True Lies (1994)
Arnold Schwarzenegger is always fascinating to watch. He was in his prime from the mid-‘80s to the early ‘90s, and what better way to make cinematic magic happen than by putting him smackdab in a light-hearted, James Bond-spoofing outrageous action comedy directed by his old Terminator buddy, James Cameron? Happily, it works just as splendidly as you might imagine.
Harry Tasker is a super-secret super-agent. The exact agency remains obscure, but it seems to be something called Omega Section inside the FBI. It’s the last line of defense against (what else) middle-eastern terrorists. He is also married and has a daughter in a nice suburban neighborhood, where none, including his family, knows of his action-filled secret spy career. As a result of his busy spying schedule, he neglects his wife, Helen, who starts harboring fantasies about a life of excitement. She is tempted by a con-man, Simon, who pretends (rather incompetently) to be practically the exact kind of secret agent that Helen’s husband really is! So as Harry discovers his wife’s near-affair, he musters all the resources of his agency to expose him and win her back. And what a happy ending it is when Helen finds out that her husband is really the embodiment of all her fantasties! That’s half the plot. The other half is about the terrorist Aziz, leader of the Crimson Jihad, who has acquired four Soviet nuclear warheads and intend to threaten the U.S. with them. Harry and his team, with Helen in tow, must go to the Florida keys to fight the terrorists, and there is a long extra action climax when the bad guy has taken their daughter hostage on the top of a skyscraper, so Harry must try to save her using a Vertical Take-Off/Landing (VTOL) jetplane, which he can’t steer very well. Fun ensues.
Highlights of the movie include Harry’s attempt to make a police horse jump off a building and into a swiming pool on the roof of a lower adjacent building, but the horse has more sense than Harry, and refuses. Later, when he’s translating the terrorists’ rhetoric for his wife, he just represents it as, “We’re cool, we’re badasses, blah-blah, blah-blah”!
I like to distinguish between two kinds of comedies: Those where the story is one that could believable happen in the real world, but where the characters just say funny things. And then those where the entire action universe obey the laws of comedy, and will readily bend to serve the comic style of the story. A movie like Beverly Hills Cop is a good example of the former kind; a movie like True Lies is a good example of the latter. An important distinction between these types of comedies is the way killing is treated. In the first kind, it is a very serious matter, while in the latter kind it’s not. As when in True Lies Helen asks Harry if he’s killed anybody, and Harry brushes it off with the casual “Yeah, but they were all bad!” To treat killing in a lighthearted way is actually quite difficult; personally I don’t think someone like Tarantino, who tries very hard to do this exact thing, can pull it off. But it is done quite expertly in many of Schwarzenegger’s movies, including this one.
What’s wrong with True Lies? Not a great deal. The long intermezzo with Harry and Helen repairing their marriage is perhaps a bit too long, and Simon’s pathetic character is perhaps a bit too pathetic (which seems a bit disrespectful to Bill Paxton, of whom I am a great fan). The terrorists are perhaps treated rather superficially; I don’t think we even hear what their demands are. Also, there are a couple of instances too many of tasteless foul language. But that’s all the complaints I can come up with. The movie is a wild action romp with plenty of laughs and some good and strategically placed moments of edge-of-your-seat excitement. Jamie Lee Curtis has a very hot dancing act, and Arnold just continues to excell at playing himself – even in a role as this, we believe he is a superheroic spy, because, well, that’s the kind of roles he has played so often that it’s practically who he is! So his performance comes off as very good acting.
This is good stuff. Is it art (as a newspaper article about the villain-playing Art Malik asked at the time)? Well, as far as action comedies go, it’s top of the line! Doesn’t get a heck of a lot better.
My 2003 Danish DVD version is pretty bare-bones; it has subtitles in several languages and a trailer, and nothing else.