True Lies (1994)

James Cameron directs Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis and Bill Paxton in this romantic action comedy where a super spy leads a double life, hiding his world saving career from his family to the point where his wife feels neglected and seeks out her own risky excitement.

“When he said ‘I Do’, he never said what he did!” Arnie’s best performance – nailing both his cover as the dull husband and his day job as heroic force of nature. Jamie Lee getting to do her sexy comedy schtick again, perfected in Trading Places and A Fish Called Wanda. Great salty support from Bill and Tia Carerre. Even Tom Arnold isn’t terrible. There’s plenty of blunt force trauma laughs, more than you’d expect from a violent thriller with the grandest budget of its time. A silly OTT script that lunges between old fashioned farce and mega-budget slapstick.

Then there’s the $100 million blockbuster set-pieces. A lengthy gentlemen’s bathroom brawl where tiles shatter and bullets fly. A horse versus motorbike chase that goes vertical and features The T-800 constantly amusingly apologising. A terrorist camp destructively decimated by one highly trained man and his clumsy wife. An utterly compulsive ticking bomb helicopter chase across the bridges of Florida Keys. A skyscraper rooftop finale involving a rustily flown Harrier Jumpjet, little Eliza Dushku and a rocket-launcher. Action-wise True Lies delivers with excess and elan. Carnage candy! You got way more than your admission price promised back in 1994 and it still is a fantastic afternoon filler on DVD if you can avoid focussing on the very obvious stunt double who fills in for Arnie a little too often. I bet Cameron was glad he kept that Terminator wig from 1984!

The issue most people have with True Lies now is its dubious sexual politics in the middle hour. Excitement takes a back seat and unfaithfulness and marital revelations come to the fore. Have they dated? Are they misogynistic? If you approach it as a muscular, heavily armed man stalking and manipulating his wife through psychological torture for an entire second act section… then yes. But this was crafted as a light, breathless, almost family friendly, crowd-pleasing blockbuster (I went as a teen with my parents the summer of release) and I think the intention is for Jamie Lee Curtis’ frumpy housewife to be given a believable route in to the Bondian escapades. It is a male prescribed female wish fulfilment but not an entirely unattractive one. Helen Tasker gets quite the fantasy to live out. Her husband finally tells the truth and instantly becomes more exciting than the white collar drone she was growing bored of, she gets to be seen as striptease enchantress rather than a homemaker (and that iconic scene is still hot as fuck) and eventually be the action hero who enjoys being lifted out of runaway limos and staking out high end parties.

An effective Joan Wilder style adventure, with an added self-makeover sequence and tons of funny lines. It is the role of a lifetime for Curtis and she sells the twists and turns of Helen’s wake up to the peril her husband survives routinely with full confidence and sophistication. She goes from sitcom mom to 007… Arnie isn’t gifted this arc or catharsis. We take him uzi-ing a cabal of comedy jihads for granted, but a middle aged woman catfighting an arms dealer is a new flavour. The look of real excitement on her face as she performs the thrilling helicopter rescue stunt, like a Tom Cruise or a Bruce Willis would, is one of 90s cinema’s most joyous moments.

Then we get the sweet reconciliatory kiss illuminated by nuclear explosion as the topper to an action comedy that won’t quit. Cameron is all heart beneath the macho banter and demolition derby stylings. If you doubt the intentions behind his sexual politics here, at least recognise that he eventually elevates his female lead to equal with her husband and strengthens their attraction rather than confiscates anything from her. There is no punishment for Helen Tasker’s flirtation with infidelity, no sacrifice required from her to become one of the warriors. How many other directors, male or female, misogynist or feminist, manage such a unique promotion of a female character in the biggest production of their release season? Only ever James Cameron.


Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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