Have you ever killed anyone? Yes, but they were all bad!
True Lies remains one of my favorite Arnie films, because it perfectly balances humor and action; it’s his Die Hard. The funny thing there is that Bruce Willis’s breakthrough film that redefined action flicks was originally envisioned as a sequel to Arnie’s blockbuster Commando, which I feel is the most iconic action film of the ’80s. So, in essence, True Lies is Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron getting back together to show that they could out-Die Hard Die Hard. And mostly, they do. Them’s big words. Die Hard is also one of my favorite films, a Christmas tradition, and its effect on the genre is inescapable. How many movies can be described as “Die Hard on a plane/boat/Alcatraz/speeding bus”? The genre got so flood that the 3rd and 4th sequels avoided the trap entirely. True Lies on the other hand, loosely based on a French film called La Totale!, is an action movie with a simple and ingenious premise: what kind of home life does James Bond have? What does he tell his wife?
Of course Harry Tasker is not James Bond; he’s an American counter-terrorist spy who infiltrates a luxurious party in much the same way as Bond did in Goldfinger, with a white tuxedo under his wetsuit, to hammer the point home. Arnie and his groan-inducing one-liners are the perfect match, because Bond played that game first. We meet Tasker as he slips out of that wetsuit and slides into the ballroom party of an Arabian arms dealer; he’s communicating with partners in a surveillance van, Gib (Tom Arnold) and Faisil (Grant Heslov). He’s a natural, making small talk with the guests with that utter confidence Arnold exudes. He moves with a grace belying his size, from years of posing on stage, the overlooked physical aspect of his acting prowess blossoming once again under Cameron’s strict direction. After slipping upstairs to plug a hacking device onto the host’s PC, he makes his own distraction by dancing the tango with art dealer Juno, played by the exotic Tia Carrera.
Many reviewers were surprised at Arnold’s dancing, forgetting that this was Mr. Olympia, and bodybuilding at that level is not a clumsy endeavor. The comedy begins early, with Gib complaining about Harry dancing the tango when he should be leaving, and sets the tone for the spectacular escape sequence. Beginning with a classy Bond-like one-liner as he detonates the charges he set earlier as a distraction, soon he is running full blast through the snow, pursued by Dobermans, armed men on snowmobiles, and skiers with machine guns. In the film’s first 15 minutes, they throw the glove down for the Bond series, which would respond by upping the ante next year with Pierce Brosnan’s first and best entry, Goldeneye. Sadly that series would descend into idiocy until the recent reboot.
Harry makes it back to the van with a plethora of tricks- he knocks the dogs heads together, slides downhill on his back while shooting pursuers, and is cool as a cucumber as we hear bullets whip past our ears. Cameron has always paid great attention to the sound collage of an action soundtrack, and here to fit with the comic touches, the bullets are a bit quieter and almost cartoonish. We know Harry’s not going to get shot, and the final discharge of the battle is casual, “Excuse me,” as he reaches around his partners in the van to shoot one last bad guy. When they head home, Gib hands Harry his wedding ring- “Forgetting something?” and we immediately know that Gib is a closer partner than Harry’s wife will be, and when he walks through that door he’s going to his real job- pretending to be a normal guy, when he’d rather be out playing super spy with his buddies.
Harry works for Omega Sector- America’s Last Line of Defense, which is fittingly headed by Omega Man Charlton Heston. They outline their findings to their eye-patched leader at a meeting the next day, and he describes their noisy exit as a pooch-screwing of the highest order. It made me miss Mr. Heston and his fine oratory skills. I never got the hate for him, even after he worked for the NRA. This was a man who marched at Selma, but was vilified for not being a typical Hollywood hypocrite, glorifying guns in film and then saying us common folk shouldn’t be able to own them. He suffered like any man of principles, and I’m glad he got this memorable cameo in during his later years, before Alzheimer’s took him. At Omega, he’s the lone bad-ass among an office of goofs, who tango past Harry to mock him. It never flirts with late Roger Moore-era Bond silliness, and keeps things just above Our Man Flint. This was before Goldeneye briefly recharged the Bond franchise, and we were eager for a fun spy caper film.
