The best visual effect in the budget-busting True Lies is its star. As Harry Tasker, a spy for a government counter-terrorism agency, Arnold Schwarzenegger strides uninvited into a posh party as though he owned the place: slipping flawlessly into various languages, doing a quick tango with a mysterious woman, glad-handing foreign dignitaries as if they were old friends. I didn’t fully understand why he was there, except to set off an explosion and be chased by dozens of terrorists on skis, but then who ever understood the plot of any James Bond movie? The audience settles in for a loud, only slightly comprehensible, but rousing adventure — a spectacle as comfortably familiar as the Indiana Jones series. Harry, no doubt, will save the world and look sensational doing it; the man’s self-confidence is awesome.
True Lies, however, has some twists in store. Director James Cameron, who based his script on the French comedy La Totale, gives Harry a wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter (Eliza Dushku), neither of whom knows what he does for a living; they think he’s a computer salesman. (The thought of that is itself a good joke.) They will soon find out differently, but not before Harry gets a shock of his own: He overhears a conversation and concludes that his wife, Helen, is having an affair with a car salesman named Simon (Bill Paxton). Whether she actually is or not isn’t the point; the point is how amusing Arnold Schwarzenegger is when he’s a wreck. The self-confidence vanishes; Harry stumbles to the street in a daze of incomprehension. Behold the suave superspy, whose wife is boffing some cheesy car salesman! Harry looks utterly deflated; his aura of sudden, emasculating insecurity is one of the movie’s slyest jokes.
Not that James Cameron has morphed Arnie into Woody Allen. True Lies offers the usual Cameron mix of genuine thought and kick-ass, rock-and-roll action. I’ve said it before, and I’ll go on saying it unless he flips out and does an Edith Wharton adaptation: Nobody does action like James Cameron. (Nobody has gotten better performances from Arnie, either.) He may spend more than anyone — True Lies reportedly came in at $100 million plus — but no one delivers more bang for the buck. Cameron’s action sequences are huge objects of beauty, usually with a detail that makes you gasp and laugh at the same time. In one of many highlights, an Uzi is dropped down some stairs; it goes off, thumping along, and manages to take out a slew of terrorists before it hits bottom and clicks empty. Who else would think of that, or pull it off so deftly? Cameron is smitten with the magic of excess, and in True Lies he indulges himself almost nonstop.
Still, Cameron has never resisted spoofing his own hardcore hardware. He’d be uncomfortable, I think, shepherding a solemnly patriotic Tom Clancy thriller. True Lies gets into the drawbacks of spy life; it’s hard, dangerous work, and murder on a relationship. (Cameron might well say the same of making movies.) He pays scant attention to the official plot motor, realizing we’ve seen it before — Arab terrorists threaten to blow up Miami. (Yes, but do they sing?) Cameron also gives a cameo to Charlton Heston, who performs in his usual stentorian, hyper-macho mode, blissfully unaware that in his eyepatch and fake scar he comes off as a rabid goofball. (He’s playing some agency bigwig who briefs Harry and his partners.) Heston, that grand American eagle, isn’t used here as a mythic figure to confer greatness on the movie, as he was in last year’s Tombstone — Cameron makes him seem hawkishly inhuman, as if Heston had just dropped by on his way to the War Room in Dr. Strangelove. The movie shows no particular respect for government institutions that preserve national security by being snoops.
Honesty is the watchword, despite the film’s title. True Lies, it turns out, is less about explosions and stunts than about a marriage that has sagged into vague boredom and low communication. When Harry assumes that Helen is cheating on him, his jovial partner (Tom Arnold in a fine comic performance) levels with him: “What did you expect? She’s a flesh-and-blood woman, and you’re never there.” The vigorous surveillance Harry subjects Helen to is wildly unnecessary, and it has offended some viewers. For me, though, it works nicely as a metaphor for the lengths America will go in order to feel secure in its marriages to other nations. If you feel for poor, spied-on Helen, try transferring your indignation to our intrusive foreign policies. Aside from that, the non-infidelity subplot allows for a ripe sleazeball turn by Bill Paxton, whose Simon is a twerp posing as a spy to get gullible ladies between his sheets. A car salesman pretending to be a spy, versus a spy pretending to be a computer salesman — fighting for the affections of Helen, who has no idea what either man really is. There’s no way True Lies, in which Helen is the least deceptive person on the screen, can be simply written off as misogynist.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is so polished and physically perfect that he needs leading ladies who take him for granted. When Helen awakes to see Harry in bed with her, she doesn’t register that she’s in the sack with the great beefcake of all time; he’s just her loving but boring husband, home late from a sales meeting. It’s a crime that Jamie Lee Curtis isn’t in more movies, but few screenwriters can create women sharp enough for her to play. Helen could have struck us as a ditz, falling for Harry’s lies and then Simon’s, but Curtis makes us see Helen’s confusing mixture of respect for the reassuring family life and lust for something new and exciting. For roughly the film’s last hour, she gets both. For reasons too ornate to explain here, Helen finds herself posing as a hooker and doing a sultry dance for a customer (who turns out to be Harry). The way this fundamentally inhibited woman gets over her initial embarrassment and gives in to the motion is superb. From the start of her career (shrieking and stabbing her way through Halloween), Curtis has specialized in repressed women who let the armor of ladylike demeanor fall with a resounding, gratifying clang. Harry’s eyes become baffled fried eggs as he witnesses his wife’s awakening; the sequence is hilarious.
The heart of True Lies is this relationship, so I wonder why Cameron had to make the thriller aspects of the plot timely and “significant” (the terrorists are avenging what we did in the Gulf), especially since it makes no sense. The terrorists show up every so often to scream and gesticulate; for their other trick, they blow things up. They’re almost no more than distractions blocking Harry and Helen’s reconciliation, and the climax — featuring a blown-out bridge, a nuclear warhead, and a Harrier jet — is massively exciting but empty; the punishing noise of the movie drowns out the dozens of logical questions (why is Harry’s daughter left alone with the key?, etc.). The final outcome isn’t logical either, but we buy into it because Cameron has built up to it. True Lies puts a neat spin on marital stability: The family that spies together stays together.