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‘True Lies’ 4K UHD (Digital review)

Disney

We often say (to the point of cultural cliche) that “they couldn’t make this film today” but James Cameron’s love letter to the spy genre, True Lies, is surely a film that could not be made today.

Ironically the basic structure of the plot, that one partner is a committed relationship is in reality an action hero and that their current case will compromise the double life they’ve built for themselves, is copied constantly to this day.

The devil is in the details here where Cameron’s ferocious commitment to technical excellence and the often mean-spirited nature of the humor of the script make it clearly an artifact of both pre-CGI and pre-9/11 American cinema.

It seems to me impossible to believe anyone doesn’t know the plot of this film, but for those who need a refresher: Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a secret agent for an ultra-secret American counter-terror squad investigating the heist of Soviet nuclear weapons by the Crimson Jihad while trying to fulfill his responsibilities as a husband and father.

When Harry and his partner Albert (Tom Arnold, who is great here) discover that Harry’s wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) is being courted by a slimy car salesman who is pretending to be a spy (Bill Paxton), they contrive their own operation to punish her. However, that operation gets blown by the Crimson Jihad and Harry and Helen have to save America and keep their family together.

This film feels like the final evolution of Cameron as an action stylist and the only film he’s made that builds off of the technical excellence he displayed in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

The Key West chase scene is the single most impressive combination of miniatures, digital effects, and location photography I’ve ever seen in an action movie, full stop. The fact that it’s not even the climax of the film, shows Cameron’s ambition to elevate the American action film to a level of spectacle we’ve literally never seen before or since. It’s relatively easy to just computer generate armies, but the illusion of literally destroying highways and cars at speed is just unmatched here. You really wish he got the chance to follow this up with Spider-Man as planned so he could’ve set the standard for the visual language of comic book movies.

The reason this film is not quite as universally loved as Terminator 2 is in the script. Cameron chose to lampoon the terrorists with Tom and Jerry style physical humor throughout and it has not aged well.

Islamic terrorism took on all sorts of visceral immediacy and cultural baggage after 9/11 and what was, at the time, subversive gallows humor becomes read as a right-wing dog whistle. This is actually a misreading of intent: the reason the Crimson Jihad are so flat and buffoonish is because the real threat of the film is that middle class ennui will destroy this family and the terrorists are just there to make the need for reconciliation more urgent. In other words, this Arnold action film from 1994 is not intended as a serious geopolitical analysis of the ethics of terrorism in the Levant.

Likewise the charge of misogyny that is thrown at the film is because Cameron isn’t afraid to be mean in his comedic complications in the second act of the picture, knowing that this is a classical comedy (in its own comic book sort of way) and all the good guys will come better for the pain and misunderstandings they’ve experienced. Here I think the charge is more warranted because Arnold’s character doesn’t get slung through enough mud to make up for the obvious hypocrisy of punishing his wife for a contained version of the same charade he’s been putting her through for 17 years.

In an ideal script, the torture scene would have served the same purpose they serve in Bond movies and Lethal Weapon, where they humanize an impossibly capable main character are harden the audience’s resolve to see them win, but here the torture is a fake out.

Extras include a retrospective doc and trailer.

The heart of the film is in Arnold’s easy charm in both the action and situation comedy, and Jamie Lee Curtis’ very relatable longing for excitement and need for substance in her life and relationships. It’s an extremely difficult act to maintain comedic spontaneity in a film as complex and technically demanding as this one, it’s why so few special effects driven comedies work, but this film pays it off effortlessly as a gentle farce at the expense of middle class concerns and an affirmation of the primacy of the family.

True Lies marries some of the greatest action scenes ever put to film with smart humor and fun performances. It feels insubstantial at points, but it adds up to one of the most polished action entertainments of the 1990’s.

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