True Lies is a film whose best moments are not given away by its trailer, which promises only a dated combination of Walter Mitty and stereotypical kill-the-Arab (with a maximum of bang). The film's public relations people want us to laugh knowingly at the idea of Jamie Lee Curtis describing Arnold Schwarzenegger, her superman of a screen husband, as a bore, never suspecting that he's out there saving the world's bacon on a weekly basis. That's a shallow and annoying notion, and it suggests the same dim level of fantasizing that extinguished The Last Action Hero.
In any event, Hollywood's entire action-movie genre, with its lumbering '80s dinosaurs, already seems subverted unto death by Speed, which, (nearly) unencumbered by psychology, personality, technology, even the standard fig-leaf of a political theme, was able to scramble right up the evolutionary scale and survive while the Bruce, Sly and Arnold monsters died around it.
In other words, once I saw that Schwarzenegger was again going to try to escape his fate and play something other than a killing machine, I didn't think that even the expensive pop genius of James Cameron could save him.
But it turns out that the Arnold beast has a larger brain-pan than, say, Stallone's creature, and that Schwarzenegger's earlier and reasonably successful attempts at evolution (Twins, I suppose) weren't flukes. It's not that he completely reinvents himself in True Lies. His performance's substantial thrill comes rather from his letting us in on the joke: you can dress the barbarian in a dinner jacket, allow him a series of nuanced line-readings -- you can make him into the nearest thing we've got to Cary Grant! -- and he might still bite your hand off at the elbow.
Better still, it's not you who is converting Arnold. As cunning and dangerous as a wolf, Arnold himself is the one who wants to learn ballroom dancing. Maybe that's not such a surprise; he seems to have completely mastered the Teutontic waltz and war two-step to which he was born.
That's why just minutes into True Lies I realized I was in for a less predictable ride than I'd feared. At the site of a party sophisticated enough for 007 himself, Arnold rises up out of the ice of a frozen river and peels off a wet suit to reveal a dinner jacket underneath. We've seen that one before, I thought, then immediately melted before Arnold's onslaught of charm, at the ease and playfulness with which he cons and charms his way through the fete en route to fulfilling his secret mission. The setting, and the fact that Arnold escapes his captors in part by performing a waltz with the film's villainess (Tia Carrere), takes us back to a less muscle-bound stage in action-hero evolution, the Sean Connery years.
Arnold's execution of his waltz shows that he's learned to absorb Connery's style (if not, perhaps, Connery's innate sophistication) into his own musculature. His waltz is thrilling because Arnold brings to bear the same control, informed by brute power, that made him a body-building god. He could break his partner in two, but that wouldnÕt be smart. This dance, and Arnold's look of a wolf, likely mark his high point as an on-screen sexual being. Protected by his dinner jacket, not afraid that he'll actually kill somebody if he gets too excited, Arnold sweeps Carrere away. And you know exactly what she'll be dreaming about for the rest of her life.
There was so much tension in the opening dance that I was disappointed when the mayhem finally began, and Arnold had to escape the party by conventional action-movie means. Now it'll become just another member of the dinosaur pack, I thought, but then found my next pleasant surprise in the film's other Arnold -- Tom, Rosanne's ex.
Through careful planning I had missed his television series, but certainly not his public persona as the Yoko Ono of the '90s. I'd never considered him an interesting talk-show or Entertainment Tonight presence, but here he was perfect as Gib, Schwarzenegger's sleazy but sympathetic sidekick. Later, when the marriage of Schwarzenegger's character, Harry, seems to be on the rocks because of the stress espionage puts on domestic life, Gib tries to console his pal with tales of his own marital woes. The commingling of trash-and-celebrity-based journalism, indeed the entire spirit of the '90s, invades True Lies every time Tom Arnold/Gib tosses off a line about his ex-wife the demented slut. This may not sound like a compliment, but in fact the effect is thrilling, as is any condensation of an age into a little give-and-take of dialogue. It's Tom Arnold's cheerful acceptance of his low quality of life that redeems him, though I'm not exactly sure how that works.
Meanwhile, back at the action, Cameron stages a chase scene involving Harry on horseback and a mad Arab terrorist on a motorcycle that's worthy of Speed or, for that matter, of the Nicolas Cage-chased-by-a-dog extravaganza of Raising Arizona. Here, Arnold has a few of his trademark whimsical, off-handed line-readings, as when he rides his horse into an elevator and casually asks the elderly couple inside if they "would mind pushing the top button."
This chase scene looks like so much fun that you can hardly blame Harry for having missed dinner with his wife, Helen (Curtis). The next day, when he drops by unexpectedly for lunch in hope of making up, he learns that she may be having an affair (if you haven't seen the movie you may want to stop reading here), and the same passion that he had put into fighting nuclear terrorism is now converted into jealousy.
To this point the movie is a wittier than expected thriller, but when Harry meets the green-eyed monster, it threatens to become something much more exhilarating. Gib tries to excuse Helen's secret life away by pointing out that Harry, of all people, can't complain. Does his wife know the real him? Hardly.
Reasonable words, but Harry doesn't listen. Instead, he turns to his inner beast -- which is conjured up every bit as easily and convincingly as was Nicholson's in Wolf -- and goes for revenge. For a heady 15 minutes or so, every imaginable male nastiness (well, maybe not all of them) is put on darkly-lit display as Harry brings the full power of the U.S. intelligence community to bear on his unsuspecting wife.
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When Harrison Ford's straight-arrow character used that same power to protect his family in Patriot Games it felt false, because the character's passion was straight off the give-the-audience-what-they-think-they-want rack. But Harry is using his great, even god-like, power for destruction of both self and family, and observing him we feel like we're watching really Candid Camera.
After Harry has tapped his wife's phones, bugged her purse and had her tailed by a helicopter, I thought, I can't believe James Cameron got to spend 100-120 million U.S. dollars to tell the unspeakable truth about contemporary American life. And sure enough, he backs off. Helen has nothing to really hide; it turns out she was more tempted than sinning. (Bill Paxton, the sheriff of the fine One False Move, is wonderfully sleazy as Helen's fantasy-tripping, would-be lover.)
But what if Harry had illicitly intercepted her sexual moans, and combined them with memories of his dance of death with Tia Carrere's character? Then we might have gotten to the bottom of true lies.
Instead, Cameron swerves off into action shenanigans. These are filmed to eye-popping impact, but their effect quickly becomes "so what?" The threat here is not linked to Harry's domestic affairs; it's pure plot device. Still, by the time Cameron finally succumbs, he and the two Arnolds have pushed hard and well against the confines of genre.