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 FilmExperience.net 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.
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.
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.