Film Reviews

True Lies: The “Pina Colada Song” of Bond Spoofs

Let’s talk about the inherent absurdity of True Lies.

A Top-Secret Spy Who Stands Out in Every Crowd

You’re a top-secret spy who knows how to fly a jet, ride a horse, and speak multiple languages – all of them in an Austrian accent. You always have a quip at the ready. (“Here, cool off” is your joke after dunking a would-be assassin’s head in a urinal.) Even though you look like a bodybuilder from Mount Olympus, you manage to infiltrate bad guy dinner parties without being noticed – other than by a stunning woman whom you instantly tango with. Your wife and pre-teen daughter genuinely believe you’re a boring computer salesman.

When you discover your wife may be having an affair with a used car guy who is only pretending to be a spy, you tap her phone, divert both ground and aerial teams to follow her, kidnap her, and force her to dance seductively for someone she believes to be a terrorist but is, in fact, you on the other side of a darkened room. You charge all of the expenses to Uncle Sam without any oversight from your eye-patch-wearing boss and minimal pushback from your best bud/partner.

Also, you look exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger, someone whose physique and unshakable accent ensures he’s far more likely to play Rambo than James Bond.

A Desperate Housewife Who Looks Like Jamie Lee Curtis

Your husband with an Austrian accent and the body of a real-life superhero bores you to tears with the minutia from his job as a computer salesman. When you casually joke about sleeping with a repairman to knock down the bill, he says “good job” because he wasn’t really listening. You can’t remember the last time he made it home on time for dinner let alone offered you anything resembling romance. The sand is running out of your hourglass, and you’re getting a little desperate. To paraphrase a girl from another film of the era, what you wouldn’t give for some action!

Also, you look exactly like Jamie Lee Curtis, an actress once leeringly nicknamed “The Body” (in response to her impressive curves in the 1985 aerobics drama Perfect) and “Freeze Frame” (due to how many people paused their copies of Trading Places just to see her one topless scene). But, sure, you’re a frumpy legal secretary.

These two people – the super-spy who doesn’t actually blend in anywhere, the frustrated wife with a secret Jessica Rabbit streak – exist in the same movie. It’s called True Lies (1994), an utterly absurd, oh-so-90s blockbuster as equally if not more improbable as many other films of its era.

History Has Been a Harsh Judge

True Lies, however, has been called “more horrible to women than Lars von Trier’s Antichrist,” “the last wholly un-PC action film,” and – in a quote from a Southern Illinois University professor that might have been a tad hyperbolic – “one of the most racist movies Hollywood has ever produced.”

True Lies was also a huge hit, with both audiences and critics. Empire Magazine called it “unbeatably good fun.”

I…well, I’ve always felt conflicted about this movie. As an Ahnold and James Cameron fan from way back, I, of course, saw and enjoyed True Lies in theaters and owned it on home video. The action sequences are uniformly top-notch. The premise – What if James Bond had a wife and kid (Eliza Dushku) who know nothing about his job? – is brilliant, pilfered as it is from a 1991 French comedy. And Jamie Lee Curtis’ legendary striptease sequence was an important part of my sexual maturation, though, thankfully, I’ve never had to tell her that face-to-face on national TV.

But there’s a casual cruelness to True Lies that has become more apparent with time. The Guardian, Telegraph, and the many, many, many, omg so many others who’ve written their own True Lies retrospectives have had to wrestle with the film’s cartoonish Muslims and the way the story – as one reader put it – stops for 45 minutes “so that Arnold can put his wife through a hooker routine because he suspects her of cheating on him.” Add in Eliza Dushku’s sexual-assault allegation against True Lies’ stunt coordinator and you end up with a rather battered legacy for a movie that was once uber-popular.

Critics of the Time Debate The Striptease Scene

Even some 1994 critics felt Arnold and Cameron had gone too far. “A strain of crudeness and meanspirited humiliation, especially toward women, runs through the film like a nasty virus, vitiating all it touches,” Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan argued, scoring extra Scrabble points for his use of vitiating. “Most audiences, understandably diverted, will either not notice or perhaps not even mind, but it is disturbing and it shouldn’t be ignored.”

Janet Maslin of The New York Times, meanwhile, defended the film’s striptease sequence: “The scene has the potential to seem unpleasantly exploitative, but Ms. Curtis is much too deft a comedian to let that happen. And her own enjoyment of the moment comes through so clearly that the audience can enjoy it too.”

