots – jets flying over turquoise waters, a road bridge being detonated around a moving truck – make action cinema a bona fide art form.

Cameron's script is fairly closely based on the 1991 French film La Totale! So much so the original three writers are given screenplay credits. Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a super spy, saving the world (or on off days, just America) with his partner Gib (Tom Arnold). However, Harry has another life; married to Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), with daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku). As far as they know, Harry is a computer salesman who doesn't go on globetrotting adventures to save the world, but merely goes to sales expos with other likeminded dullards. True Lies is about what happens when those two worlds of Harry's, separate for so long, collide.

On the trail of a deal to sell some stolen nuclear weapons to a terrorist group called Crimson Jihad, led by Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik, who, to be honest, is slumming it a bit here in a role he's far too good for), Harry discovers that Helen is having an affair. Or at least he thinks he does. Truth is, Helen is a little bored of her life and responds to the advances of sleazy car salesman Simon (Bill Paxton) who (ironic coincidence klaxon!) pretends to be a spy to sleep with women.

Harry goes undercover to get to know the man trying to break up his marriage.
What the film does at this point is something that is quite a big risk for a tent-pole summer blockbuster. The first act has been chockfull of remarkable action set pieces, including toilet-set shoot-outs and horse-motorbike chases up to the tops of skyscrapers. Cameron conceives of and directs action like nobody else out there, and pushing up the comedy in the action scenes with the able help of Arnold, who fits the comedy sidekick role like a glove, makes for enjoyably thrilling set pieces. When Harry discovers what Helen is doing ("Welcome to the club!" replies a jaded Gib in reply to Harry's heartbreak), the second act becomes a 40 minute swerve away from the main plot, as Harry pulls helicopters, operatives, phone taps and all sorts of government resources to devote to getting to the bottom of Helen's 'affair'.

On the pretext of Simon's spy persona, Harry brings them both in for interrogation, scaring Simon into pissing himself and deciding to give Helen a little of the excitement she's been craving. By making her impersonate a prostitute and strip for what she thinks is a total stranger, but is in fact Harry. Unsurprisingly, True Lies came in for some stick here, and when it's set out like that, it isn't hard to see why. No doubt Harry loses much audience sympathy when he puts Helen through this ordeal just to ease his own anxious heart. Watching as a 15 year old at the time, I was entirely oblivious to the darker undercurrents of the comedy, and I wonder what that says about social attitudes towards abuse and harassment. But, at the risk of offering an unpopular opinion, I think there is a little more to it than that.

Consider Ellen Ripley, or Sarah Conner. Towering icons of female strength in action movies. This is James Cameron. I think Cameron knows full well what he's dealing with here, and I don't think it's fair to label a writer misogynistic because he writes a character who does some questionable things. True Lies is a screwball comedy, a farce set within a James Bond movie. Limits of behaviour (both in terms of what Harry puts Helen through and the misuse of resources) are different to a real world scenario, and if the comedy lens through which it is presented makes you uncomfortable, I think that's the point. Action films in general, and James Bond movies in particular, in terms of the way they treat and objectify women, should make you uncomfortable.

One of the sexiest scenes ever? A grossly misogynistic tonal error? Or both?
Much of the characterisation, seemingly so shallow on the surface, has hints of deeper feelings and redemptive qualities. Gib, such a misogynist on the surface, pulls Harry up short at one point, pointing out that of course Helen was going to feel unsatisfied in a marriage where she spends much of her time alone. Salim shows signs of being more than a depthless terrorist caricature during his speech that makes it clear Cameron is well aware that America's foreign policy has a large part to play in the creation of terrorist groups. The relief on Harry's face when, under interrogation, Helen declares that yes, she still loves her husband, "...have always loved him. I will always love him", while not excusing his actions, do explain them; Harry is a manchild used to getting everything he wants suddenly having to confront the real possibility of losing, through his own neglect, that which is most precious to him. Misusing government resources is probably quite low on the list of things he'd be willing to do to prevent that.

But it is most obvious with Helen. Cameron makes True Lies as much about her journey from bored, meek housewife to a pillar of strength remembering to make decisions for herself as it is about Arnie saving the world. Curtis deserves equal billing. Manipulated by Simon, frightened by an interrogation under harsh lights by distorted voices, she lays out exactly why she did what she did, how it is she's feeling this way and rather than sidelining these feelings, she brings Harry, Gib and, by extension the audience, around to her point of view. Yes, there is sexism in True Lies, but there are enough moments to make it clear that Cameron is on Helen's side, and makes sure that after this transformation, she is the equal of her male counterparts, commanding more respect than them.

Apparently, the bridge is out.
I almost feel disappointed when the main plot kicks the door in and Harry and Helen get taken prisoner, but this is James Cameron, so I don’t feel like that for long. The final act of the movie is relentless in its technical brilliance - the shot of Helen being lifted to safety from the sunroof of a limo by Harry, who is dangling from a helicopter, just as it flies off a destroyed bridge is the movie's money shot. That whole sequence is astonishing even by today’s standards and is proof that Cameron is the master of action direction and photography, who in my opinion, not even John Woo can top.

Genuinely funny comedy peppers the film throughout, delivered with superb timing, even by the Austrian Oak himself. Not counting his recent career renaissance where in lower key roles he is (whisper it) actually quite a good actor, the big man was never better than when he was being directed by Cameron. Nobody is terrible (in fact, both Arnold and Paxton are both great in smaller roles), but this is definitely the Schwarzenegger and Curtis show, and the two of them shine.

A great deal of fun, unless I'm missing the point and Cameron really is a woman-hating bastard.

Score: 8/10

There are a fair few reviews out there that judge True Lies more harshly, particularly the middle section, and it's hard to argue - this review from Steven at Grantland finds it very much a product of its time, falling short under modern day sensibilities. Contrasting that is a review from Caryn at the New York Times. Both perspectives have value and I'll leave it to you to decide where you sit.

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