One of James Cameron’s more obscure films is True Lies (1994), a high-concept action romp starring everyone’s favourite muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger. On a budget of circa $120 million, it recouped $378.9 million making it one of Cameron’s less successful films – but that doesn’t detract from what remains a great fun action romp.
Having worked closely with Cameron across The Terminator and its sequel, Schwarzenegger came to the Canadian director with the idea of remaking French comedy film La Totale! Directed by Claude Zidi in 1991.
True Lies is, therefore (and you won’t catch us using that adverb very often), a remake. Did you know that? Did you even know this film existed?
Whatever, it represents the type of high-concept, daft but enjoyable action romps that Hollywood has since dropped in favour of a perpetual stream of bland superhero films.
The protagonist is Harry Tasker (Big Arnie), whose quiet middle class, urban life is actually a sham. To his daughter and wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) he’s a computer salesman. But he’s really part of a covert team of counter-terrorists working for the US government.
After the brilliantly explosive intro to the film (Cameron is a total genius with action set pieces), Tasker finds his marital facade is alienating his wife – Helen.
Bored at work and home, Harry seems oblivious to her dissatisfaction with life. And then it emerges she’s probably having an affair with some chap called Simon.
It’s at this point the role offers Schwarzenegger something more interesting to do than flash his muscles and look menacing. During the 1980s, impossibly stupid romps like Commando (1985) earned the Austrian a name in the industry for action movie fans.
But most critics were eager to point out how terrible he was at acting. However, to his credit, Schwarzenegger really came on quickly with the likes of Predator (1987) showcasing he did have some range.
True Lies is one of his most impressive efforts. We’re not saying he’s a Shakespearean thespian here, but his reputation as a “bad” actor isn’t always deserving.
And when it turns out Helen is merely being stalked by devious used cars salesman Simon (Bill Paxton sporting a great moustache), Schwarzenegger gets to do something more laudable then shoot guns and grimace.
The film’s great sense of fun really comes alive after Simon triggers off a bout of immense jealousy from Harry. And this inadvertently brings the rest of his family into the firing line of a terrorist organisation.
All the while a series of endless white lies the antagonists and protagonists exist off propel the narrative arc. And in some instances, like below, Helen is openly lying to her husband, who’s aware of the nonsense she’s spewing out.
But then that’s a taste of your medicine, eh, Harry?! Goddamn men.
It’s still a great fun film with a sense of innovation, although the final act does descend into total action film carnage. Although, as always with Cameron, they’re memorable set pieces that really pushed the boundaries of special effects (at the time).
It’s clear what was going on here. The Cameron/Schwarzenegger combo went for a project with a focus on great fun.
And although some of the cutting-edge tech features have aged a bit (such as Harry using a tiny camera hidden in a cigarette packet – that was way ahead of the time back then, kids), it’s that sense of fun that carries you through to the end rooting for the Tasker family.
Right, so the film is great fun popcorn entertainment.
Whilst cinemagoers didn’t receive an all-time classic, we all got a self-aware film that embraces its more preposterous elements to remind us of how bloody fun cinema can be.
It’s delivered with some real verve and, as you’d expect from Cameron, there are some amazing action sequences.
Schwarzenegger was heading for 50 at the time so took a step back with some of the stunts, but the real star of the show here is really Jamie Lee Curtis. Her performance as Helen is just exceptional.
She’s an endearing, doting wife who breaks out of her mould and comes to embrace the excitement of derring-do. And Curtis is comedic, open, and poignant – a real tour de force.
Cameron is famous for including strong female leads in his films and this is another example of how he shakes up the damsel in distress motif.
The use of Art Malik to portray Salim Abu Aziz – a Middle Eastern terrorist – is certainly now one of the more controversial elements of the film.
Malik, a British actor most famous for his role in BBC series The Jewel in the Crown, had no problem taking the gig as it helped to pay off some of his debts.
He later described the filming experience as “a hoot” – it also followed over a year of unemployment for him with the Inland Revenue pursuing him for £32k.
Other starring roles include the much-missed Bill Paxton, who is brilliant as the slimeball Simon.
It’s a tough role to make endearing in any way. But Paxton’s charismatic bullshitting descent into a cowardly breakdown – veering from self-deprecation, to staggering narcissism, and back to total personal collapse – is entertaining stuff.
Finally, we have the legendary director. He’s a forceful bloke and now classes himself as in the “angry young artist” phase of his career.
But he would often hold studios to ransom. For instance, he refused to make the film unless Tom Arnold (who turned up at an audition primarily just to meet the director) was allowed a part.
And that’s a common obstinacy that makes up his career, as he employed similar unmoving tactics across many of his films.
Hiring and firing, life-threatening situations, total dedication to getting the job done to his vision?
Yep. And if you’re an actor, well you can either like it or lump it. Or not appear in one of his films. We know which option we’d bloody well go for.