Indeed, that single moment during the striptease when she falls to the ground and instantly pops back up like nothing had happened does give the audience permission to laugh. Still, what the husband is putting his wife through in that scene is rather cruel.

Once More Into the Breach

In truth, however, it’s been a minute since I last took True Lies for a spin, and it just so happens to be available on HBO Now right now. Given the site’s current De-Evolution of James Bond marathon, I thought it prudent to give Trues Lies – an American Bond – another look. Now that I’ve seen more of the Bond filmography, how does an Americanized homage like True Lies stack up?

Once you get past the opening scene with tuxedoes, gadgets, a snowmobile chase and Tia Carrere’s very Bondian femme fatale, True Lies plays more like a general spy movie riff with a surprisingly heavy Naked Gun energy. Here, for example, are some of the crazy things that happen in this movie that I’d somehow forgotten about:

  • A still-firing machine gun tumbles down a set of steps like the baby carriage in The Untouchables and bad guys run straight into the line of fire.
  • A van with nukes in the back teeters over the edge of a newly destroyed bridge and has just achieved balance when a seagull briefly touches down on the hood, sending the van and all the poor bastards inside over the edge. Then, because it’s an action movie, the van immediately explodes.
  • A harrier jet lands on a city street with a crystal clear “No Parking on Shoulder” sign in the foreground.
  • A harrier jet floats in place
  • Art Malik’s big bad ends up strapped to a missile and fired at a nearby enemy helicopter like he’s a Looney Tunes character or maybe Slim Pickens riding the nuclear bomb in Dr. Strangelove.

And while I actually did remember this scene it bears repeating – Arnold and Jamie Lee share their first true romantic embrace as a mushroom cloud erupts behind them.

The point is, as Empire argued in ‘94, True Lies is thoroughly imbued with an “over-the-top quality that makes it impossible to take seriously.” That’s the idea, at least.

Still Funny Today?

James Cameron – who wrote the script on his own after a team of three scribes were sent packing – seems vaguely aware that a plot with villainous, post-Gulf War Arabs pledging death to American cities and a protagonist who tricks his wife into being his hooker runs the risk of courting bad taste. So, True Lies is stuffed to the brim with jokes, making it Cameron’s first and only comedy.

Some of the bits – like Bill Paxton’s slimy used car salesman, most of Tom Arnold’s one-liners, and a truth serum’ed Schwarzenegger saying “yeah, but they were all bad” – still play. Some of it – like Ahnold and Arnold cruelly interrogating Jamie Lee about her sex life via an interrogation room and speaker with a voice modulator – not so much.

The action, courtesy of a clever mix of practical, miniature, stunt performers, and complimentary visual effects, still impresses a quarter-century later. Cameron’s visual effects crew had been an Oscar-winning streak, a streak arguably broken with True Lies because their work is more seamlessly integrated and nowhere near as obvious as the T-1000. Arnold’s rescue of Jamie Lee from the limo during the Seven Mile Bridge sequence was recently ranked by Popular Mechanics as one of the top 10 best movie stunts of all time. I don’t disagree.

Mostly the handy work of stunt performers, but that really is Jamie Lee in the bottom left corner.

Maybe Try Not Thinking About It?

But I find the overall effect of watching True Lies to be similar to listening to the Rupert Holmes song “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” Written and recorded in 1979, Holmes’ poppy ode to casual adultery was introduced to an entirely new generation when it appeared on James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack, resulting in a long round of: “Have you actually listened to the lyrics? The guy in this song is trying to cheat on his wife!”

The backstory is Holmes saw a want ad in the newspaper – translation for younger readers: he saw the 1979 version of a Tinder profile on a 1979 version of his phone – and wondered what would happen if he responded and the person who placed the ad turned out to be his wife. For the record: Holmes married his childhood friend Elizabeth in 1969 and they remain together today.

In reality, a “You mean you were trying to have an affair? Isn’t that funny – I was too!” turn of events would probably produce yelling, name-calling, and heartbreak. In Holmes’ version, the couple seems wryly amused. They really are each other’s perfect match since “they both love pina coladas, being caught in the rain and making love at midnight.”

