Cameron's weakest film is a mixed bag of excitement and boredom that kept Arnie's head above water.
How to follow the cinematic revelation of Terminator 2: Judgment Day? Besides working on the theme park experience of T2-3D: Battle Across Time, James Cameron had something big on the boiler; Titanic was his pet project for many a year and he was finally ready to begin preparing his vision. First things first, though, to fund such a huge project he would have to pay the piper, hence we have the studio-pleasing True Lies, an entertaining enough piece of mega-budget fluff quite noticeably devoid of the usual Cameron magic.
The central premise of True Lies is pure high-concept nonsense; Harry Tasker (The Schwarz) leads a shady double life, pretending to be a computer salesman when really he's out saving the world on a daily basis as a government super-spy. Unbeknownst to anyone, not even his bored wife Helen, Harry works for Omega Sector, an elite group of covert agents working in a counter-terrorist capacity. Recently having picked up the scent of a middle-Eastern terrorist faction hell bent on detonating a nuke on American soil (how preposterous ahem), Harry and his colleague Albert Gibson (Tom Arnold) set about foiling the nefarious plot, all the while maintaining Harry's cover as a boring suburban everyman. But wait! There's a twist...
Fed up of the neglect she suffers on a daily basis, Helen is seeking a little excitement in her life and finds it in the sleazy arms of Simon (Bill Paxton), a used car salesman posing as a secret agent for, as he so eloquently puts it, "the pussy". So international espionage and intrigue finds itself blended with domestic disharmony, with predictably hilarious results! A-ha, ha, ha!
True Lies opens promisingly enough with a solid half hour or so of action, introducing us to Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik), leader of terrorist splinter cell Crimson Jihad (wonder where the inspiration for that came), and presenting us with a couple of decent shoot-outs, a horse vs. motorbike chase and a destructive rampage through, up, and across the roof of the River City Mariott Hotel. Tasker also woos his way into the confidence of Persian antique art specialist Juno Skinner (Tia Carrere. Mmmmmmm, Carrere...) who, it transpires, is smuggling Crimson Jihad's warheads into the country inside priceless Persian statues.
Just as things are getting interesting, Cameron shifts abruptly down a couple of gears with the revelation that Helen Tasker has a secret admirer who is meeting her regularly for lunch. From this point the focus of the film shifts entirely to Harry's efforts to discover the nature of his wife's relationship with the mysterious Simon. Initially worried by Simon's claims to be an agent, Harry and Albert suspect he may be working for another agency using Helen to get to Harry. Simon puts his foot well and truly in it though when he tries to take credit for the incident at the Mariott, leading Harry to track him to his used car dealership.
Asking Helen to accompany him to France for the weekend, Simon tells her he needs her to act as his wife to provide a cover for his supposedly covert activities. Using his agency clout and access to cutting edge tools of espionage, Harry tracks Simon to a trailer park where he has taken Helen in order to finally seduce her. Swooping in with an armed squad just as Simon's nefarious scheme reaches it's conclusion, Harry has the pair kidnapped and interrogated. Desperate to know whether his wife has been unfaithful, he soon uncovers the truth; that his espionage antics have left his wife lonely and in need of excitement.
No sooner has he resolved to be a better husband and engineered a seductive encounter at the penthouse suite of an expensive local hotel than in burst Crimson Jihad, who everyone had presumably forgotten about, to kidnap Tasker for their own nefarious ends. Just goes to show what happens when you neglect your work. They want Harry to confirm on video to his superiors that Jihad really do have nukes and are planning to detonate them on US soil, and are going to detonate one on a remote island in the Florida Keys to prove their resolve.
Now nearly in it's final half hour, Cameron presumably realises his audience are quite likely falling asleep. After all, Arnie films work best when shit's being blown up, and so the gearstick gets firmly shoved back into fifth for a frankly ludicrous finale that sees all manner of destructive mayhem unfold on screen. Held captive in the Keys, Harry and Helen manage to escape their captors and cause enough stuff to blow up for Harry to escape and give chase to Aziz's nuke-weilding cohorts. Helen is unfortunately recaptured by Juno and bundled along with the warheads on a trip across the Seven Mile bridge, which Harry rather inventively has blown up by some US Marine Harrier jets.
Rescuing his wife once more, Harry has to give chase to Aziz who has taken both a nuke and, somewhat inconveniently, his daughter Dana (an early appearance by Eliza Dushku. Mmmmmmm, Dushku...) into the city with the intention of "raining fire" on the American infidels. The best way to achieve this is naturally to commandeer a Harrier and nip on over to the skyscraper where Aziz is extolling his ideals to a nervous news crew, partially comprised of undercover Omega Sector agents.
Not to ruin any surprises, suffice to say Harry shoots lots of stuff, blows even more stuff up, performs some ludicrous manoeuvres in his Jump Jet and dispatches Aziz in an unbelievably contrived and OTT fashion that tops just about any action movie before or since. Very, very silly, but certainly entertaining.
Despite all the nonsensical eye-candy and stunt work, which we can attribute to Cameron perhaps lampooning the state of action cinema at the time (for which he would be partially responsible himself, having upped the ante with T2), True Lies' greatest enemy remains it's own pacing. The incredibly disjointed transition to and from the middle section to the bookending action segments feels wholly unnatural and gives the impression of two unrelated films being hurriedly spliced together. Although both are essentially enjoyable plots, it rather feels like each is ruining the other, leading this reviewer to wish Cameron had just made two separate films with the same characters.
Given the current world climate and the aftermath of 9/11, there's little doubt nobody would touch this movie if it were being pitched today. Many will also no doubt find the two-dimensional caricature of Middle-Eastern fanaticists offensive with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but at the time nobody was expecting anyone to knock down a Trade Tower or two. Nevertheless it makes for slightly uncomfortable viewing and leaves an odd sense of guilt; after all, if this is how the denizens of the desert countries see themselves being portrayed by a nation they see as an aggressor, who can blame them for feeling a little miffed?
Arnie is disappointingly functional, unfortunately failing to pull off the heartbroken husband schtick very well, and Tom Arnold is as annoying as always. Why is this man afforded the opportunity to blemish so much celluloid? Even our comedically redundant American friends must surely be tired of his repetitive quipping, no? Jamie Lee Curtis, although sporting a fantastic figure, gets little to play with character wise despite the obvious insecurity of her character. Considering how long the film is, weighing in at 2 1/4 hours, this is pretty much inexcusable, especially when the antics of the middle hour seem like so much padding.
There really is a sense here that Cameron has adopted a "yeah yeah" attitude, desperate to get this out of the way and on with Titanic. Erratically paced, with all the action crammed into two retina-searing half hours either side of the middle reels, True Lies disappoints on repeat viewing with it's flashy excess and poor structure. Still mildly entertaining and admittedly occasionally very funny, this is easily the weakest entry in Cameron's small yet otherwise iconic body of work.
Disko has awarded this film 3 out of 5 Disko Jump Jet Units.
Jamie Lee Curtis (Helen Tasker)
Art Malik (Salim Abu Aziz)
Tom Arnold (Albert Gibson)