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1994 Revisits: "True Lies"

by Ben Miller


Arnold Schwarzenegger has never been much of an actor.  Instead he's a presence, an ideal; square-jawed, charismatic, with muscles on top of muscles.  But, his biggest advantage is how aware he is of his own ridiculousness. His job is to do competent action and spout a cheesy one-liner with the bravado necessary to sell it.  His greatest critical successes have leaned into these innate strengths. When paired with a good director and solid co-stars, his films work.

Everything came together with True Lies in 1994.  Director James Cameron was riding high after T2: Judgment Day made all the money a movie could make in 1991.  He originally entertained the idea of a Spider-Man movie starring Michael Biehn, but couldn’t make it work with 1994 technology.  Instead, he went with True Lies...

Schwarzenegger’s self-awareness bleeds through the film as True Lies subverts and ridicules spy movies the same way Scream took on horror films two years later.  Cameron’s script makes no attempt at coherence or believability.  It’s all about the set pieces and character interactions. But, that’s not what makes True Lies so great.  Jamie Lee Curtis is what makes it great.

While Schwarzenegger’s Harry Tasker struts around with a spy’s confidence, Curtis is all jittery energy.  The first act of the film does a great job of suckering you into thinking that Curtis’ Helen is nothing but the supportive wife at home.  Thanks to a scam-artist spy/car salesman (played to greasy perfection by Cameron regular, the late Bill Paxton), Helen gets to have a bit of her own excitement for a change.  Of course, Harry has to intervene using agency resources to keep the excitement up in their marriage.

The set pieces include a memorable bathroom shootout, a horse chase through a hotel, the thorough destruction of a small island village, a harrier jet and a skyscraper, plus a particularly wonderful sequence where a jet intercepts a series of cars on a bridge.  But all of these fall by the 'best of' wayside when compared to Curtis’ hotel room striptease.

Let’s get this out of the way because first and foremost…this scene is blindingly hot.  Curtis supposedly worked out every day to prepare and it shows. She might have been at her most beautiful in the 80s, but I’ll take True Lies Jamie Lee Curtis any day of the week.  The scene originally called for Helen to be nude, but I can’t see how that would have fit with the character.

The sexiness might be palpable, but Helen’s is the real genius.  Helen is tasked with seducing a mark and planting a bug on him, but she shows up in a fairly non-sexy dress and her housewife hairdo.  Before she heads in, she rips some mesh off her dress, touches up her makeup, slicks her hair back with water from a vase, and heads in.  It’s a wonderful bit of physical comedy. From the look she gives herself before heading in to the slip of her shoe at the end.  Curtis won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy.

The rest of the cast performs well enough, including a pre-fame Eliza Dushku, 90’s throwback Tia Carrere, and Art Malik as the one-dimensional, yet charismatic villain. Charlton Heston hisses his way through a few brief scenes, and a pre-Clooney Grant Heslov turns up as a special agent who gets his own moment of glory in the climax.  Tom Arnold received plenty of acclaim at the time for his comic relief role, and surprisingly, his performance still holds up.  His easy chemistry with Schwarzenegger carries the first half of the film.

True Lies remains imminently watchable today.  As an HBO staple for years, it might go down as one of James Cameron’s lesser vehicles, but I’m not sure any of his films are more enjoyable from start to finish.


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Reader Comments (15)

Eliza Dushku

Was molested by the stunt coordinator on this movie.

June 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

TRUE LIES is swill: racist and cruel. I can't even imagine a director -- the director of THE TERMINATOR and ALIENS! -- putting Jamie Lee Curtis through that strip tease routine for the sake of a terrible joke with no payoff that bogs down the film.

June 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAlfred

Jesus Christ /3rtful

June 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterhuh

Thanks for this. This movie is so underrated. Believe it was a remake of a French movie, and it shows in the style of humor, I think. Jamie Lee Curtis was definitely MVP.

June 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

I think Ahnuld’s best performance was in the 5th Terminator movie. His gleeful knowledge of both his own unexplained ubiquity and the lack of necessity for a fifth film in a dead franchise shoots out of his Terminator and was the only consistently watchable part of that movie.

June 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKris01

Robbed of Supporting Actress in every single awards show that year. It's actually my favorite JLC, and I consider it her peak collection of what makes her such a charismatic screen presence, and a damn fine actress.

My mother and I watch this together sometimes and have a blast each and every time, probably because it's Cameron's best script as well, by quite a few miles/kilometers.

June 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterManny

I still like that film. I'm still waiting for the sequel.

June 13, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I feel Cameron is an underrated director. This is among his "lesser" works and it's still so good. Perhaps Spielberg is the only other one who knows how to create blockbuster fun as reliably entertaining as he does.

Racism aside, it's just a really fun movie. Arnold is a great comedian cause like you said, he knows how not to take himself seriously. And Curtis well, she's gold. She's one of the all time great comedians.

She also got a SAG nomination for this actually so she was probably not that far off. Shame cause she would've been a glorious addition to an otherwise super lackluster Best Actress lineup. And it should have been her *third* nomination by then (Trading Places, A Fish Called Wanda).

June 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAlexD

The Academy should've asked Sarandon, Lange, Ryder, etc to do the strip tease.

June 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAlfred

I enjoyed this, but that's because you'd be hard-pressed to find a spy movie I didn't like. Plus JLC was SO good here.

Always wondered why there was never a sequel with Eliza Dushku taking up her parent's jobs. Recent abuse reports are very troubling indeed.

June 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

@Ryan A sequel had been gestating for a while, but after 9/11, the idea was scrapped completely.

James Cameron had a ridiculously weird quote where he said, "In this day and age, terrorism just isn't funny anymore."

June 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBen

"I feel Cameron is an underrated director."


June 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTheBoyFromBrazil

Curtis is fabulous and indeed deserved that Oscar nom...heck, I think I prefer her over all five of the Best Actress nominees! Oh, and (Tom) Arnold is shockingly enjoyable.

June 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

I wonder what's with Curtis's constant snubs.

June 13, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Mark, I think it's because JLC's best work is in comedies (I can't even name a drama she's been in off the top of my head), and The Academy doesn't give out Oscar noms for comedy very much, ESPECIALLY in Best Actress! I love that she won the Globe for it. She thanked Cameron for leaving in the take when her hand slips off the pole, which I think makes that scene.

And she kicks ass in this movie! She pretty much kills Tia Carrere!

June 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

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