True Lies: Why James Cameron’s Mega-Budget Action Movie Has Faded From Memory

By Drew Dietsch | 5 months ago

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True Lies had enormous expectations when it opened in the summer of 1994. It was James Cameron’s follow-up to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a record-breaking box office and critical success. It reteamed Cameron with action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it had the added allure of Jamie Lee Curtis as the female lead. It promised to be an action-comedy of epic proportions, and it was the first movie to ever have a reported budget over $100 million.

Audiences helped make True Lies a domestic hit, but it was the international box office that turned it into a big one. Critics were mixed-to-positive for the most part, but thanks to a strong home video and cable presence, the movie stuck around for many years.

However, True Lies has somewhat slipped out of the conversation in the last decade. Has the movie fallen out of favor with modern audiences? Is it not holding up to the test of time? What still works and what doesn’t?

Let’s see if True Lies is as exciting and engaging as it was over twenty-five years ago.

True Lies Is An Action Extravaganza

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If you’re grading True Lies purely on its action spectacle, it’s safe to say that it more than holds up. Cameron was able to use his colossal clout to demand extravagant action set pieces that are still inarguably impressive.

From the opening snowbound shootout to the legitimately astounding chase sequence on the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys, True Lies overruns with ridiculous and exhilarating action. If you want to see Arnie shoot a giant stream of flame into a bunch of henchmen or ride a horse to the top of the Westin Bonaventure, this movie will satisfy that pure cartoon pleasure.

And it is indeed pleasurable. The ludicrous lengths Cameron goes to for tactile action are worth commending. No set piece is tiny or throwaway. If Cameron is going to do an action scene, he’s going to go all-in. Plus, with it being 1994, so much of the action is done in-camera or with as many practical effects as possible. As a piece of action filmmaking, True Lies still deserves high praise.

But, what about the cast?

An Elite Force

True Lies is clearly loaded with star power at every turn. Arnold was at the height of his box office popularity and he’s stretching his comedic muscles in a way he hadn’t really done before. Is it totally successful? Well, we’ll get to that a little later, but Arnold isn’t the problem at all. He’s doing what he’s supposed to and committing to the comedy.

Jamie Lee Curtis is the real star when it comes to the humor of True Lies. Her nebbish and unfulfilled housewife role is a perfect bit of gleeful misdirection for when she transforms into a sultry spy. Curtis clicks with the material immediately and plays every moment with utmost sincerity and non-forced sexiness. And there is appropriate chemistry between her Arnold. When the movie allows them to just sit with each other and bounce dialogue back and forth, their dynamic works and offers some of the best moments of the movie (the truth serum bit is the big standout between them).

However, the secret weapon of True Lies is Bill Paxton as a sleazy con man that’s trying to sleep with Curtis. The film turns into a total winner every second that he’s on the screen. His scumbag charm and eventual cowardice are pitch-perfect for the kind of farce Cameron is going for in his script. It’s actually a shame he’s not in more of the movie because the film gains serious comedic steam when he’s allowed to smear his greasy charisma all over the lens. If True Lies has a standout performance, it’s Paxton by a country mile.

But, the cast isn’t all winners. Tia Carrera is decent but overshadowed as the lead female villain. The worst member of the ensemble is Tom Arnold as Schwarzenegger’s secret agent partner. If Tom Arnold’s particular persona is your cup of tea, you might get a kick out of his beleaguered, pot-bellied alpha male schtick. In 2020, it reads as obnoxious and one-note. His presence always manages to bring the film down to something less enjoyable.

Unfortunately, it’s not just that one actor that has hurt True Lies over the years.

The Awful Truth

There are a number of things to consider when talking about True Lies in a modern context. Before we get to some more difficult aspects, let’s focus on the filmmaking alone because True Lies has a construction problem.

For one thing, True Lies is too damn long for the story it wants to tell. Based on the 1991 French film La Totale!, that version has its fair share of action but focuses far more on the comedic farce at the center of the story. In Cameron’s film, there are two warring movies: the farce and a big action plot involving terrorists. For a large chunk of the middle of Cameron’s film, the movie abandons its terrorist plot entirely. It’s a bizarre structuring choice that was mostly added into the remake, whereas La Totale! better blended the spy story with the plot involving the married couple. Because of this, a lot of the comedy doesn’t hit the way the movie wants it to.

There are also Cameron’s clunky editing choices in True Lies. The movie lacks a lot of great transitions from scene to scene, and it hurts the movie’s sense of flow and pacing. Not to mention that there are numerous shots where stunt doubles wearing masks or makeup to look like Arnie can be seen, and Cameron doesn’t cut away or frame shots in a way that better hides that issue. For as polished a production as True Lies is, a lot of its theme park strings are way too visible. It’s not surprising that the next thing Cameron directed was a literal theme park ride.

Now, we have to get to the really bad stuff. It’s worth noting that True Lies has likely left some of the conversation due to how its villains are portrayed. The over-the-top evil of the Arab terrorists in this movie is often pointed to as once of the worst depictions of Middle Eastern peoples in popular film. And that read isn’t wrong. Art Malik’s performance as the fanatical leader of the Crimson Jihad is such a caricature that it’s impossible to ever see him as an actual person. He’s a cartoon and one that is bolstered by a lot of racist stereotyping. While it may have been less egregious in 1994, this kind of character is extremely tough to defend all these years later.

Still, that pales in comparison to the real-life damage that True Lies caused actress Eliza Dushku. Dushku was twelve when they were in production, and she alleges she was sexually assaulted by the film’s thirty-six-year-old stunt coordinator, Joel Kramer. It’s very disturbing to watch the film now and see Dushku on-screen, thinking this kind of abuse may have been taking place as the movie was happening.

Dealing with real-world issues and how they relate to art is always a conversation, but it brings to mind the 1989 horror film Clownhouse by writer/director Victor Salva. Salva was abusing the twelve-year-old actor of that film, and it has been taken out of home video and streaming circulation by the studio. That’s likely in part because it’s a small, niche piece of horror cinema. Doing the same with True Lies would be a thornier situation due to its blockbuster status.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason True Lies hasn’t been championed as much in recent years. It has undeniably problematic elements that will forever be attached to it. Does that mean we can’t recognize the things that work about True Lies? No. It’s still worth valuing as a piece of popular entertainment and especially as a practical action film. But, it’s not hard to see why many people would rather avoid it altogether.

True Lies is a good but not great movie. It has phenomenal set pieces and a good cast, but it’s tough to totally argue for a movie with such unavoidably bad things attached to it. It still deserves to be viewed in the context of Cameron’s filmography, and the things that work about it work very well. If that’s all you need to be able to watch it, then I wish you well and honestly hope you have a good time. Me? I’d rather watch Commando again.

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