Retrospective

True Lies proves James Cameron doesn't always need fancy CGI

What do you do after you’ve blown up Hollywood with one of the biggest movies of all time? Blow stuff up some more.

Lightstorm/20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

After James Cameron rocked the world with one of the biggest, most ambitious sci-fi blockbusters to define the ‘90s (at least until The Matrix in 1999), the Hollywood auteur had some fun by blowing up suburban malaise.

In True Lies — which it should be said upfront comes loaded with anti-Arab sentiment, and was the production where star Eliza Dushku was assaulted as a preteen — Cameron reunites with Arnold Schwarzenegger for a spy-fi sendup of marital woes. Like a strange comic lovechild between Mission: Impossible and Modern Romance, the film, a remake of the French 1991 comedy La Totale! exhibits Cameron on cruise control as the famed filmmaker replays his greatest hits of directorial skill, cranking up the bombast while downplaying his usual cutting-edge showmanship.

As Cameron returns to theaters with the technical onslaught that is Avatar: The Way of Water, True Lies proves he’s always known how to tell exciting, painfully relatable stories without everything looking like a next-gen video game. (It’s also streaming on Peacock now, albeit in a low-resolution transfer that feels like you’ve popped in a DVD on your grandmother’s television.)

Released in between Cameron’s paradigm-shifting T2: Judgement Day and Titanic, True Lies stars a comparatively mundane Schwarzenegger. As Harry Tasker, Schwarzenegger plays a debonair (if oversized) spy who can tango into any room and own the place. But that’s just his job. To his family, he’s Harry, whose cover identity as a boring computer sales rep has fostered a functional but passionless marriage to Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), a legal secretary. Both are space aliens to their daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku) who gets whisked off every morning by boys on motorcycles.

Arnold Schwarzenegger co-stars with Tom Arnold in True Lies, an action-comedy about a spy (Schwarzenegger) who finds out his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) might be having an affair.Lightstorm/20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

Harry is a top agent for the secretive Omega Sector, which has an authoritative reach and operational budget only a screenwriter can imagine. Amidst an investigation into a sale of nuclear weapons to Middle Eastern terrorists, Harry finds out Helen might be having an affair. These stories collide in all manners strange, hilarious, and literally explosive as Helen gets caught up in Harry’s real work and sees firsthand just what he does for a living.

At face value, there’s plenty that feels regressive about True Lies. Its stock of Arab antagonists are barely evolved beyond the oriental, mustache-twirling archetypes of a racist past. And maybe too much of the movie’s comedy hinges on the real-time trauma of a confused and frustrated Helen. Boil the script to its essence and what you have is a husband manipulating his wife — including coercing her into an erotic striptease — to prove some sort of point. We only know she can take it because she’s certified Michael Myers-defeater Jamie Lee Curtis, who goes for broke as a bored housewife secretly yearning for adventure.

But a lot of True Lies still resonates almost 30 years later. Its portrait of American male masculinity in crisis feels potent in this modern age of Joe Rogan podcasts, even if Harry doesn’t ever come across like he’d succumb to an algorithmic alt-right rabbit hole. The film’s take on modern masculinity is a lot more innocent and quaint. Harry already lives an enviable lifestyle, he just doesn’t know how to include the ones he loves the most. That’s still pertinent to someone somewhere, I’m sure. (Or not. I’m not married.)

Released after T2: Judgement Day and before the box office monster Titanic, True Lies is a work by James Cameron in which the director more or less coasts on his established style, albeit with the highest budget he’s ever worked with (over $100 million).Lightstorm/20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

What could have been a craven action-comedy is made palatable through the delicate work of Cameron, who splits the difference between an exciting, set-piece-driven action spectacle and an adult comedy about spouses learning to be honest. True Lies doesn’t reach the heights that Cameron achieved before and since, and some of its best moments feel like retreads of T2.

But as Cameron has proved time and again, from Terminator to Avatar, he’s cinema’s quintessential deejay, capable of giving moviegoers all they want and no more. True Lies sends up Cameron’s signature formula by eschewing the fancy computer effects for tried-and-true miniatures and old fashion stunts pulled off by real people. But whether his movies are tech demos or not, his filmmaking is always like that of a rock star shredding notes with his eyes fixated on the volume levels. True Lies comes off like a relaxed encore after having delivered an exhausting performance that is T2 — and a thematic prologue to his fixation on families in his Avatar saga.

If one can look past all the ugliness that True Lies lays out plainly, one might find simple beauty to be enjoyed. It’s a less taxing, more rousing rival to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and a pre-9/11 evolutionary predecessor to Doug Liman’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith. It doesn’t rank high on anyone’s list, be it a list of movies that spoof contemporary marriages or just James Cameron’s oeuvre. But it’s a nice time nonetheless, like a night out with someone you’ve already committed to.

True Lies is streaming now on Peacock.

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