Skip to main content

Women. Can't live with 'em, can't kill 'em.

True Lies
(1994)

(SPOILERS) James Cameron might not quite yet have been King of the World in 1994, but he was definitely King of Science Fiction Cinema. Terminator 2: Judgement Day had become the biggest movie of 1991 worldwide (luckily for Carolco, which bet the bank on it), and consequently he could do anything he wanted next. And what he wanted to do was mystifying. Perhaps it stemmed from an attempt to show his “range” (after all, his next non-genre offering nabbed him the coveted Best Picture Oscar), but a remake of obscure French movie La Totale!, a spy comedy that allowed Cameron to make his Bond movie, that was really an examination of matrimony and its idiosyncrasies, was certainly a highly conscious departure. More to the point, it revealed an ugly side to the director, a side one might have seen lurking within his previous projects, but had not displayed itself so remorselessly. True Lies, which Arnie brought to Jimbo but was heavily re-envisaged with co-writer Randall Frakes, is an inveterately misanthropic picture, misogynistic, mean-spirited, and shot through with the kind of unvarnished racism and fear of the (Middle Eastern) foreigner that would make died-in-the-wool Republicans proud. It’s also not nearly as funny as it thinks it is.


Which isn’t the fault of the cast. Tom Arnold, for the best part of a decade-and-a-half a one-man publicity machine for a never-to-be sequel (understandably, since its easily his highest profile movie role, and highest profile role full stop, outside of being the one-time Mr Roseanne Barr; the official line was that terrorists weren’t funny anymore after 9/11 – when of course they were a hoot during the weekly carnage of the ‘70s –  but I’m dubious a True Lies 2 was ever seriously going to happen, certainly not post-Titanic and Cameron’s Oscar-nourished respectability), plays Albert “Gib” Gibson, partner of Arnold’s Harry Tasker, both agents for counter-terrorist task force The Omega Sector. He delivers his lines with perfectly droll timing (his advice, to get over Arnie’s wife’s infidelity: “We’re gonna catch some terrorists, we’re gonna beat the crap out of them, you’re gonna feel a whole lot better”), and has an easy rapport with Schwarzenegger that rivals the latter’s better comedy co-stars (Danny De Vito, James Belushi).


Jamie Lee Curtis applies herself to the thankless role of Harry’s wife Helen. It’s one that requires her to be first shrewish, then transform into a highly objectified version of sexy, but for the most part remain determinedly submissive to her husband and say nary a word of criticism after she discovers his secret (the one that leads to him spying on her, kidnapping her, interrogating her, deceiving her, generally putting her in dire peril, and, on top of everything else he’s done, essentially pimping her into “discovering” the sexpot within), shows expert and under-used comic timing, particularly in the pratfall department.


And Arnie, who was never going to be convincing as an elegant spy, and isn’t, doesn’t come across half badly for much of the duration, his talent for self-deprecation coming to the fore not in the rather lazy one-liners (“You’re fired!”) but his applying himself against type, be it Harry riding apologetically through crowds of people (“Excuse me… So sorry”) or his confession that, in his 17 years as a spy, he had indeed killed people (“Yes, but they were all bad”), or nonchalantly explaining under truth serum how he will kill his interrogator and then proceeding to do exactly that. Best of all is his remonstrating with his appropriated horse over not taking a leap (“Look at me when I talk to you. What kind of cop are you anyway?”). Seeing him do the tango is quite fun too.


It’s in the scenarios written purely for laughs that True Lies rally comes up short, first and foremost with Bill Paxton’s used-car salesman, wannabe lothario, and pretend spy. The conceit of Paxton’s Simon posing as a secret agent as a means to conquer Helen, while her real husband is a spy but she doesn’t know, is the kind of high-concept premise that needs to be absolutely perfectly judged lest you become aware of how unforgivably tenuous it is. As such, you’d expect Cameron to avoid it like the plague. But then, comedy has never been his forte, so he was probably unable to see through his blind spot.


