The Arnold Schwarzenegger Project: True Lies

 

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?”
“Yup!”
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.

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All the entries in The Arnold Project

* How Arnie pronounces “blow job.”

Ten Favorite Movie Characters Meme

I didn’t get tagged in this because I smell and have no friends, but I’m doing it anyway. These are in no particular order because this isn’t MySpace.

10. Ripley

Sigourney Weaver owned this role even in Alien, long before she hopped in a powerloader and growled, “Get away from her, you bitch!” In fact, as great as she is in Aliens, Ripley is a more appealing character in the first one. She’s resourceful but still emotional, and while she’s a tall drink of water she’d still be easy on the eyes, especially after hypersleep. She can handle a flamethrower in a pinch, and doesn’t mind blowing up billion dollar star freighters to get the job done. My management style is based on Ripley.

9. Elwood P. Dowd
Sure, he’s best friends with a six foot invisible rabbit named Harvey, but Elwood is just an all around nice guy. Always ready for a drink, he’s as friendly as they come, and realizes it’s better to be pleasant than clever in the long run. You can be pleasant about being clever; no one cares how clever you are, but how pleasant you are makes a big difference in how you get along. That’s Elwood’s lesson, and it’s a good one.

8. Thulsa Doom
You gotta have a villain in here somewhere. This was a tough one, because he’s not really all that charismatic. Hannibal Lecter is an easy one to pick; you never think he’d find YOU rude and eat your thymus glands in brown butter, do you? But Clarice Starling is the only person who’s safe from his fork. With Thulsa, you know where you stand. Either you worship him, or you are an infidel defiler who will drown in lakes of blood. I’d rather know if I’m going to drown in a lake of blood up front. He’s great even when Conan the Barbarian cuts his head off and throws it down the stairs.

7. John Matrix
The greatest action hero of all time. Yep, even though he was only in Commando. He’s smart, he’s strong, he never misses, and he can jam a steam pipe through your fake chain mail sweater and out your spine. And deliver snappy one-liners the entire time! As long as you’re not a mercenary tough or a mall cop, or get in his way of rescuing “Chenny,” he’ll be on your side. Right? … RIGHT!

6. Indiana Jones
I have to admit, even after the crappy fourth movie, Indy will always be great. He’s unstoppable, he has unshakeable moral foundations, and he’s cool even when he’s bumbling. What makes Indy so great? When hes about to do something crazy, he looks scared. He’s as incredulous as we are when he jumps on the front of a truck. But he does it, because it must be done! It helps that he’s afraid of snakes. It makes him human. John Matrix would bite the head off that snake and make a garrote out of it.

5. Otto
Kevin Kline is one of the funniest guys around, but after the excellent Dave I think he got a little soft. When he was a jerk, he was even funnier. Otto of A Fish Called Wanda is one of the greatest inept villains of all time- a true vulgarian who thinks central tenet of Buddhism is “every man for himself,” who’s not afraid to sneak a gun into an airport or try unprepared sushi. He really made this movie, and he had a lot of talented company.

4. MacReady
Why this Kurt Russell role over Snake Plissken, the ultimate badass? Because he’s a regular guy who saves humanity when thrust into impossible circumstances against an otherworldly foe. You can see a bit of Snake in this character but he’s always believable, and like all heroes, he’s afraid of what he has to do, but he does it anyway. When he’s not saving the world he just wants to fly his chopper and smoke dope in his shed.

3. Bart
As a relatively unknown actor, how do you walk into a role written by and for Richard Pryor, the biggest black comedian of the time? Ask Cleavon Little. It amazed me that his career fizzled after Blazing Saddles, he was so entertaining. He had small roles as DJs in FM and Vanishing Point but never one as big as this. Bart is funny, cool, yet has just enough self-doubt to be a likeable guy. He can fool the man with shuck ‘n jive, seduce Lili Von Schtupp, and even talk the Waco Kid out of drinking himself to death. Just remember than 19 is his limit on schnitzengruben. Bitte, baby.

2. George & Marion Kerby
A high school pal of mine was obsessed with Topper but it took many years for me to watch it and see what the big deal was. Cary Grant has always been the perfect gentleman, but it’s tough to pick one role. I’m not sure I’d want to be haunted by this couple, but I’d rather party with them than Nick & Nora Charles any day.

1. Helen Tasker
This was a tough one. I went through all the women characters of cinema who made me feel like a naughty little boy, from Linda Fiorentino and Kathleen Turner’s femme fatales to bubbly Geena Davis, Marlena Dietrich and Rita Hayworth… and it came down to, who could I live with? Most of them would probably kill me for my cash, but Helen was a faithful wife who wanted a little excitement. And when it came time to serve her country, she did a hell of a striptease, and bashed someone’s head in with a phone. Plus, I had a crush on her since Trading Places. I guess it says a lot that in True Lies I’m ogling a funny redhead with some meat on her bones when Tia Carrera is in it.