The story is your typical “guy ignores family for his job” formula, and Harry hops into bed alongside his sleeping, mousy wife Helen (a hilarious Jamie Lee Curtis) and the next day resumes his façade of life as a boring salesman. The problem is, he’s so boring that his wife is considering cheating on him, with a sleazy car salesman named Simon, who pretends he’s a spy to get girls. While Harry is off following his lead on Juno Skinner, Helen’s having coffee with Simon, egged on by her co-workers who’re tired of hearing how Harry ignores her. And when Harry is getting attacked in a rest room by terrorists- led by the infamous “Sand Spider,” Salim Abu Aziz- Simon is taking credit for “the op,” and melting Helen’s butter.
The bathroom fight is one of the best fistfights you’ll see Arnie get into. Leave it to Cameron to make a classic set piece in a mall men’s room, having Arnie bash heads with an electric hand dryer, smash faces into urinals, and dodge AK-47 fire in toilet stalls. It’s an exciting and humorous battle that introduces us to the cold killer Aziz, played with relish by Art Malik (Ali from A Passage to India) and as expected, does not end there. Harry turns the tables on Aziz and chases him through the mall and out onto the streets, where they commandeer a motorcycle and a policeman’s horse. The chase leads across the and into a high rise hotel, through the kitchens and into the elevators to the rooftop, where Aziz makes a daring leap into a penthouse swimming pool. Harry gives chase, but his horse has more sense than he does.
Harry’s upset that he lost the bad guy, but he’s devastated the next day when he suspects Helen of infidelity. He walks out of the house in a trance. Cameron shocks us into laughter with Tom Arnold at his smart-ass best, who laughs it all off when Harry tells him the news. “I thought it was something serious!” And he goes on to tell us of his divorce woes. “She took the ice cube trays! What kind of sick bitch takes the ice cube trays?” Giving us a little hint that Gib’s home life is spent with a drink on the rocks. When Arnie balks at his nonchalant attitude, Gib tells him, “What did you expect, Harry? Helen’s a flesh and blood woman and you’re never there. It was only a matter of time.” But he still doesn’t get it; he puts a bug in her purse to find out what’s going on…
The next day Helen meets Simon and he takes credit for Harry’s chase through D.C.; Gib appreciates his audacity, saying “I’m beginning to like this guy. But we’re still gonna kill him!” The Arnolds here have great chemistry, and it’s really too bad that a sequel never made it. Tom Arnold still dreams of one, and was overheard dropping rumors about it recently, but it is very unlikely. Personally I’d love to see post-Gov Arnie and Jamie Lee return as retiree grandparents pulled back into the spy game as cranky old farts having to show the young’uns how it’s done, but Cameron seems too busy with his 3-D movies to come back to this. And we haven’t had a funny spy movie like this since. Mr. & Mrs. Smith? Yawn.
But I digress. Bill Paxton’s Simon practically steals the movie as the used car salesman sleazeball, and the scene where Harry test drives a ’58 Corvette ragtop with him is brilliant comedy. Because let’s face it, Arnold needs serious direction to be funny; with a weak director, like in many of the ’90s and ’00 entries in The Arnold Project, his family scenes never come off as real. He phones it in. With Cameron, the director who made him a mega action star, he gives his all. Paxton is great as usual, crafting an entirely new character with a porn ‘stache and oily hair falling into his eyes, without a hint of his trademark Chet or Hudson to be seen. He makes him slimy and pathetic, but when he says, “Okay, just ask yourself: What do women really want? You take these bored housewives, married to the same guy for years, they’re stuck in a rut, then need some release! Promise of adventure, a hint of danger.” Harry listens, and gets an idea…
In a hilarious waste of government resources- which Harry talks Gib into because he knows he “blew a mission because he was busy getting a plo chob*”- they get Omega Sector to pull a black op on Helen and Simon during their tryst at his love trailer. The classic humor of misunderstanding, as Harry thinks he sees her messing around, is priceless, as are Gib’s responses. Cameron’s one-line cameo as the chopper pilot, “Yup, she’s got her head in his lap. Yahoo.” and Gib trying to cool Harry off, “Maybe she’s sleepy?” are classic, and still make me laugh, a dozen viewings in. Jamie Lee Curtis is at the top of her comedy game as well, and when the special ops team captures her and “International Wanted Terrorist Carlos the Jackal” her reaction of frantic fear keeps us laughing and not wondering how scary this all is. Later, when Harry interrogates her through one-way glass with a voice mask, he realizes that she hasn’t cheated, and just wanted some excitement. So he plans on giving her some: she’ll have to pretend to be a hooker and plant a bug in a bad guy’s hotel room if she doesn’t want to be prosecuted as an accomplice.