Simon is crude and vile, presumably so much so that we’re supposed to forget how cruel and vile Harry’s actions are. He’s a character for whom Cameron creates a running gag of soiling himself, and announce precisely how inferior specimen of maleness he is (“I’ve got a little dick, it’s pathetic”). Yet Harry’s grand, decades-spanning deceit sees him rewarded. Maybe Cameron was scripting some payback here, taking in his failed marriages and confused relationship with strong woman (he wants to dominate them and be dominated by them, wants them to assume traditional male roles but also know their place as subordinates). Maybe not for viewers, but it’s probably best that he works out his issues away from the psychiatrist’s couch; it would be a nightmare for any unsuspecting shrink, having Jimbo lying there, instructing them how they feel, and have got it all wrong, week in, week out.


There’s something deeply corrupted at the core of True Lies. Cameron keeps prodding at the fact Harry knows he’s doing wrong (and Arnie in jealous obsessive mode is quite convincing), such as the reflection of Simon in Tasker (“So basically you’re lying your ass off all the time. You see, I couldn’t do that”) but entirely fails to bring him to book for it. The love story of the director’s earlier The Abyss takes on a different hue when seen through the unseemly lens of True Lies, reduced to the tale of a wayward wife who must accept her husband as the rightful exemplar of masculine authority and submit accordingly.


Nominally, the end of True Lies finds Helen and Harry acting as a unit, spying together, but the lesson learned is that the husband can do whatever he wants, and get little more than a remonstrative punch for scores of years of lies, while his wife should be humiliated, terrorised and preyed upon for even thinking about flirting with another man (she does considerably less than Harry in his first tango, with Tia Carrere’s Juno).


Cameron’s writing of Helen’s motivation is also found wanting (“I needed to feel alive!”) since it plays into a justification for Harry’s next action (giving her what she wants by further manipulating her into discovering her inner whore). One can see parallels in Art Malik’s absurdly caricatured Middle Eastern terrorist Salim Abu Aziz. If you want to hone in on a really objectionable example of Hollywood racism with regard to Arabic countries, look no further than the writer of Rambo: First Blood Part II in this Pentagon-assisted picture.


Salim is given – like Helen – a line of justification for his behaviour (“You have killed our women and our children. Bombed our cities from afar like cowards, and you dare call us terrorists” – as relevant a charge today as ever) but aside from that, he’s a relentlessly evil Arab; perhaps, after his sympathetic Afghan freedom fighter in The Living Daylights, Malik thought he should strike a balance?


We know how unconscionably evil Salim is, because he hits Juno on the first occasion we see him, and even stoops to kidnapping Harry’s daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku, soon to find TV fame in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Cameron’s not really racist, though, because he pulls the oldest trick of “balance” in the book by casting Grant Heslov (latterly best buddy of George Clooney) as Faisal, the good Arab on Harry’s team. Now any accusations of imbalance ought to just melt away.


There might be something to be said for such a depiction of comedy villains (see the briefest of slivers of clumsy Libyans attempting to obtain nuclear capability in Back to the Future – such innocent times!), so inept that they blow themselves up, or the battery runs out on their video camera midway through a ransom demand, but it’s entirely leaden in Cameron’s crude, ill-defined hands. “It’s funny, funny, just funny” he claimed of the the picture’s purported lack of political intent. If True Lies was just funny, that might be something. But this is a movie in which a device of repeated hilarity is having an extra react in surprise to the latest outlandish action its director is staging. The picture essentially coasts on the assumption of such responses. As a comedy director, Cameron makes a good dramatist.


Ironically, as an action director he also leaves something to be desired. True Lies has a most ungainly structure, but that one that at least aids Cameron in his attempts to avoid facing the morass he has created (the evil terrorists initiate much of the action, so superseding any need for serious reconciliation between wounded parties; besides, Arnie is, quite simply, the hero). Cameron can stage a scene, and as ever he put the camera in the optimum position. But the bigger his ego and budget swell, the less he musters much in the way of excitement.


