After James Cameron shook the world with one of the biggest and most ambitious sci-fi blockbusters to define the ’90s (at least until The Matrix 1999), the Hollywood writer amused himself with blowing up the suburban malaise.
In True Lies – what should be said upfront is riddled with anti-Arab sentiment and was the production in which star Eliza Dushku was attacked as a teenager – Cameron reunites with Arnold Schwarzenegger for a spy-fi broadcast of marital troubles. Like a weird love child in between Impossible Mission and Modern romancethe film, a remake of the 1991 French comedy La Totale! shows Cameron at cruise control as the famed filmmaker reiterates his hits of directorial skill, cranking up the bombast while downplaying his usual innovative showmanship.
As Cameron returns to theaters with the tech onslaught Avatar: The Way of Water, True Lies proves he always knew how to tell exciting, painfully relatable stories without making it all look like a next-gen video game. (It’s also now streaming on Peacock, albeit in a low-resolution transmission that feels like you put a DVD in your grandmother’s TV.)
Released between Cameron’s paradigm shift T2: Judgment day and titanic, True Lies Stars a comparatively banal Schwarzenegger. As Harry Tasker, Schwarzenegger plays a sleek (albeit oversized) spy who can reach 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 salesman has fostered a functional but dispassionate marriage to Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), a legal secretary. Both are aliens for their daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku), who is picked up by boys on motorbikes every morning.
Harry is a top agent for the mysterious Omega Sector, with authoritative reach and an operating budget only a screenwriter could imagine. Amid an investigation into a nuclear arms sale to terrorists in the Middle East, Harry discovers that Helen may be having an affair. These stories collide in weird, hilarious, and literally explosive ways as Helen gets caught up in Harry’s real work and sees firsthand what he does for a living.
At first glance, there’s a lot that feels regressive True Lies. Their stock of Arab antagonists is little developed beyond the oriental, moustache-twirling archetypes of a racist past. And perhaps too much of the film’s comedy depends on the real-time trauma of a confused and frustrated Helen. Get the script right and you have a husband manipulating his wife – including forcing her to do an erotic striptease – to prove something. We only know she can take it because she’s Michael Myers defeater Jamie Lee Curtis, who’s a broke bored housewife and secretly craves adventure.
But many True Lies still resonates almost 30 years later. His portrayal of American male masculinity in crisis feels powerful in this modern age of Joe Rogan podcasts, even if Harry never seems like he’s succumbing to an alt-right algorithmic rabbit hole. The film’s take on modern manhood is much more innocent and quaint. Harry already lives an enviable lifestyle, he just doesn’t know how to include those he loves most. It’s still relevant somewhere, I’m sure. (Or not. I’m not married.)
What could have been a cowardly action comedy is made palatable by the delicate work of Cameron, who splits the difference between a thrilling set piece action spectacle and an adult comedy about spouses learning to be honest. True Lies doesn’t reach the heights Cameron has reached before and since, and some of his best moments feel like retreads T2.
But as Cameron has proven time and time again, off terminator to avatarhe is the quintessential cinema DJ, capable of giving moviegoers everything they want and nothing more. True Lies broadcasts Cameron’s signature formula, eschewing the fancy computer effects for tried-and-true miniatures and old-fashioned stunts performed by real people. But whether his films are tech demos or not, his filmmaking is always like that of a rock star shredding notes while his eyes are fixed on volume. True Lies seems like a relaxed encore after a strenuous performance T2 — and a thematic prologue to his fixation on families in his avatar Saga.
If you can see past all the ugliness True Lies laid out simply, one might find simple beauty to enjoy. It’s a less strenuous, more engaging rival of Stanley Kubrick eyes wide closed and an evolutionary predecessor of Doug Liman before 9/11 Mr and Mrs Smith. It’s not high on anyone’s list, be it a list of films falsifying contemporary marriages or just the work of James Cameron. But it’s still a good time, like a night out with someone you’ve already committed to.
True Lies is now streaming on Peacock.