So when Helen shows up at a swanky hotel room dressed to the nines in stiletto heels and a slinky black dress, she doesn’t know it’s hubby in the chair watching from the shadows, as she dances for him. She’s been assured he only “likes to watch,” and that she only has to plant the bug near the phone, and she certainly gets into it as she roleplays her little spy game. If you’ve read Cameron’s unused script for a Spider-Man movie, you know he has a penchant for writing creepy erotic scenes- probably left over from his assistant directing on Galaxy of Terror, with its freaky alien “surprise sex” scene- and while this is certainly sexy, it has an odd feel to it, since we know Harry put her up to it, and he’s a voyeur of sorts himself. It’s saved by a bit of accidental ad-lib by Curtis herself, when Helen slips and falls, she picks herself up like nothing happened, and our laughter breaks the tension. You can tell it’s an accident because if you watch Arnold, he instinctively begins to get up to help her, then stops to not ruin the shot. And it works perfectly, because as a husband, Harry would do the same.
The real action of the film begins when Aziz’s goons somehow track Harry to the hotel and take them both hostage, and Helen begins to see who her husband really is. They are put on a private jet and flown to the Florida Keys, and he tries to protect her by saying she’s a “crazy hooker,” but Juno figures out what’s up. On the island, we learn Crimson Jihad’s sinister plot, with nukes smuggled in fake archaeological finds, to take the city of Miami hostage to their demands. And Helen learns Harry’s secret life, when he’s forced to identify the warheads on videotape, so they can tell the authorities they mean business. The story takes this frightening turn, but the bad guys are never really that scary- Art Malik plays Aziz like a furious mastermind hitched with hapless henchmen, and when he records his message to the United States, he rants on and on after the battery on the camera has died.
However, Aziz does get to be cool and competent. He leaves Harry with a torturer to “find out what he knows” under truth serum, and Helen uses the opportunity to finally get some straight answers out of her husband. I always found this the funniest part of the film, and some of Arnold’s best comic acting.
“Ask me something I’d normally lie about.”
“Are we gonna die?”
So of course Harry escapes, with the hero monologuing his plans for a change- how’s that for a little poke at the Bond films it apes?- and he and Helen begin wreaking havoc all over the compound with guns, grenades and makeshift flamethrowers. While his men scamper and scream, Aziz just kicks open a crate with a rocket launcher, picks it up, and blows Harry to smithereens. As far as he knows. Juno grabs Helen, and they head out in a limo along the Florida Keys highway while Aziz takes one of his nukes with a helicopter to cause more mayhem…
As with most Cameron films, the action is pretty much nonstop from here, with minor comic interludes. Gib tracks Harry & Helen to the island with a bug they planted when they were monitoring Helen’s infidelities, so he can pick Harry up before the A-bomb goes off. He calls in Marines in Harrier jets to take out the trucks with the nukes, and they actually blew up part of the old Key West highway with real Marines flying by in real Harriers! He infuses lots of slapstick in this sequence, from a truckful of terrorists foiled by a pelican, to the great catfight between Juno and Helen in the back of an out of control limo heading towards the blown up end of the bridge. Harry begins his marriage repair by hoisting Helen from the car via helicopter, the ultimate test of trust. They later seal it with a kiss before a mushroom cloud backdrop, which still kicks the ass out of Indy 4’s “nuke the fridge” moment.
The movie does have some flaws- Harry & Gib’s partner Faisil, despite being played perfectly by Grant Heslov, is rather obviously the token “good Arab” character. Even so, the movie was picketed by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee for its “depiction of Middle Easterners as homicidal, religious zealots.” I thought it was to the movie’s credit that Aziz and his terrorists come off more like the Three Stooges with an atom bomb; they’re just typical movie bad guys, and their bumbling makes them less terrifying than Bond villain henchmen. Another shortfall to me was Harry’s interrogation of Helen; it goes a little too far, and we’re sort of happy when she bashes him in the head with a phone during the phony spy game he makes her play, because it’s damn creepy to make your wife pose as a hooker for a sleazeball, even if you’re playing the sleazeball! We get stronger hints of the Cameron formula here. His films have slowly diluted since The Terminator‘s perfection, but this one is still strong and not as preachy and hackneyed as Avatar. It’s one of Arnold’s best, giving him some range, even if he looks positively maniacal during the “thumb war” with his family at the end.
All the entries in The Arnold Project
* How Arnie pronounces “blow job.”