And Brad Fiedel’s score is so generically forgettable, it’s only a surprise the director went with him. An early fight in a men’s room (where someone is sitting on the toilet; of course they are) is effective – and possibly inspired Casino Royale – but the big event car chase and bridge rescue, complete with copious green screen work, is something of a damp squib. Even more so the harrier jet finale, where you can perceive the technical challenges being Cameron’s priority rather than engaging with the action. Daft exertions such as Dana bouncing around the nose of the plane, while Salim bashes his balls on the tail (before – chortlesomely! – getting snagged on a missile and fired into oblivion, hence that previously mentioned standard Arnie one-liner), anticipate the increasingly virtual world a once visceral director will inhabit. It’s silly, basically, but not in an affable, Roger Moore, way.


There are plain odd touches too, such as Harry and Helen smooching to a mushrooming nuclear explosion in the background, a metaphor that’s unpleasant whichever way you cut it. But unpleasant sums up True Lies. It’s Cameron at his most sordid, tasteless and graceless, not that he’s ever been exactly graceful. However, at least the later Titanic and Avatar have a clarity to their telling – I hesitate to say purity –  amid the paucity of restraint. True Lies is a deeply dubious movie from conception onwards, and one that isn’t even up to scratch in terms of its director’s traditional forte. None of which stopped it becoming the third highest grossing movie of 1994. Cameron’s all-consuming successes still lay ahead of him, but for Arnie it was something of an end of the road. Only his returns as a T1000 would meet with anything approaching the financial success to which he’d become accustomed, and they’d be more of a sad reminder than a rejuvenation of his career.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Garage freak? Jesus. What kind of a crazy fucking story is this?

All the President’s Men (1976)
It’s fairly routine to find that films lavished with awards ceremony attention really aren’t all that. So many factors go into lining them up, including studio politics, publicity and fashion, that the true gems are often left out in the cold. On some occasions all the attention is thoroughly deserved, however. All the President’s Men lost out to Rocky for Best Picture Oscar; an uplifting crowd-pleaser beat an unrepentantly low key, densely plotted and talky political thriller. But Alan J. Pakula’s film had already won the major victory; it turned a literate, uncompromising account of a resolutely unsexy and over-exposed news story into a huge hit. And even more, it commanded the respect of its potentially fiercest (and if roused most venomous) critics; journalists themselves. All the President’s Men is a masterpiece and with every passing year it looks more and more like a paean to a bygone age, one where the freedom of the press was assumed rather than a…

You’re the Compliance Officer. It’s your call.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
(SPOILERS) The mealy-mouthed title speaks volumes about the uncertainty with which Tom Clancy’s best-known character has been rebooted. Paramount has a franchise that has made a lot of money, based on a deeply conservative, bookish CIA analyst (well, he starts out that way). How do you reconfigure him for a 21st century world (even though he already has been, back in 2003) where everything he stands for is pretty much a dirty word? The answer, it seems, is to go for an all-purpose sub-James Bond plan to bring American to its knees, with Ryan as a fresh (-ish) recruit (you know, like Casino Royale!) and surprising handiness in a fight. Yes, Jack is still a smart guy (and also now, a bit, -alec), adept at, well, analysing, but to survive in the modern franchise sewer he needs to be more than that. He needs to kick arse. And wear a hoodie. This confusion, inability to coax a series into being what it’s supposed to be, might explain the sour response to its …

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

Oh look, there’s Colonel Mortimer, riding down the street on a dinosaur!

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)
(SPOILERS) There’s no getting round the dinosaur skeleton in the room here: yellow face. From the illustrious writer-director team who brought us Mary Poppins, no less. Disney’s cheerfully racist family movie belongs to a bygone era, but appreciating its merits doesn’t necessarily requires one to subscribe to the Bernard Manning school of ethnic sensitivity.

I’m not going to defend the choice, but, if you can get past that, and that may well be a big if, particularly Bernard Bresslaw’s Fan Choy (if anything’s an unwelcome reminder of the Carry Ons lesser qualities, it’s Bresslaw and Joan Sims) there’s much to enjoy. For starters, there’s two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Ustinov (as mastermind Hnup Wan), funny in whatever he does (and the only Poirot worth his salt), eternally berating his insubordinate subordinate Clive Revill (as Quon).