Rolling Stone readers ranked it one of the 10 worst songs of the 70s. I think it’s pretty catchy, in that same way pop songs with secretly disturbing messages often are. But how you feel about it probably says a lot about how much thought you want to put into pop music, your own musical tastes and willingness to ever use the expression “it was the 70s” when discussing pop culture.

The same principle applies to True Lies – your patience for oh-so-dumb, potentially even offensive 90s blockbusters will go a long way here. Coincidentally, both the song and the movie reach similar endings: with all of the subterfuge behind them, husband and wife embark on a better life together.

In Conclusion

It’s not as easy to thoughtlessly consume something like True Lies, of course. The film is 140 minutes long whereas “The Pina Colada Song” is a little earworm that asks no more than 4 minutes of your time. However, just as you might appreciate a particular Rupert Holmes turn of phrase or the double drumming on the track there is plenty to admire – both on a performance and technical level – about True Lies 26 years after its release. The filmmaking teams behind John Wick Parabellum and Mission: Impossible – Fallout sure thought so, seeing as how they clearly tried to put their own spin on True Lies’ horse vs. motorcycle chase and bathroom fight scenes respectively.

Really, True Lies’ ultimate legacy is captured in just about every second of that James Corden clip I shared earlier. Curtis, Corden, and Kumail Nanjiani – himself of Pakistani origin, just like Art Malik – debate terminology: Is what she did in the movie a striptease? A dance? Or both? Then she has to gracefully listen to a much younger man describe what sounds awfully close to his first erection. He’s uncomfortable saying it, but she’s a bit uncomfortable hearing it, though they each laugh their way through it. By the end, Nanjiani cracks a joke about how the bad guys in the movie look like him but reassuringly adds, “I love that movie.”

I’m not in that “love that movie” space anymore with True Lies, but I can’t quite hate it either. I get why you might, though.

Where do you stand on True Lies? Let me know in the comments. True Lies is available to stream on HBO Now until June 1, 2020.


    1. I actually have not. I vaguely recall seeing the box cover at video stores. The plot description kind of sounds like True Lies 3 – like not what happens in the next hypothetical movie where Harry and Helen finally work together, but what happens in the movie after that where they try to retire. (Yes, I know the real True Lies 2 they talked about doing would have been about the daughter becoming a spy. Just go with me here.) Oddly, though, I just looked up Undercover Blues on my Roku and on Vudu. No dice either place, even just to rent. Should I look harder? Is it any good?

      1. Well, I personally like it, for whatever that’s worth. It’s fun and funny, not so over-the-top, a largely cute and family-friendly adventure. And apparently, from what I just saw on google, a bit harder to come by than I remember. Hm.

  1. I still love this film. I still love Bill Paxton playing a sleazy dbag and getting his comeuppance. I now wonder if that scene inspired the proper introduction of Saul Goodman in the BB episode “Better Call Saul”.

    I know the way he treats his wife is horrible and will try to justify it by saying it’s not as bad as almost every James Bond film.

    I’ve always assumed that’s how Harriers worked in VTOL mode.

    Your autocorrect should have gotten Uzi correct.

    1. Bill Paxton is still hilarious in this movie. Back in the day, when Arnold punches him so hard that his neck snaps I genuinely believed the film had taken a shocking turn. The little takeout totally got me. I love that after Paxton’s been taken hostage, masked and scared to death he has that moment where he swears they don’t need to kill him since he hasn’t seen their faces and then Arnold removes his mask. Paxton looks up and his eyes briefly light up. He recognizes Arnold’s face from their test drive earlier and has this little moment where he seems to genuinely believe it will all go away if he just sells him that car with a steep discount.

      “I’ve always assumed that’s how Harriers worked in VTOL mode.”

      You are right. Until now, I didn’t know Harriers can actually operate like that. Took that part out.

      “Your autocorrect should have gotten Uzi correct.”

      It did not because, as it turns out, “oozie” is an actual word, part of the name of “workflow scheduling system.” But I’ve now corrected the error. Thanks for pointing it out.

  2. I was not able to to see this when it came out, then saw it years later. And I would say, thanks to that, because:

    “Jamie Lee Curtis’ legendary striptease sequence was an important part of my sexual maturation…”

    Not with me. Lols. When I saw it, I thought it was weird, that suddenly it will go into R-rated territory. Didn’t find it sexy. Though I was surprised with how Jamie Lee Curtis look drastically different when wearing office dress vs. two-piece. I thought that there’s something wrong with Arnie’s character though I didn’t really gave it that much thought.

