(Another one of ,my choices – Fox’s other big action film in the summer of ’94)
Director James Cameron turned to Fox for the third time to back his 1994 project, True Lies. Made perfect sense, after all: the studio stuck with his megalomaniacal excesses throughout the strum und drang known as The Abyss, and probably figured a more conventional action flick would be a safer bet. They were right – Lies turned in a tidy budget despite a then-insane budget of 120 million – a ratio that would pretty much define the director’s profit margin thereafter.
But after lensing flicks about extraterrestrial and undersea aliens, and unstoppable cyborgs, where would the director go next? Well… Bond, it turns out. James Bond.
Well, somewhat. The opening sequence in True Lies, at least, is a Bond pre-credit sequence to a T. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Harry Tasker, a spy for a top secret US agency who infiltrates a party in Switzerland where the head of an Arab terrorist group is in attendance. His mission is to grab some top secret info on his group – which he does – before promptly making a grand exit by blowing the place up real good and then meeting up with his co-operative, Albert (Tom Arnold) to leave town completely, Roll the Bond titles.
But there’s a problem here, and it’s an issue that has dogged the film ever since its release 23 years ago. Cameron’s conceit here is that Tasker leads a double life – he is secretly a happily (or so we think) married man to a woman named Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), leading her to believe his jetsetting is just a requirement for his salesman job. So far the ruse has worked for a good 20 years; despite a typically bratty teenage daughter, they lead the idyllic suburban life… until Harry discovers a shattering truth: his wife is having a affair. The other man? A skuzzy used car dealer (Bill Paxton) who ironically delights in pretending to a be an international spy. His fantasies intrigue Helen, who indulges his trysts passionately yet (still) chastely. Tasker gets the skinny on this guy and is enraged – to the point of using his federal resources to conduct a search and seizure mission on Helen and her beau – the former he locks in a room and interrogates while his and Albert’s identity is concealed behind a one-way mirror and voice distortion, the latter he dangles over a cliff and tells to get lost.
And it’s about at this point that the movie commits an unpardonable sin – it turns its heroes into assholes. And when they’re the only protagonists in the film, that’s deadly. They keep Curtis in the dark for a good half hour or so, culminating in her embarrassing striptease in a scene that was likely intended to be funny but winds up just cringingly awkward. I remember that the critics were cringing as well when Lies first came out, rebuking its dislocation between the terrorist-fighting plot which bookends the film and its ill-conceived midsection, which seems fatally out of sync in both storyline and tone. I was pretty much in agreement: Harry’s setup, I felt, was both cruel and digressive, and since I even liked the Bill Paxton character, I felt that his penalty was even crueler. Yeah, sure, he comes back in the end in a token scene of repentance, but big deal.
But now, seeing it 23 years later, I have to say that I wasn’t crazy about the terrorist stuff either. Harry’s primary enemy throughout the flick is some Middle Eastern honcho who spouts threats in Arabic and looks wide-eyed most of the time. And I just felt that his violence, and the violence Harry uses against him, was extremely off-putting. Perhaps it’s because we’re living in a post 9/11 world and scenes of a harrier jet firing rounds into a skyscraper just aren’t divertingly entertaining anymore. Or maybe we’re had too many incidents of mass shooters using semi or fully automatic weapons on civilians to really find similar actions depicted in the movies to be a barrel of fun.
There’s an extended chase scene – Tue Lies’ first act finale – that sums up my distaste. It begins in a men’s bathroom, where Harry confronts his nemesis for the first time. What begins with a simple would-be shooting quickly escalates into a hail of gunfire – dozens of rounds fired at lights, stalls, tiles, the floor, you name it – and then turns into a bloody fistfight. Now Cameron is no stranger to graphic violence - look at his Terminator movies – but here his violence is unsettling and unrelenting. What should be fun, James Bondian antics winds up being joyless and brutal. But it doesn’t end there – it turns into a prolonged chase with Harry on horseback chasing the Arab on motorcycle – throughout just about every unlikely Washington venue you can name, and I kept thinking about what the horse was going through, and was all that really worth what they’re putting up on the screen?
By the time we get to the film’s finale – in which the terrorists detonate a nuclear warhead on a Florida keys island and threaten to do the same atop a Miami skyscraper, using Harry’s daughter as a hostage – we’re worn out, but not in a good way. We’ve been stung along, forced to follow a guy of questionable principle, on a mission of glorified, comic book antic of serious undercurrent. The helicopter rescue of a limousine-bound Helen, and the harrier jet rescue of Harry’s daughter on the Miami skyline, just isn’t exhilarating in the way it should be. There’s too much baggage, both in the way Cameron depicts his central character, and in the way the world has changed about terrorism since the mid-90s. And even though the latter isn’t necessarily the director’s fault, it still affects the way we perceive his movie.
Cameron would, of course, rebound – his Titanic just three years later remains one of my all-time favorite epics, and I’ve definitely gotten flack for that opinion. But it does just prove that the man knows how to get the adrenaline pumping. As he previously showed us in The Abyss, he can manipulate the movie viewer in such a way as I’ve never seen anything else like it. He’s got the old-school storyboarder’s mentality; like Spielberg, he knows the nuts and bolts of the craft, and he’s best when he works with just his camera and his editing machine. It was the Cameron of the original Terminator that I missed while watching True Lies.
But I’d be quite happy if I never had to see this movie again. James, just leave Bond to the Brits, and give us something from your heart.