This is a movie where, even though its crude cultural stereotyping is writ large, the dialogue frequen…

It's not an exact science, this business.

The Mummy (2017)
(SPOILERS) A pinch of salt is usually needed when reports of a blockbuster’s rep as great or disastrous start singing from the same song sheet, as more often than not, they’re somewhere in between. A week ago, Wonder Woman was being hailed as some kind of miracle (or wonder), when really, it’s just another decent-but-formulaic superhero movie. This week, there have been post-mortems up the wazoo over The Mummy’s less-than-remarkable opening gross (which have a predictably US-centric flavour; it’s still the biggest global figure for a Tom Cruise movie). Is The Mummy as terrible as has been made out? No, of course not. It isn’t particularly good, but that doesn’t make it significantly worse than any dozen or so mediocre blockbusters you’d care to pick that have been lavished with far less opprobrium.

The thinking behind the savaging is understandable, though. There’s so much hubris on display here, it’s ridiculous, from Universal assuming they can fashion a Dark Universe …

The head is missing... and... he's the wrong age.

Twin Peaks 3.7: There’s a body all right.
First things first: my suggestion that everyone’s favourite diminutive hitman, Ike “The Spike” Stadtler, had been hired by the Mitchum brothers was clearly erroneous in the extreme, although the logistics of how evil Coop had the contingency plan in place to off Lorraine and Dougie-Coop remains a little unclear right now. As is how he was banged up with the apparent foresight to have on hand ready blackmail tools to ensure the warden would get him out (and why did he wait so long about it, if he could do it off the bat?)


Launching right in with no preamble seems appropriate for his episode, since its chock-a-block with exposition and (linear) progression, almost an icy blast of what settles for reality in Twin Peaks after most of what has gone before this season, the odd arm-tree aside. Which might please James Dyer, who in the latest Empire “The Debate”, took the antagonistic stance to the show coming back and dismissed it as “gibbering nonsen…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

I have a problem with my liver.

Twin Peaks 3.6 Don’t die
The season resumes form with the sixth episode, and incongruity abounds – as much as anything in Twin Peaks is any more or less incongruous than anything else – from the most endearing to the most alarming. The latter of which is up there with the very nastiest nastiness witnessed in a David Lynch joint in the form of butcher for hire Ike “The Spike” Stadtler (Christophe Zajac-Denek), the most alarming killer dwarf since Donald Sutherland led himself on a wild goose chase around Venice in Don’t Look Now.


Lynch’s use of music in Don’t die is both eclectic and exemplary. He concludes with Sharon von Etten crooning Tarifa over the credits, but it’s Ike going on a bloody frenzy to the innocuous and innocent sound of BluntedBeatz’ “I AM” Oldschool HipHop Beat that really sets the episode on edge. This is Lynch at his most visceral, immediate and palpably perturbing. You hear it before you see it, the screams of the first victim in Lorraine’s office, before the pint-…

If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you're a princess.

Moana (2016)
(SPOILERS) Disney’s 56th animated feature (I suppose they can legitimately exclude Song of the South – which the Mouse House would rather forget about completely – on the grounds it’s a live action/animation hybrid) feels like one of their most rigidly formulaic yet, despite its distinctive setting and ethnicity. It probably says a lot about me that I tend to rate this kind of fare for its wacky animal sidekick as opposed to the studiously familiar hero’s journey of Moana’s title character.


You can even see the John Lasseter-Pixar influence in the fricking cute kids burbling through the opening scenes, before Moana (Auli’I Cravalho) arrives at teenagehood and heirdom to becoming the tribal chief on the Polynesian island of Motunui. And you can tick off the boxes of your Disney female protagonist required to prove herself (over-protective father opposing her desire to get out there and explore the world, meeting an unsympathetic male in whom she instils emotional growth). T…