    So that’s what that GotG’s Pina Colada Song was all about. What is it with Holmes and songs about “married guy tryin’ to commit adultery”? He has another song “Terminal”, which I’m fairly familiar with (said to be a huge hit back home but not elsewhere). You might have heard of it.

    1. “Not with me. Lols. When I saw it, I thought it was weird, that suddenly it will go into R-rated territory. Didn’t find it sexy.”

      It plays differently now, for sure. Back then, though, I dunno – the mid-90s were oddly busy with this kind of thing. You’ve got Madonna releasing her sex book in ’92, Jamie Lee stripteasing in ’94, Elizabeth Berkley going even further in Showgirls in ’95, and Selma Hayek doing her snake dance in Frank Dusk Till Dawn in ’96. Plus, of course, Demi Moore in the actual movie Striptease in ’95. Moore was paid $12.5 million for that film, reportedly the highest single movie payout for any actress in history to that point, and she plays a stripper.

      It was all influential enough that in the latter half of the decade I remember seeing news stories about wives installing stripper poles in their houses and a new workout trend emerging around stripper pole fitness routines. Today, of course, you wouldn’t call them strippers – exotic dancers, proper nomenclature, please – and a pole fitness routine wouldn’t seem so new. Plus, the way people talked about Jennifer Lopez in the movie Hustlers last year was peppered with far more language about empowerment than exploitation.

      The point is Jamie Lee’s sequence in True Lies was part of a mid-90s trend. In fact, you could argue she helped start that trend. So, at that time it didn’t seem quite so strange, and if you were a boy who happened to be just the right age during that period it was eye-opening stuff. Today, things are just different. Maybe years and years from now women who came of age when the Magic Mike movies came out will tell similar “crucial to my sexual maturation” stories like I did with True Lies. Even then, however, the dynamics are so different there than they are in the plot of True Lies.

      “Though I was surprised with how Jamie Lee Curtis look drastically different when wearing office dress vs. two-piece.”

      For some reason, one of the things I kept thinking about while rewatching the movie was that they took something like half a year to film this, the crew hated the taskmaster/perfectionist James Cameron so much that they wore shirts which read “You Can’t Scare Me – I Made a James Cameron Movie!” (or something like that), and Jamie Lee’s character is stuck in that skintight black minidress for the entire second half of the picture, well at least until the epilogue scene with the tango. Given all that, there were probably literal months – months, as in plural – where all she wore while filming was that dress. Like a superhero movie actor hoping to never bust the spandex, she had to have been dieting and working out religiously, not just to look amazing for the striptease but to stay in that dress for months. Not entirely out of the ordinary for an actor, of course, but still impressive.

      “So that’s what that GotG’s Pina Colada Song was all about.”

      Full disclosure: I AM one of those people who never listened that closely to the song’s lyrics until it landed on the GotG soundtrack, and I was absolutely not the only one in my little social circle who never knew what the song was really about. I am listening to Terminal for the first time ever as I write this. Has a kind of charming 70s AM pop sound to it but the actual lyrics are certainly in that “Rupert Holmes loves his ironic endings” category. It’s why I’m not stunned that he moved on from songwriting and became a playwright. As for why he kept going back to adultery themes, all I can say he had been married for a decade before “Pina Colada Song” came out, and as best I could tell, remains married today. Better to joke about in song than actually do in real life.

      1. “It plays differently now, for sure. Back then, though, I dunno – the mid-90s were oddly busy with this kind of thing.”

        I agree, now it would different. I actually saw it in early 00’s, not recently. Maybe, it would have same effect on me if I saw it in early to mid-90s. It would have probably have same impact that The Terminator or Shadow of a Wolf had on me (wink, wink) when I saw them in the early 90s. =)

        So, that’s how pole-dancing became some sort of sports that I have even seen them in some “got talent” shows on TV. At least, that’s something positive to get out of that infamous sequence.

  3. Pretty much where you stand. I think that the dynamic between husband and wife is initially extremely uncomfortable (until she realises what is actually going on). But damn, I just can’t hate a movie which has an action scene with a horse in a sky scraper.

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