James Cameron’s filmography is a series of attempts to revise the Hollywood landscape through excess. During press for True Lies, he told Entertainment Weekly, ”People are being conditioned to expect less and accept less from a movie these days. I’d rather push the other way. If I make a movie once every two years, I want it to be the best. More is more.” That was the second time James Cameron made the most expensive movie ever.
It was 1994 and Arnold Schwarzenegger was cinema’s largest action star. He spent the previous decade filling his CV with films like Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Total Recall, Predator, Commando and The Running Man. In fact, his stardom was oddly crystallized in 1993’s Last Action Hero, where he played the metatextual titular action hero. He had become an avatar for the genre. Where else was there for Arnold to go?
Blind to fears and barriers, James Cameron only saw a way to go bigger, to make a film that was contingent on Schwarzenegger’s monolithic resume and apexed image. He took $115 million to make an absurdly over-the-top, indulgent actioner that was secretly about the fears of marriage. True Lies also circumvents being in the shadows of films like Total Recall and the Terminator franchise by striking a delicate balance of the comedy chops Arnold had been developing through films like Twins, Kindergarten Cop and Dave, and giving him a foil in the pudgy, affable and verbose Tom Arnold.
The trailer and TV spot for True Lies advertised a series of outlandish action sequences surrounding a central tension: that Arnold has to hide his secret agent day job from his wife. This straightforward marketing is key to the film’s cleverness. If you ignore the film’s title, which itself hints at subversion, True Lies only promises huge set pieces, Schwarzenegger’s signature machismo and a sexy femme fatale in Jamie Lee Curtis. But Cameron was messing with form, genre and the action hero persona in a much more subtle way than even Last Action Hero did the previous year. Importantly though, the director wasn’t going to deter or upset audiences going to the cinema for traditional Schwarzenegger material. In Roger Ebert’s review, he relished the over-the-top action—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 in the mix. But doing so foregoes what allows the film to endure as a potent piece of satire.
In her New York Times review, Caryn James focused on the film’s sexual politics, something Ebert (and many others) ignored wholly. She called particular attention to 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 by 8 p.m. because his wife was throwing a dinner party? Through the juxtaposition of secret agent operations and domestic stress, the film not only strikes a tonal balance, but wields a commentary on the action genre.
More specifically, 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 similarly 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 co-worker. 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 the pressure off viewers to muster up sympathy for the stakes of national security. This time around, Cameron plays on our expectations of boyish action films, making 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 Ingmar 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 too 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 most 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 and 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,” he deadpans. Or, “women, you know…they like when you talk to ‘em,” he stammers sarcastically. Cameron is taking Harry to task for how uncomfortable he feels with familial responsibilities. This can be extended further to be a commentary on action heroes, in general, pointing out the monosyllabic and stiff charisma of figures who uniformly charm women. They can suppress national conflicts, but are lost in the mechanics of day-to-day marriage.
What makes True Lies such a compelling comment on an emotionally void masculinity is how the director refracts that message through genre conventions. The second act, in particular, is a delightfully complex examination of Harry’s inability to healthily manage his relationship. The film’s A-Plot (Harry’s secret agent mission) and B-Plot (Harry and Helen’s marriage) slowly bleed into each other, revealing that the two storylines are never working in isolation, but constantly servicing each other.
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’s resources, Harry finds out Helen was getting emotionally (and possibly physically) involved with Simon, a used car salesman who was taking credit for Harry’s secret-op work in order to pose as a man of intrigue to attract Helen. The irony is that Helen becomes 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 just as deceitful as Simon. 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. While this is clearly the tactics of a secret agent operative, 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 his wife, 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 relationship problems taking precedent in the film over the macro secret agent problems. James Cameron is refracting domestic issues through secret agent techniques to comment on the action hero archetype.
More than twenty years later, it seems a testament to the film’s genre dexterity and subtlety 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 endorse 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 as problematic.) It’s also interesting to note that the title of the film informs us of the importance of this second act, which is about the couple discovering each other’s deceptions. Further, it’s also worth noting 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—it’s all 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’s 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. The final scene finds the couple tangoing in a dance hall 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, instead turning its head toward the relatable problems of a suburban couple.
Seeing the film now, the influence of True Lies’ genre hybridity and general premise is easy to spot in several contemporary motion pictures. Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) 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. Also in 2010 was Date Night, which starred Steve Carell and Tina Fey in a film that had the same conceit of a bored suburban couple that land 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 their reign of the TV sitcom. Two years later, there was 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. The best moments of BBC’s Orphan Black also drew on James Cameron’s film, dealing with the double crossings of a suburban marriage. Regardless of the quality, 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.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox