Friday, January 29, 2010

True Lies (1994)

True Lies is the odd one out in Cameron's filmography in several ways, not the least of which is its mediocrity. Excepting his sequels, it's his only film that's not original material: it's a remake, allegedly, of La totale!, a French comedy thriller from '91 that, so far as I can tell, is unavailable in the States. (Even Facets and Odd Obsession were stumped.)

True Lies
feels poised on the brink of obscurity. At least for being a Cameron film, at the time the most expensive movie ever made, and by all accounts a financial success, there has been no home video release since the non-enhanced DVD of '99, which sports nothing in the way of behind-the-curtain info. Even Wikipedia and IMDb are lacking in True Lies' raison d'etre.

One interesting trivia on both those sites is the mention of a sequel that was written but shelved after 9/11. Watching the film for (probably) the first time since then, it's easy to see why nobody wanted to revisit it, even if that only meant recording a commentary track.

Upon release, the film was protested by several groups, inlcuding the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. If you think the good v. evil dynamics in Avatar are insubstantial, you should take a look at the bumbling terrorist darkies on display in True Lies. It's a funny thing about Cameron that it takes a towering allegory that verges on laughable for him to say something relevant about the state of our world; when he makes something in a real world setting (another trait that makes Lies unique within his oeuvre) he falls flat on his face.

But the biggest problem with True Lies may be the farcical nature of the story. Cameron just doesn't know how to direct comedy. His already-thin characterizations swerve headlong into stereotypes and you end up with a product that is fiercely misogynist and anti-Arab. I certainly wish I could get my hands on a copy of La totale! so that I might discern what in True Lies was Cameron's own invention.

Compare the catfight between Helen Tasker (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Juno Skinner (Tia Carrere) inside a runaway limo on a bridge in the Florida Keys to the climactic battle between Ripley and the Queen in Aliens, arguably the best girl-on-girl showdown in film history. Granted, Ellen Ripley was not Cameron's own creation, but her maternalism sure was1 ; Cameron poses two mothers fighting over the same baby (again, that's how pathos works). In True Lies however, it's just two seventh-graders slapping at each other and shrieking over what might as well have been which one of them gets to dance with the cute boy. When Ripley calls the Queen a bitch, it cuts. It becomes iconic, quotable. Something for clip shows from now until the rest of time. When Juno calls Helen a bitch, it's because that's how bitches talk, and it's only the precursor to a lot more shrieking.

Later it's Schwarzenegger's Harry, not Helen, who will fight for their daughter. Helen is, of course, just a housewife. But if the arc of the film is about the healing of their soured marriage via the excitement of danger, then perhaps she deserves a moment or two of her own. The coda indeed reveals that they have become married spies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, yet the only evidence we've seen of Helen's abilities in this arena are knocking out Juno Skinner and accidentally killing about twenty terrorists by dropping an uzi down a flight of stairs. Why not actually have her secret spy husband teach her some things and then let Helen save the day? That would've been at least slightly progressive.

Instead, True Lies is a decayed paean to the kind of machismo antics that give action movies a bad name. An ill-conceived jihad farce and his only film to cast Schwarzenegger as a regular American with a grasp of the English language, I really do wonder what Cameron was going for here. I think the answer must lie in the shot of Harry and Helen sharing a kiss as one of the nukes detonates.

That enduring image - maybe the only one in the film2 - is some kind of genius. For all the sweaty terrorists tripping over themselves, you wonder if Cameron is actually grasping at some kind of statement about the power of love and family over war and destruction. The Taskers' daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku, age 14!) is awkwardly roped into the plot for the final showdown between Harry and the big bad boss, who has discovered the existence of a daughter to kidnap and leverage. Ironically, Dana does more to save America than her mom does in swiping the ignition key while Aziz is trying record another one of his righteous monologues, and she does so without a second thought and at the first opportunity she gets. This family is knitted close by the nuclear threat to their safety, a loveless marriage made Rockwellian from the proximity to danger, romantic in its goofiness even as I roll my eyes.

1.) Ripley was originally conceived as genderless. In fact, all the characters in Dan O'Bannon's screenplay for Alien were cast without reference to gender. Tom Skerritt had come out to audition first for the character that went to Sigourney Weaver. [back]

2.) Somewhat disturbing - though not surprising, I suppose - is the number of photoshop collages cobbled together from Curtis' striptease available just by doing a Google image search for "true lies". [back]

This is the second part of an open-ended series in which I intend to revisit the work of James Cameron. Click here to read my review of AVATAR.

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